Celebrating Rosh Hashanah While Honoring the Loss of a Parent

For me, the arrival of the Rosh Hashanah has always been about hosting – the menu, setting the table, and making sure the most important people in my life are gathered to simply be together.

Last year, one of those very important people passed away: my mom. Her funeral was one day before erev Rosh Hashanah. It was a hazy time as we braced ourselves for the new normal. Rather than hosting the holiday, family and friends brought the holiday to us and I simply observed.

I find myself conflicted as the year comes full circle. I want to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, yet I’m still mourning the loss of my mom. How do I create a separation that allows me to celebrate the holiday and honor her?

I’ve always believed that the oldest form of therapy is religion. It feeds the soul and provides a road map to managing time. Truthfully, I’m not all that observant. I don’t study Torah. I don’t read Hebrew above a first-grade level. If I go to shul, it’s on a Saturday morning for either a friend or family’s mitzvah. Once there, I spend a good portion of the time meditating over coffee.

I talked to my Rabbi to address my conflicting feelings surrounding the holidays. He offered a few ideas, but emphasized that in this first year I need to give myself permission to just “be”. Of course, this is easier said than done. I’d rather choreograph each emotion and reaction from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. That’s not realistic. Instead, I’ll preserve the holiday by honoring the traditions and rituals my mom and I held dear:

  1. Finding light. When I was growing up, my mom would read the following prayer in English before lighting the Shabbat candles: As we light the Sabbath candles may they fill our hearts with love for one another. May they serve to unite our family in devotion and faithfulness, bring harmony into our lives and the spirit of Sabbath joy and peace into our home. When I light the candles on erev Rosh Hashanah, I’ll reflect on these words and how the light fills my heart, unites my family and brings harmony to our home.
  2. Connecting with those who came before us. If my mom had an unsaid mantra it was L’dor va’dor, from generation to generation. During the holidays, this idea comes to life in recipes. Most if not all of my holiday recipes are my mom’s passed down from her mom. My mom loved to reminisce about her mom’s cooking – specifically the ingredients and hard work that went into making challah, matzah balls, honey cake and so much more. My mom’s absence will be felt as I prepare these holiday recipes, however I’ll take comfort in what she’s handed down; brisket recipes, identity, and faith, love for family and community.
  3. Bringing loved ones together. My mom took tremendous pride knowing that holiday memories were created in my home. Whether it’s my son at age four asking her if she made chocolate liver (umm, chopped liver); or marveling at the scores of guests squeezed around a table that extends the living room – window to window; or hosting an open house for our friends on the holiday’s second day that serves as a potluck of left overs. I’ll continue to recognize these memories as the origins of our family’s blessings.

Preparation for Rosh Hashanah won’t change much – I’ll still plan the menu, the table, and the guest list. In my mom’s absence, however, I’ll do my best to take the holiday in stride as this will be the best way to honor her incredible legacy.