See my Rosh Hashanah personal essay for the On Faith blog, a joint project of Newsweek and www.washingtonpost.com.
A New Mother’s Holiday Vow
By Natasha Rosenstock
In my single days I would attend multiple classes designed to help me figure out my character flaws and work to make myself a kinder, more charitable person for weeks before I showed up to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. I would show up early and leave late, relishing the chance to desert my multi-tasking ways for a few days a year when I only have one call to return, to God.
Two years ago I spent the majority of my Rosh Hashanah praying that I wouldn’t be there the next year. I promised God all the charitable giving and performance of commandments possible, if only I could be too occupied with having or caring for a baby to be in synagogue the next year. I spent that Yom Kippur delirious with an ill-timed fever and fasting, only making it to synagogue for the last few hours of the day – the marathon of intense prayer before the Book of Life closes for the coming year, having had the barest of warm ups at home. Still, when the last Shofar blast vibrated in my ears, my heart and my toes, I knew I could not have prayed harder for what I wanted and all the service I was willing to do to get it.
I spent Elul last year preparing for the birth of my daughter, not knowing if it was a son or daughter and when she would arrive, before or after the New Year.
In the current climate of planned C-sections, I prayed that my vision of a natural birth, supported by midwives, with the old fashioned wonder of when it will be and what it will be, would be possible for me. I had no idea where I would be on Rosh Hashanah. My future was a blank slate and for once I trusted that if I couldn’t be in synagogue to pray that day, I would be busy with a different holy endeavor. And I was. I gave birth, in the way that I’d planned, on a Thursday and then came home from the hospital on Saturday night. We named Avital Rachel in the synagogue Monday morning. Rosh Hashanah started Monday evening. I spent the next two days as I had wished the year before, in deep concentration, at home, caring for Avital. Once in a while we would snuggle up and I would read to her from the Rosh Hashanah prayer book, praying as a team.
Yom Kippur was spent in bed, fasting, while my mother scolded me for hurting my milk supply with my silliness. I separated myself from the baby long enough to make it to synagogue for the last few hours, only prepared to pray that I was doing an adequate job as a new mother, and confident that I would be needed here on earth for that important job in the coming year.
This year, I have spent Elul, yes, planning charitable contributions, but not examining my soul in any fashion. There is no longer time for that. My main planning for Rosh Hashanah involved an hour of planning menus and babysitting. Having a child turns some people into big planners, making them try to control every circumstance in order to raise their child with exacting nutritional and educational makeup. I’m already an obsessive planner and list maker. Being with my daughter is a relief from all that. I’m here to respond to her needs as they come. That job, along with my day job, leave me with only enough energy to take things as they come.
This year, as I try to find five minutes to clear my head and mentally prepare for the holidays, I know I want to thank G-d for my healthy child and family. As a mother, filled with the typical guilt that I’m not doing enough at work or at home, it is much easier to find inadequacies than when I was living life only for myself. I’m going to let the ancient poems of the High Holiday prayers speak to me. The ways in which I might improve the intentions of my soul and my actions towards God and others will surely come.
Natasha Rosenstock is a DC-area freelance writer. She regularly writes about the Jewish community, food and environmental issues.