In preparation for Rosh Hashanah this year, I baked two plain round challahs and an apple one, set out the Shabbat candles and checked to make sure we have enough wine to sanctify the holiday, just as people across the Jewish world were doing. But rather than go to services, my husband and I packed all the supplies into a backpack, gathered our sleeping bags and tent, and set out to Sky High Camp near Portage, Wis., for the Rosh Hashanah weekend.
That’s because this year, another tradition happened to fall at the same time as Rosh Hashanah: the KSP (klub samodeiatel’noi’ pesni – or the club for amateur song in Russian), a four-times-a-year Russian singer-songwriter festival and camp-out. Some friends from the Russian Moishe House – a grassroots community center catering toward the twenty-something post-college Jewish crowd – and I decided to combine to the two events in a nod to our Russian-Jewish heritage. About 15 of us plopped our tents next to about 100 other KSP participants – children and adults, semi-professional singers and lovers of music who prefer to listen rather than participate.
After lighting Shabbat candles, making Kiddush, and saying the Motzi over home-made honey whole wheat round challah on Friday night, we sat by the campfire singing familiar tunes with fellow amateur songwriters and guitar players. Although our homemade song books include some Jewish songs, favorite songs from the heyday of Russian rock dominated the night.
But rather than devoting Saturday to sleeping off the previous night, our small group made our way to Devil’s Lake for a celebratory Rosh Hashanah program. The air was saturated with the smell of pine needles as we climbed into the rocky hills above the lake. Before reaching the very top, we found a small overlook just off the path and settled for an hour of discussion and contemplation. No one in the group is a rabbi or even a Jewish educator, but our common interest in Jewish learning brought us together.
We started with the basics: What’s Rosh Hashanah? Why do Jews around the world celebrate it? What do we say on Rosh Hashanah? As simple as these questions sounds, some among our group had never thought about them before.
The goal of Rosh Hashanah is to look inward, to see where we missed the mark, to figure out how we can be the best version of ourselves in the next year. That’s exactly what we did as we read Yehuda Amichai’s poem “A man in his life” and Jack Riemer’s interpretation on Unetaneh Tokef, one of the central prayers of the Rosh Hashanah service. Together, we learned what Rosh Hashanah is about – the birthday of the world and the symbolic “soul check.”
As Jews from the former Soviet Union, we did not grow up with the tradition of celebrating Rosh Hashanah or fasting on Yom Kippur or lighting Chanukah candles or breaking matzah at Pesach. But celebrations that include both our Russian cultural traditions and new ways to do Jewish make us realize that Jewish tradition has a place in our lives despite our largely secular-cultural stance toward Judaism and Jewishness.