As I write – in the second week of August – the new moon has not yet heralded the month of Elul. Yesterday, I swam in a lake, but, by the time you read this in the Rosh Hashanah edition of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, lake swimming will be replaced by new, crisp apples to eat with honey, and the breeze will be cooler. We will be thinking of new beginnings, of new seasons, and of teshuvah, the chance to transform, but also to return.
I was in Europe last year and visited many congregations there. It had been a worrying summer marked by violence, so I was not surprised to encounter security measures at the gates of European synagogues. But those measures didn’t impede the warmth, welcome and radical hospitality that was extended to me. We are too hasty, I think, when we decry how challenging it is to be Jewish in Europe. I have learned much about hope, and about living Jewishly, from communities there.
In Kazimierz, the dreamy and mystical Jewish quarter of Krakow, a community called Beit Krakow took in my friend and me when we were weary from our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We made Kabbalat Shabbat inside the Galicia Jewish museum, surrounded not by ghosts but by the congregation’s buoyant spirit.
“You need to want to be Jewish when you are a Jew in Poland,” explained Malka, a congregant. We found Malka and her community again the next morning at a nearby café huddled in a quiet room as Rabbi Tania Segal led the group in Torah study and prayer. Beit Krakow does not own a Torah scroll, but they observe Shabbat every week in their way.
I learned about keeping memory alive in the Netherlands where, no matter the denomination or synagogue, challah is sweet but always served with salt, and everyone stands for the whole of the Mourners’ Kaddish to commemorate the social grief and collectively mourn the life and world that was lost in the Shoah with the disappearance of three-quarters of Dutch Jewry.
In Amsterdam last year during Tisha B’Av, the congregation of Beit Ha’Chidush knelt on the floor of the historic Pintohause on what used to be the Jewish main street. We were surrounded by the slow seeping darkness of a northern summer night, and the candles at our feet illuminated our prayer books and our faces. Our hearts were full as we thought of the fall of the Temple, the loss of Zion, the losses of recent and less recent wars, and I felt the power of our shared intention. Our candles – our little fires – flamed potential.
Beit Ha’Chidush (House of Renewal) is tucked into old Jewish Amsterdam, where the streets are studded with cobblestones marking the homes and remembering names of Shoah victims. These are tripping stones, memory stones. Teshuvah: looking back to look forward.
Beit Ha’Chidush gave me the honour of leading their Tashlich service last year. Although I was basically a stranger, they had already opened wide their tent. I over-prepared, wanting so badly to do it right. In the end, I spoke from the heart, and I thanked the congregation for welcoming me that summer, for being a refuge for this wandering Jew, and for showing me the meaning of teshuvah.
During Elul we read Psalm 27 leading up to the Days of Awe. I like to sing it, and so I led it before and after we cast our thoughts into the waters for Tashlich. The members of Beit Ha’Chidush let their voices ring out in Dutch, English, Hebrew, Javanese and Yiddish: “Ahaat sha’alti, me’eit Adonai, otah avakesh/Knowing the beauty, the beauty of You and to dwell in Your holy place.”
For me, this new year brings new work, a new house, even this new column. There will be McIntosh apples from the garden and new blessings to be grateful for. This year, I am home in Ottawa and will observe the High Holy Days with my beloved Or Haneshamah. And, we, too, will sing for teshuvah: renewal, with gratitude for the past, and awe for the potential of the future.