A new year

It’s 6:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in late September. Summer officially ended last week, and even with daylight savings still in effect, the day-to-night ratio is leaning toward darkness. Almost no vestiges of sunset remain as I park on the street; the light from the Unitarian church seems extra bright. I can see the silhouettes of people entering the front door and moving through the sanctuary. This church was an early stop on my excursion through Christianity and now it will act as a bridge to the journey’s Judaism leg.

Normally the individuals who gather to worship in a Unitarian church are well outside the Christian mainstream; they train a skeptical eye on traditional theological principles such as Jesus’ divinity and the trinity. I suppose it’s a point of view born from Christian hearts with questioning minds. Their ranks have included some of the most beloved Americans of all time including Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain.

Tonight the people gathering are even further outside the Christian mainstream; they are, in fact, Jews. With the closest synagogue over 70 miles away from my home, the Unitarians are graciously lending their space to the members of the local Jewish community to kick off the “high holidays,” which includes Rosh Hashanah and—ten days later—Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Many within the larger Christian community might argue that Unitarians are not technically Christian. Regardless, I think it’s safe to assume that Unitarians hold Jesus and his teachings in the highest esteem—and this they share with Jews.

Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new year. It commemorates the biblical “day” when God completed the creation of the world. Many synagogues conclude their annual reading of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, at this time and then proceed to start over again at Genesis. It marks an end and a new beginning. Something about the timing of this calendar rings true. I have no problem accepting a spiritual starting point that coincides with the onset of fall. Emotionally, it feels natural to me.

I’m carrying a Tupperware of sliced apples with a little tub of caramel dipping sauce. I read that it is important to eat something sugary on Rosh Hashanah to coax the rest of the year to be sweet. It is customary to enjoy treats like apples or plums from an early fall harvest or goodies left from summer like figs or dates. Before the days of refined cane juice, these fruits would be drizzled with honey. I think the idea is to place the sweetest things possible on the tongue, to push the palate toward pleasure in hopes that in the darkest months the heart will remember this joy—even as the taste buds forget.

Inside the church’s foyer, a man directs me to the basement where I can set down my treats before joining the others in the sanctuary. Not long ago I descended this same narrow staircase for the post Sunday service fellowship. I drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup as I chatted with a couple of friendly retired academics. Back then, I was still under the impression that Christianity and Judaism were polar extremes of one another—as if religions could have opposites. I hadn’t yet grasped how closely the two are related and the strange mix of resentment and dependence bred by this kinship.

Tonight, two long folding tables are set up in the middle of the room, forming a capital letter T. The Jews have pulled out the stops: tins of dried fruit, piles of homemade cookies, fancy boxes of chocolates, and jars of honey. My mouth waters as I add my apples and head upstairs into the sanctuary for the official ceremony.