Shana Tova!

Plus: some reading and listening to enhance your Rosh Hashana experience

I, for one, am ready for the High Holey Days.

And by “ready,” I mean that we have both Apple Cider donuts for Rosh Hashana and a terrible pun to repent for on Yom Kippur.

Joking aside, it’s been an ugly year. Some of you may know that I actually stayed in my apartment for 95 days straight during the height of the coronavirus outbreak here in New York City! But one of the bright spots for me was this growing community of readers—the space in your inbox you lent me, and the thoughts and insights you were kind enough to share in response to mine. There are a lot more of you today than there were this time last year, and I hope there will be many more joining us in the months ahead. If you’ve enjoyed this newsletter, consider sharing it with others—or just signing them up without their knowledge. (I’m not picky, and you still have ten days to apologize before Yom Kippur anyway.)

Just these past few months alone you got to go behind the scenes of the translation of Harry Potter into Yiddish, dive into the archives of anti-Semitic mail at the FBI, sample some of the best mail-order kosher food, and even get a first listen to some of my original Jewish music. And there’s lots more in the works where that came from, including some surprises specifically for readers of this newsletter. Thank for sticking with me this far. Here’s to something better in 5781.

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Recommended Reading

Given how many of us will be spending more of our Rosh Hashana at home than usual, I’m sure that you, like me, could use some quality reading material. So I’ve collected a couple items here that are worth printing out for the holiday. Though they are naturally targeted at a Jewish audience, I think their meditations on rebirth, vulnerability, and identity will speak at this moment to non-Jewish readers of this newsletter as well.

  • Today, the World is Born”: Dr. Rachel Rosenthal of the Jewish Theological Seminary unpacks the pregnant meaning of one of the central prayers repeatedly recited on the holiday, with all the promise and peril it entails.

  • On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi”: You may have seen the headlines this past week about potential life on Venus. Well, Jewish sci-fi satirist Philip Klass was there ahead of us. This classic short story of his might seem bizarre at first glance, but it’s actually one of the sharpest meditations on Jewish identity, history, and destiny in modern fiction, cleverly disguised as a comedy in space. And it truly contains this passage: “Rabbi Smallman … always comes back to us, every year, for the High Holy Days. Well, not exactly, you know how it is, once in a while he can’t make it. A celebrity, after all. The Great Rabbi of Venus. He’s in demand.” Tablet republished the whole story at my direction and commissioned original illustrations to accompany it, and you can read and print it out in its entirety here.

Last year, I left you with a song, Seder ha-Avodah by Ishay Ribo. I’d like to do the same now. This time, it’s a lesser known melody for the recurring High Holiday prayer “Chamol al Ma’asekha” (“Have mercy on your creations”), a supplication that underscores not just God’s holiness, but the holiness of every living creature. While this particular tune is not the one usually employed in North America, it’s my personal favorite. Here it is performed by the talented Noey Jacobson, who some of you may recognize from the Maccabeats:

Here’s a rough translation of the words:

Have compassion on your creations and rejoice in them.
And when you vindicate those borne by you, may those who take refuge in you say:
“May you be sanctified by all your creations.”
For those who sanctify you have been sanctified with your own holiness—and it is fitting that the Holy One be glorified by holy ones.

לשנה טובה תכתב ותחתם לאלתר לחיים טובים ולשלום!
Shana tova,