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Peter Calder: Jewish New Year a more spiritual high

Tonight Rosh Hashanah begins a period of inward reflection - far better than recovering from night before.

Rabbi Samuel Altschul says Jews have had to find humour in dark times. Photo / Natalie Slade
Rabbi Samuel Altschul says Jews have had to find humour in dark times. Photo / Natalie Slade

For most of us, the sunset at 6.03pm tonight will be unremarkable. But for the 450 families who make up the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, it will mark the moment when the year 5773 becomes 5774.

The New Year ushered in at midnight on December 31 is a time of revelry. For Jews the world over, Rosh Hashanah (literally "the head of the year") ushers in a period of inward focus and contemplation.

As darkness falls, Jews, for whom the day begins and ends at sundown, begin Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe - a 10-day period that ends at Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

I knew none of this until last week when I went to see Rabbi Samuel Altschul at the congregation's central Auckland HQ in Greys Ave. I shudder to think what my late mother, a snobby Anglican who regarded just talking to Catholics as sinful, would have made of it, but the rabbi seemed most happy to see me and if he was alarmed at my ignorance of Judaism, he was far too polite to show it.

Even when I told him that most of what I knew about Judaism I'd picked up from listening to comedians, he seemed unfazed: "We haven't had much to laugh at through the years," he said, "and I guess that's one of the reasons why Jews make such good comedians: we have had to spice up our lives with humour that looks at the dark side of life and then laughs at it."

I think he was a bit alarmed to find I didn't know that the Torah, the Jewish scripture, comprises the first five books of the Christian Bible's Old Testament ("My dear man," he said, "The Old Testament was written by Jews about Jews for Jews. It is our history.") But he talked me patiently through the foundations of the faith: the Jewish people's enslavement in Egypt and their march through the desert to the Promised Land.

"These traditions are very much alive today," he said, "in the way that we celebrate, the daily remembrances, in everything that we do. I don't want to trespass on anyone's territory, but just as the Maori are very attached to their whenua, so the Jews have a spiritual connection to the dirt."

I would have asked the rabbi how this 5773 years "since the creation of the world" (his words) squared with palaeontology and Darwin, but he saw that one coming.

"We have to understand," he said, "that all religion is written in a language that man can access. For me there is no conflict between creation and evolution. If God created the laws of physics should he not abide by them?"

I had a sneaking suspicion that this rather avoided the point but I wasn't about to buy a fight over theology with a man so obviously learned.

On Saturday - the Jewish Sabbath or Shabbat - I was back at the synagogue at the rabbi's invitation. Garth Cohen, the president of the congregation, greeted me, found me a kippah, or skull cap, to cover my head, and politely put paid to my idea of note-taking in the synagogue. During Shabbat, we are required to neither create nor destroy anything, he explained.

About two dozen, men and women seated apart, were in attendance in the sanctuary for the three hours of prayer, in which the rabbi chanted prescribed portions of the Torah - the entire thing is read over the course of each year. At one point, the exquisite sacramental version, hand-inscribed on calfskin scroll, was taken from the cabinet, called an ark, and unrolled on a high desk, to which men from the congregation were summoned to read.

I was struck by the mixture of solemn liturgy and casual conversation - the men who talked to me did not use hushed tones and the rabbi broke off prayers to speak directly to individuals. More than anything it seemed like the gathering of a community in which ritual was the medium rather than the aim.

Tonight and tomorrow and in the days to come, that sanctuary will be packed, the rabbi told me, because new year is "a time of the year to refocus".

"You open up the ledger and look at your actions for the past year. Is there somebody you need to apologise to? Is there something that you could have done better? Where can you improve yourself?"

I can't help feeling it's a more useful undertaking than nursing a hangover.

- NZ Herald

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