18 September 2020

‘This year, I thank God … to be able
to walk without looking behind me’

A small Shofar on the bimah or reading desk in the Beth El synagogue near Bunclody, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In my Friday evening reflections, I often draw on the Authorised Daily Prayer Book, with its introduction, commentaries and notes by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, on Service of the Heart, published in London by the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues in 1967, and edited by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern, or on poetry I am reading.

But this evening is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, welcoming in the year 5781. Although celebrations are restricted this year, households will still be able to mark the start of the High Holy Days – also known as the ‘Days of Awe’ – and many synagogues will still be welcoming visitors for prayer with social-distancing in place.

Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎), literally meaning the ‘head of the year,’ is a two-day celebration that takes place from sundown this evening (18 September) to nightfall on Sunday (20 September).

The first day of Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of ten holy days known as the High Holy days. This is a time of repentance when Jewish people reflect on their actions over the previous year. Traditional celebrations will see families and friends spend time together, pray, listen to the sound of the Shofar (the ram’s horn) and eat special food.

The tenth day, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – begins this year at sunset on Sunday 27 September and ends at nightfall on Monday 28 September.

In recent weeks, I was exploring Cork’s Jewish history and legacy as part of this year’s ‘Road Trip,’ and went on a walking tour around Jewish Cork, following the new ‘Virtual Walk’ through Jewish Cork launched last month by the performance artist Ruti Lachs, who is active in the Munster Jewish Community.

The virtual tour is presented by Ruti Lachs and Marnina Winkler, and includes interviews, stories, and music, and a poem by Simon Lewis.

Simon Lewis’s Jewtown (Doire Press, 2016) is a collection of 57 brief poems that recall many of the stories of this area.

Simon Lewis moved from Dublin a few years ago to take up a teaching post in Carlow. There he joined a writers’ group and was challenged to write about his Jewish and Irish background, leading him to examine Jewish history in Cork.

The tenth poem in his collection, ‘Tashlich,’ is read by David Goldberg in the new ‘Virtual Walk’ of Jewish Cork.

‘Tashlich’ refers to the symbolic casting away of sins into a river or flowing water during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The anonymous narrator in ‘Tashlich’ recalls his dangerous escape from Tsarist antisemitism and recounts his present poverty in Ireland. But he also expresses relief at feeling free from physical danger in Cork:

I toss breadcrumbs in the river
and pray to God for forgiveness:
for the food I stole from the houses
in empty shtetls, the lies to the soldiers
at every checkpoint all the way
to the harbour at Riga, and the evenings
when I could barely breathe,
questioning my faith, broken from the day.
This year, I thank God for a mattress
on a dirt floor, a small knob of butter
melted in mashed potato, to be able
to walk without looking behind me.

Shanah tovah (שנה טובה), ‘Good year.’

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