Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy Happy Holidays!!

אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת ה' אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה' כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה' וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ:
“One thing I asked of Gd, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the house of Gd all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of Gd and to contemplate in His sanctuary.”  (Psalms. 27:4)
I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up. They have no holidays
Henny Youngman

It is the holiday season in Israel. Every year, for a month, the usual hectic pace of life slows down. The motto here in the HolyLand at this time of year is “Acharei HaChagim” – after the holidays. Nothing happens until after the holidays.
The school year has started, but, until acharei hachagim, serious studying does not truly begin.
Extra-curricular activities, evening classes, and University studies only begin acharei hachagim.
Home projects, redecorations, and many major purchases are postponed until acharei hachagim.
At work, when I asked for a new black pen, I was told that office supplies would come in only acharei hachagim. I used a yellow marker to write a memo and received a lovely reply in Crayola Periwinkle.
In recent years, this trend of postponing events until after the holidays has gained momentum.
I even heard that the IDF has requested that Syria refrain from attacking till the beginning of October. I cannot confirm this, but it seems reasonable.
So what is everyone doing if everything is pushed off until acharei hachagim?
Shopping.
Stores are full of holiday shoppers buying essentials for the holidays: pomegranates, sheep heads, and Christmas decorations.
Pomegranates
613 mitzvot

Pomegranates are one of the seven fruits of Land of Israel that are mentioned in the Torah. [The other six, just for edification are: wheat, barley, grapes (for wine), figs, olives (for oil) and dates (for honey. And yes, I know, the first two aren’t really fruits, don’t be pedantic.] Pomegranates ripen in the early autumn, and it is customary to eat them on Rosh HaShana. It is said that the pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same number as there are mitzvot, and we eat of the fruit as a symbol of our desire to have the ability to perform the mitzvot.
There are a million different recipes for pomegranates; salads, chicken, juice, even liqueur. This is what I do with pomegranates: I wash them off my clothes. Hence, I also have the need for stain remover as pomegranates stain something terrible. As a matter of fact, pomegranate juice can be used instead of a Crayola when you can’t find a real pen though pomegranate is not actually a Crayola name.
It ought to be.

Sheep heads
The Rosh in Rosh HaShana means head, therefore it is logical that there is a custom to eat a head of an animal on Rosh HaShana. We ask to be the like the head and not the tail (שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב) i.e., thinking not wagging…The majority of families who keep this quaint custom usually suffice with a fish head. That, in my opinion, is gross enough. As an avid and religious non-eater of fish, I refuse to have the stuff in my house. Instead, my family eats gummy sharks (see last year’s blog). This year, however, my son decided he really needed help in not being a tail (believe me, he doesn’t wag nearly enough to be mistaken for a tail) and he went out and bought and prepared a big fat salmon head, and then surprised me with it. I surprised him by vomiting all over the kitchen floor. Well, not really, but it was close.


A ram complete with Shofar
Fish head
There are some families for whom partaking of a fish head is for sissys. These heroic households will partake of nothing less than a sheep or – more accurately – a ram’s head.  This is to symbolize the shofar, which is made from a ram’s horn. But full-grown rams are apparently hard to find, so a male lamb’s head is used instead.




I mean really, a lamb’s head?  Images of Bo-Peep arise
And where does one procure a lamb head? Perhaps more importantly, who is the grisly executioner who beheads the little lambs?
Sheep are not widely raised in Israel, and it is for milk products rather than meat, so I don’t have a clue where the heads come from. I do know that, right before the holiday, I was unhappily jolted to find boxed heads of lamb in the supermarket – next to cow’s tongue, appropriately enough. The boxes were surprisingly small – certainly the shofar doesn’t fit in there – and seemingly smaller than a salmon head (which is a quite large fish. How does it fit into one of those little cans?).
I’m sticking with gummy sharks.
Christmas Decorations
Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are by far the most famous of the Jewish holidays, followed at a bit of a distance by Pesach/Passover. I contend that this is because of the part food plays in the celebrations, or lack of food in the case of Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, the festival of Sukkot, which comes five days after Yom Kippur, is every bit as important as Pesach (despite being told in my youth by a car-pooling mother who resented having to pick us up early from school on Erev Sukkot that it’s not a real holiday. People don’t go to shul. “Well”, I replied then, “you can”). The emphasis of Sukkot is the Sukkah, a small temporary structure built outside the home made of, well, whatever you want; wood, cloth, bricks, cement, fiberglass. Once, we were out on a tiyul with another family and built a sukkah by lining up the two cars and throwing some branches on top of them because it’s the roof that’s the important part. Called schach, the roof must be made from anything that grew from the ground, but is now detached. Branches and large leaves can be woven together to make a roof or you can simply buy a bamboo covering. Live branches still attached to a tree are not allowed. See here for more info from Chabad on how to build a Sukkah.
However you made your sukkah, one is required to dwell in it for the seven days (eight days outside of Israel HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) of the holiday. Dwell means eat and sleep, but, being Jewish, really it means eating. Unlike every single other Jewish holiday, there are no customary foods to eat on Sukkot, though we try and eat some of in-season fruits of Israel. We also are able to ingest dust that falls from the schach (and in the years that it rains during Sukkot – not often thankfully, here in the Land – we get to eat actual mud), ditto bits of branches and leaves, the odd insect or two (more serious, as insects aren’t kosher), and tinsel.   
An integral part of the Sukkah is the decorations. And this is where tinsel comes in. In the last few decades, Israeli culture has become more and more global. Where once the family Sukkah was decorated by the children of the family with handmade crooked chains made by cutting out bits of paper and pictures draw in nursery school and lovingly kept from year to year, now it seems to be mandatory to decorate your sukkah with commercial (imported) decorations. Booths selling sukkah decorations spring up all over town in the week before the holiday. Tinsel if by far and away the most popular, with a close second being blinking multi-colored lights. I’ve also seen candy canes, green and red miniature trees and angels, but these are not particular popular, only amongst the population who really don’t have a clue.
On sale
It is a might disconcerting to enter a sukkah and see tinsel and blinking lights hanging from the roof and walls of the sukkah. But it does make it sparkle! I find that most Israelis associate tinsel with Sukkot rather than a different religion’s holidays so there is nothing not kosher about it. It just takes time to get used to the idea. Our family, instead, decorates our sukkah with flowers, pictures of different places in Israel and dishtowels with funny pictures—a recipe for rabbit stew, marmite, and different recipe for haggis, which, I suppose, is made up of the leftovers after you’ve had the sheep’s head.
There are other things that one needs to shop for during the festival season; white clothes for prayer services on Yom Kippur, the Four Species needed for Sukkot, and, of course, ever more food.
There’s enough to keep us occupied till acharei hachagim, when things get back to what passes for normal around here.
Then we’ll worry about gas masks.
Wishing all of Am Yisrael a joyous, meaningful, healthy, holiday season!
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