May you have a sweet and good year.

Tonight at sundown in the Jewish tradition we begin a new year. It is Rosh Hashanah. I’ve never felt terribly comfortable writing about faith traditions that are not my own, but a few days ago, thanks to mutual friend Paula Marie Gourley, I found this piece of writing about Rosh Hashanah that I rather liked. It’s by Julius Lester. I asked Paula to ask Julius if I could reprint here for you in the Convivio Book of Days, and Julius said yes. I suppose that makes Julius Lester our first guest blogger here in this Book of Days. This is all right by me. I am honored to have his words here, and I hope you take them to heart, learn from them, send them out further. ~ John

Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday night, September 20.

ROSH HASHANAH IS NOT “HAPPY NEW YEAR”

I don’t like it when gentile and Jewish friends greet me at Rosh Hashanah with “Happy New Year.” Rosh Hashanah is not the Jewish equivalent of January 1.

But I have never understood what “Happy New Year” is supposed to mean. I’ve never been sure that I want to be wished happiness. I’m not sure I know what happiness is, or that it is as important as we think. Happiness feels better than misery, but some of the most significant periods of my life have been the ones of profound unhappiness. For all the feelings of well-being that happiness bestows upon us, it is not a goal of life. I may spend the next year totally depressed, but that may be where I need to be in my life. A better greeting at Rosh Hashanah is “May you have a sweet and good year.” Even if the next year is a difficult one for me, it may be a good year, even a sweet one, even though it feels otherwise.

There is another aspect to Rosh Hashanah. It is also known as hayom harat olam––“the birthday of the world.” On our birthdays we mark our passage through time. One year of our lives has ended; a new one has begun. Rosh Hashanah is an invitation to mark the passages through time that have taken place in our world, and how big or inclusive “our world” is depends on the person. On birthdays we celebrate what has been and anticipate with joy what is to come.

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are called Yamim Noraim––“Days of Awe.” It is a space in time for reflection, a time to withdraw energy from the world in order to renew one’s love for the world. We withdraw from the world in order to become more conscious of who we are and what our relationship to the world has been during the previous year. It is a way of celebrating the world, not by blowing noisemakers and getting drunk, but by taking responsibility for who we are in the world, because, in the deepest sense we are the world.

It would be incredible if, once a year, for ten days, the world would close up. The television and radio stations would go off the air (and ten days without hearing anything about Donald Trump would be purifying). Newspapers would stop publishing; the internet would shut off (though sales of tranquilizers would sky rocket just to quiet my anxieties as I suffered through internet withdrawal); companies would pay employees not to come to work, stores not selling essentials like food would be closed.

For ten days people would reflect on and talk to each other about what they had done to the world over the previous twelve months. What had they done that contributed to easing suffering of any kind? What had they done that contributed to increasing joy of any kind? And what could they do in the coming year to alleviate needless pain and contribute to senseless joy?

I know. I am an unreconstructed and unrepentant idealist. But so are Rosh Hashanah and Yamim Noraim. They hold before us unattainable ideals which we must strive toward if we are going to be as fully and wonderfully human as is within our grasp.

The greeting I prefer at this time of the year is L’shanah Tovah. Literally, it means “To a good year.” This leads me, at least, to reflect on what is “good,” which creates possibilities for new ways of being, creative ways of doing. However, if one is not comfortable with Hebrew, say “Have a sweet year,” or “Have a prosperous and sweet year,” or anything that comes from your heart. But please save “Happy New Year” for December and January.

 

Julius Lester has had a long, amazing career. He has published over 40 books, recorded two albums, hosted a couple of radio shows in New York City, taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and has won numerous prestigious book awards. Had I known all this before reading his essay on Rosh Hashanah, I probably would have hesitated to ask Paula to ask him if he’d share his words with us. Thank you, Julius, for your generosity. Thank you, Paula, for the connexion. I was going to use one of her photographs, of apples and hazelnuts, to accompany Julius’s essay, but technical issues prevent me. Instead, here’s a photo we’ve used in the past for Rosh Hashanah: It’s a recipe for Aunt Ida’s Taglach from Pearl Silman’s handwritten recipe book. A few years ago Pearl’s daughter Rita asked me to make facsimile copies of the book for her children, Pearl’s grandkids. I couldn’t resist making a copy for myself, too. May you have a good and sweet year.

 

Essay © 2017 Julius Lester.

 

Labor Day

This Labor Day Weekend, Seth and I have been, fittingly enough, laboring all weekend long, sawing and hammering cedar clapboards for the new pottery studio. At one point on Sunday, I got to use my grandfather’s old level, the one he carved his initials into almost a hundred years ago. Still works like a charm: good tools are good tools. Last year’s Convivio Book of Days chapter for Labor Day focused on Grandpa. Using that old spirit level yesterday, it seemed right to reprint his story today. It is, after all, a good story. Happy Labor Day. –– John

 

Union Card    Arturo DeLuca

In 1973, my grandfather received his gold union card marking fifty consecutive years with the Bricklayers, Masons and Plasterers International Union of America. He was now a life member. He took that gold union card, and even though his name was misspelled, he put it inside a picture frame along with a certificate and two medals he had earned in World War I serving in the Bersagliere Corps of the Italian army, and he hung the frame on a wall, and that was that. He never talked much about either thing, not the union nor the military service. But he seemed to value both enough to keep these mementos prominently displayed.

