Thursday, December 27, 2007

End of the Year

Just some thoughts on the ending of the (secular) year.

I was just walking to my local coffee shop (Gimme!) and thinking about how the end of the secular year feels different than the end of the Jewish year. The secular year (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere) ends in darkness - the days are so short that (here in Ithaca) the sun rises around 7:30 a.m. and sets around 4:30 p.m. Daylight feels like a rare treasure - and an even rarer treasure is a sunny day (Ithaca is in one of the cloudiest regions of the U.S.) Since this is a college town, Ithaca empties out during the break between semesters. My street has a couple of houses occupied by students or recent graduates, and they have disappeared for the vacation. Even the other people have gone away for a few days. On Christmas Day there were hardly any cars on the street. Ithaca was very quiet - hardly any cars passed along the street during the day (which I mostly spent grading exams....) It feels like a melancholy time.

Only if I go to Israel at this time does it feel that I can escape from this melancholy. The days are slightly longer, and there isn't the enormous focus on Christmas that pulls in all the energy in the U.S. And even New Year's Eve isn't a big deal - especially in Jerusalem, where the rabbinate threatens hotels who want to have New Year's parties. They say that they'll pull their kashrut certificates if they observe "Yom Sylvester," which is the Israeli name for the secular New Year (named, according to this Wikipedia article, after Pope Sylvester I, who died in 335 on December 31). I think in the years that I've been in Israel at this time I've only gone to one or two Sylvester parties.

The Jewish New Year, on the other hand, doesn't have the same melancholy associations. The days are getting shorter, but they're still pretty long in Ithaca. Everything's still growing, the flowers are in bloom, and there's lots of good local vegetables in the Farmer's Market. The school year is beginning, so everyone's still hopeful that they're going to get good grades this year. The end of the old year is the month of Elul, which isn't a month to look back over the previous year, but a month to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. One does engage in introspection to prepare for Yom Kippur, which can involve a melancholy focus on one's shortcomings and outright sins against other people - but after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, which is an unalloyed happy holiday. And in Israel, it often means adorning the sukkah with garish decorations that most Israelis don't realize were actually intended to be Christmas decorations.

So all in all, I prefer Rosh Hashanah to the secular New Year. But on the other hand, we've now started the long process of lengthening the days - it's much too subtle to realize now, but by February the days are palpably longer. (And we need that, since by February we are very tired of winter, and there are still a couple more months of it).

1 comment:

  1. I really love the end of the secular year. Each year we gather about 45 of our nearest and dearest here at our house, for a weekend extravaganza of cooking, eating, catching up, singing, projects (one year we made a quilt; last year we made cheese) and connection. It's one of the highlights of my year; I can't imagine ringing in a new year without it.

    It's entirely different from Rosh Hashanah, of course. A different vibe, filling a different set of needs. But I feel grateful to have an end-of-year ritual like this one. :-)

    Wishing you a sweet end to your year, anyway!