Under the spell of the Jewish holidays


Brooklyn, N.Y. -- I HAVE LEARNED to read the signs in my neighborhood. As a Christian living in a Hasidic community, I will always be an outsider. I have come to appreciate, though, the cycle of the Jewish year and I am aware of the holidays not just because they are printed on my calendar, but because I see them unfolding around me.

When I moved to the Midwood section of Brooklyn in 1985 from Oakenshawe in Baltimore, I had heard of the major Jewish holidays, but I had quite a RettaBlaneyfew surprises in store as I became acquainted with the ways of this conservative religious community. That first year was full of discovery.

I arrived in September and almost immediately was surrounded by the observance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. These two holidays I knew of, though I had never seen stores closed for days at a time. I looked out the window and saw bearded men in black suits and the tallit, or prayer shawl, and women and children dressed in their best, walking to shul. I heard chanted prayer through the walls from the family next door. And so I spent my first holidays, watching and listening.

The next feast was completely new to me. Sukkot came that year right after Hurricane Gloria. I looked into my neighbor's yard one morning and saw piles of evergreen branches and leaves and thought I was witnessing debris from the storm. What I was really seeing was the makings of my first sukkah, an outdoor shelter where meals are eaten. It was one of hundreds that were to spring up in backyards, driveways and apartment building balconies throughout the area to commemorate the journey of the Israelites through the desert after their exodus from Egypt. I peaked through my curtains at night that first year and watched families gather in these impromptu huts for dining, praying and singing. I fell asleep listening to the steady chanting, marveling at a world I had never known existed while growing up in Oakenshawe.

That first December I watched Hanukkah arrive and saw children excitedly lighting their menorahs. I had grown up with Christmas trees at the window; now it was menorahs, but it was still children and lights, happiness and a sense of peace.

Next holiday, another surprise, and a fun one. As I ran late one winter morning I encountered two children in costume. They looked as if they were headed for a Halloween party. As I ran on I saw children on nearly every block, dressed up and excited. I learned later that this was for Purim, a happy festival that marks the victory of the Jews of ancient Persia over Haman, a royal adviser who wanted them dead. Other evidence of Purim here is the brisk sale of hamantash, a tricornered dough cookie filled with poppy seeds. Hamantash and costumes are as much a part of Purim as candy corn and costumes are of Halloween. Another season was revealing itself in Midwood.

Passover I knew about, but I wasn't prepared to find all the bread shelves empty in the stores on the avenue. The bagel and pastry shops closed in keeping with the prohibition against eating leavened bread -- in remembrance of the Jews' hasty departure from Egypt, during which there was no opportunity for their bread to rise. In Midwood, the exodus is relived every year.

After Passover, things go on for a couple months in their normal ebb and flow, pretty much resembling any neighborhood except for the Saturday closings for Shabbat. But then in late June the biggest change of the year comes as the mini-vans begin appearing to take the mothers and children to the country for the summer. Within days the neighborhood has the stillness of the high holidays, but without the chanting and people walking to shul. On weekends, when the fathers join their families, I feel as if I am in a place that has been evacuated. The quiet is welcome, but it is strange.

The year is nearly complete as late August brings the families back home and the neighborhood hums with the excitement of children enjoying the last of their vacation. I see toddlers who were carried out by their mothers in June now walking on their own and gawky pre-teens having more grace and maturity than two months would normally provide. I am especially glad to see Shira, the little girl who lives to the right of me and whose name, appropriately, means a song.

Now that I have been here more than five years, the rhythms of the religious seasons are a natural part of living in Midwood. I know I have to shop ahead because the stores will be closed for the high holidays, and if I want bread or rolls in the days before Passover, I will have to bring them home from Manhattan. I know why the evergreen branches are in my neighbor's yard in the fall, and on Purim I run with special attentiveness so I don't miss any costumes.

I have even developed a taste for hamantash.

Retta Blaney teaches journalism at New York University.

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