We still have that frame: we visited my folks over the weekend and when I asked her about it, my mother pulled the frame from a shelf in a closet. I looked at everything closely, shot the photographs you see here, and returned the frame to its place on the shelf in the closet. But then I paused, picked it up again and set the frame on the bureau, next to the photographs of my grandparents and the statue of St. Rocco. That seemed a more fitting place, especially for Labor Day, a day when we celebrate the American worker. The day has become our country’s unofficial end to summer, but its history is rooted in my grandfather’s time. He was born in the late 1800s, and so was the labor movement in this country. The first Labor Day celebration was organized in 1882 in New York by the Central Labor Union. It was the Fifth of September, a Tuesday, and organizers had no idea how many workers would take part in the parade that wound through Manhattan. There turned out to be more than 10,000; perhaps even 20,000. They carried signs and banners advocating for the rights of workers; things like an 8-hour work day. Twelve years later, in 1894, Congress declared Labor Day a national holiday, falling just as it does today on the First Monday of September.

Grandpa was a union man even longer than he was an American citizen; that particular honor was bestowed upon him in 1935. (My grandmother would have to wait an additional six years for her citizenship.) When times were tough, his work as a bricklayer took him to states far from his home in Brooklyn, as far away as Iowa and North Carolina, wherever there was work; building army barracks, for instance. They worked hard, my grandparents did, and they saved and made real the dreams that first brought them to this country in the early 1920s.

I’m not sure what Labor Day meant to Grandpa, because I never asked him. So much I never thought to ask, but wisdom generally does not come to us until we are older, making us wistful. But Grandpa was a simple man and Labor Day was, I’m sure, just like any other day to him: reading Il Progresso, the Italian paper, with his coffee and toast and cream of wheat, watching Concentration and Eye Guess and Let’s Make a Deal (and shaking his fist at the TV when contestants got too greedy), playing Solitaire and Scopa and Briscola (the last two with the Italian playing cards of swords, cups, coins, and clubs), helping Grandma scour over the lentils, making sure there were no little pebbles mixed in with them. He might have puttered about the garden, bringing in a few late season beefsteak tomatoes. And certainly he passed by the frame on the wall that held the two war medals from Italy and the gold union card engraved with his misspelled name, just as he did the day before, and as he would do the day after, as well.

 

Harvester Basket, or Your September Book of Days

In Maine, where autumn is quick to arrive, the apples are just beginning to come in. The apples above and the basket that holds them are both from the same place: Thompson’s Orchards in New Gloucester, Maine. The apples were picked just two days ago; the basket made two decades prior by Herb Thompson, who ran the orchard back then. Now his sons do. The basket is one of our simple treasures, and it is the cover star of your Convivio Book of Days calendar for September. The calendar is our monthly gift to you, printable on standard US Letter size paper, a nice companion to the blog.

The month begins this year with Labor Day, which will make this a long holiday weekend. It is generally considered summer’s last hurrah here in the US, but it is, more officially, an annual celebration of the American worker, upon whose labor this great nation is built. I may take the weekend off myself from writing, so perhaps you won’t hear from me until later in the month: maybe for the day honoring Our Lady of the Grape Harvest, or for Rosh Hashanah, or for Johnny Appleseed’s birthday, or certainly for Michaelmas. You never know, as I write these things by the seat of pants usually, very often late in the night on the eve before each holiday. It is a month of balance and perhaps we (I) could use a bit of that ourselves: the next equinox arrives, bringing autumn by the almanac to the Northern Hemisphere. But by month’s end, night will be just slightly longer than day. The wheel of the year is always turning, like a great clockwork.

Did you know I write another little something called The Convivio Dispatch? The Dispatches are tales from my town of Lake Worth, Florida, a project much older than the Convivio Book of Days. It is not a book and not a blog but rather the Dispatches from Lake Worth arrive in your inbox as plain text emails. Nothing fancy (again, simple). They are sometimes monthly and they are sometimes few and far between, but the first dispatch in months went out late last night. Dispatch subscribers get the annual ghost story for Halloween, for instance. Interested? Send me an email to subscribe: mail@conviviobookworks.com. (How simple is that?)

Oh and I find my life very often comes with an accompanying soundtrack. Does yours, too? Placing all these apples with care into this basket we love so much, well… this song came to mind.

 

 

It’s Jane Siberry, circa 1985, walking down a road with a very pregnant cow named Buttercup. The video was directed by Gerald Casale of Devo fame. Jane told us when she was here that the photo for the single was shot right here on the beach in Boca Raton. Small world.

Have a wonderful month.
John

 

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