Apples and Honey

The Secret, Multicultural History of Rosh Hashanah

Forget your fancy suits and outdated liturgy. The Jewish New Year is all about the themes of our current political moment.

Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of immigration, marginalization, and multiculturalism


Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that begins Wednesday evening, can be a tough time for Jews in mixed political families. In theory, the day is largely about forgiveness and introspection. In practice, the day is often about loud, angry political arguments at the holiday table.

In fact, though, Rosh Hashanah is largely about the themes dominating our political moment—specifically, immigration, marginalization, and multiculturalism.

First, the Jewish New Year is not actually the Jewish New Year. Prior to the Babylonian Exile, Israelites celebrated the New Year in the Springtime—on the new moon two weeks before Passover. In fact, Rosh Hashanah isn’t even called Rosh Hashanah in the Bible. It’s called “Yom Teruah,” the Day of Sounding the Shofar. While the Biblical texts aren’t quite clear, the purpose of the day seems to be to announce the period that will culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

In Biblical times, Yom Kippur was a weird, cultic, and ultimately joyous ritual, in which the high priest uttered the ineffable name of God and purged Israel of its collective wrongdoing. The Israelites would respond with celebration, which appears to have been somewhat orgiastic in nature. (Women going down to rivers, men finding wives, et cetera—somewhat different from the services at your local Reform temple.) Yom Teruah was the notification that Yom Kippur was around the corner.

But then came the exile, and the Israelites’—now Jews, after the one surviving tribe of Judea—encounter with the more advanced society of Babylonia. Jews adopted the Babylonian calendar, including its highly pagan month names, like Tammuz, named after a Persephone-like figure whose death and resurrection aligns with the cycle of the seasons. And including its new year, the first day of the autumn month of Tishrei.

In fact, those two elements were related. Tishrei was the beginning of the new year because it was after Tammuz’s resurrection, and marked the beginning of the rainy season after the death-like summer. (Yes, in the Ancient Near East, winter was life and summer was death. Take a trip to the Middle East to see why.) Thus the obscure holiday of Yom Teruah became the much more important holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

In other words, the very occasion of the “Jewish New Year” is a result of the Jews’ experiences as immigrants to Babylonian society, and their blending of Jewish and Babylonian traditions. Ancient Judaism was not nearly as insular and fearful of “foreign” influences as some Biblical texts suggest; after all, the reason that some parts of the Bible prohibit “idolatrous” rituals is that Israelites were in fact practicing them.

Even the prophet Ezekiel notices (without objection) that Jewish women were “weeping over Tammuz” at the Temple in Jerusalem. Contrary to the conceptions of some Jewish fundamentalists today, ancient Israelite and Jewish religion were products of multiculturalism, immigration, and blending.

Two millennia of subsequent history amplified these themes.

Probably the most famous, and most controversial, of high holiday prayers—known as the Unetaneh Tokef — comes from the period of the Crusades, and was allegedly written by a rabbi who had resisted church authority and been dismembered as a result. Its haunting litany of the various ways people can die is theologically troubling today—does God really ordain who shall die by fire, and who by stoning?—but comes from a period in which the oppression of Jews by Christians was indeed as unpredictable and violent as the prayer’s text suggests. Like the Spirituals of former slaves, Unetaneh Tokef reflects the religious yearnings of an oppressed people.

Of course, today, many Jews on the conservative side of the political spectrum take a different lesson from this history than do more progressive ones. For progressives, the central lesson of anti-Semitism is that oppression is wrong and we should fight it wherever we find it. For some conservatives, the central lesson of anti-Semitism is that we must stick up for Jews at all times, and help Jews defeat their enemies by being strong and self-sufficient.

Still, the fact remains that the High Holiday liturgy reflects the hardship of oppression and exile. The endless petitions for forgiveness, particularly on Yom Kippur but on Rosh Hashanah as well, are not simply remnants of a bygone theological era, in which God was understood as a kind of giant puppet-master pulling the strings of fate. Rather, that theology is itself the product of centuries of Jewish suffering and marginalization.

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The reason people used to believe this stuff is that they wanted, even needed, to believe it. They desperately sought answers for their suffering: why the righteous suffered while the cruel triumphed, why even repentance was not enough to avert a horrible death, how there could be any transcendent order in a world that seemed chaotic.

There’s a reason, after all, that the latter-day Jewish sage Leonard Cohen chose the words of the Unetaneh Tokef for his 1974 classic “Who By Fire.” Cohen isn’t endorsing this theology so much as affirming the yearning beneath it. Life is precarious, often cruel. We are vulnerable creatures, subject to forces beyond our control. And in Cohen’s version, even the yearning for meaning is denied, as God is questioned as well (“Who shall I say is calling?”).

Even the famous melody of Unetaneh Tokef is resonant with non-Jewish cantorial music, just as The Jazz Singer’s rendition of Kol Nidre reflects the clash between Jewish tradition and the New World.

Personally, I find it impossible to square these themes with a political ideology that perpetuates oppression in the name of security and denigrates immigration in the name of nationalism. I find the High Holidays’ insistence on truth and introspection inconsistent with the cavalier attitude toward the truth on the part of Donald Trump and his supporters.

But regardless of how contemporary Jews interpret these themes, the fact is that Rosh Hashanah bears the record of Jewish migration, suffering, and multiculturalism, from its name to its liturgy to its themes, even to its customary foods and melodies, all of which have roots in Jewish encounters with other cultures. This is a holiday created by immigrants who knew both the richness of cultural exchange and the sting of oppression. It’s a 5,000-year-old ritual that seems created for 2017.