For most of my adult life, I went to work as normal on the Jewish High Holy Days. The days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar) are called Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), and involve reflection, introspection, repenting for wrongdoing, praying to be inscribed in the Book of Life and striving to do better in the year to come.
Despite the significance of these days, I didn’t feel comfortable asking my employers for the time off. The only people I knew who took days off for religious holidays were very religiously observant, so I didn’t think I had the right to ask as a mostly secular, cultural Jewish person. But my Christian colleagues celebrated Easter and Christmas in the workplace for weeks before the festivals and had public holidays on the day of the festivals, regardless of their levels of observance. While I explained the Jewish festivals to my friends, and brought in Chanukah gelt for them, I didn’t feel able to acknowledge my Eastern European Jewish roots on any day other than Harmony Day, when we each brought a dish from our culture.
After years of feeling guilty about working on significant religious days, I realised that they were important to me regardless of how observant or religious I was.
After years of feeling guilty about working on significant religious days, I realised that they were important to me regardless of how observant or religious I was. I built up to asking for the days off if I wanted to observe them. Living in a country where Christianity has been the main religion since European invasion, I find it hard to observe my religion the way I want to and not feel anxious about it in the workplace, despite anti-discrimination laws.
I didn’t develop the confidence to do this overnight. Spending time in a Facebook group a friend created for queer Jews in Australia helped. It’s the first place outside of home where I didn’t have to hide anything about myself. Now I am passionate about creating spaces where people can be themselves, even if these spaces are entirely online.
This year, because of COVID-19, many of us are working from home and having to navigate work and personal responsibilities in an entirely different way. Living through a pandemic forces us to take stock of our lives, which is actually what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about. All that time spent indoors seems to have fostered introspection and gratitude for what we normally take for granted, as well as strong ideas about what we want to do once we find our ‘COVID-normal’.
For Jews in the Southern Hemisphere, the High Holy Days coincide with the arrival of spring. It’s the ideal timing for a festival about forgiveness, second chances, change and growth. Just as I see golden wattle lighting up the nearby creek, and start detecting jasmine in the air, people start changing around this time, too. They move outwards again, coming out of hibernation, and go for evening walks as dusk starts arriving later.
Rosh Hashanah is also a celebration of the year that was and the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar, even if the year that just finished involved significant challenges.
Rosh Hashanah is also a celebration of the year that was and the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar, even if the year that just finished involved significant challenges. I love to celebrate over a meal with my family, which isn’t possible during the pandemic, especially with Melbourne’s continuing lockdown. During Passover this April, I held a Seder over Zoom with my immediate family on one night, another with my in-laws on the other night, and facilitated a community Seder a week later. It was different to gathering in person but still very meaningful. At the time, my family and I expressed our hopes that we would be able to be together by Rosh Hashanah. Months later, I keep wishing we could spend the festival together in person even though I know we can’t. Despite the sense of loss and sadness, though, there is hope and possibility.
In addition to the traditions we are able to replicate in isolation, and alongside the sense of loss many of us feel at this time, we have the opportunity to create something new. We can curate our holy days to be something they haven’t been before. The progressive synagogue I grew up attending in Sydney will be streaming its services online. I haven’t been able to attend their High Holy Days services since I moved to Melbourne over a decade ago, but this year will be able to attend along with the friends I grew up with. I can see my parents and sister, even if it has to be via video chat, and hope to be able to hug them soon. I can discuss my late grandmothers’ Rosh Hashanah dishes with my family, ask for my sister’s delicious vegan honey cake recipe, and we can exchange photographs of our attempts.
My wife and I will take our greyhounds down to the creek and do some version of Tashlich, a ceremony of casting off one’s sins into a natural body of flowing water. On Rosh Hashanah, we will eat round foods, symbolising the cycle of life, and pomegranates, as their seeds represent the numerous commandments in the Torah, and then dip challah and apples in honey as we hope for a sweet new year. On Yom Kippur, after fasting, we will cook up a feast together, doing our own version of reflection and introspection over the meal.
My wife and I will take our greyhounds down to the creek and do some version of Tashlich, a ceremony of casting off one’s sins into a natural body of flowing water.
COVID-19 has impacted on religious and cultural observance for people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds. We have seen it affect numerous festivals so far and will see it affect many more to come. Now, more than ever, as we shift and ‘pivot’ due to the pandemic, I hope we see more acknowledgement of what different people experience in their daily lives. Many people are used to not fitting in, accustomed to having to fit our difference around a yearly calendar that doesn’t include us. Hopefully post COVID-19, once we can hug our loved ones and do the things we enjoy again, we will also be more aware of others and push for a more inclusive society.
Roz Bellamy is a freelance writer and is working on a memoir about gender diversity, Jewish identity and mental illness.
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