Greg Levinsky: Jewish High Holy Days during the coronavirus pandemic carries immense meaning

 centralmaine.com  09/19/2020 19:48:27 

My family always sits in the same spot for the Jewish High Holy Days. Every year but this one, the Levinsky group is located in the second row of the second level at Portland’s Temple Beth El, taking up anywhere between six and 10 chairs.

For as long as I can remember, my grandparents, Philip “Zedy” and Elizabeth “Bubbie” Levinsky, greeted us upon arrival to High Holy Day services. Zedy turns 94 in October. Bubbie recently turned 91. We’d usually went to my maternal grandparent’s side for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Since my grandfather, Morris “Papa” Silvermandied in 2015, my grandmother, 85-year-old Adele “Grammie” Silverman, would come to Bubbie and Zedy’s.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, celebrating the High Holy Days is different this year. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which runs Friday night at sundown through Sunday at sundown; and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, which goes from sundown Sept. 27 through sundown on Sept. 28, involves much less in-person interaction than I’d like. However, spending it with my nuclear family comforts us.

Summer is essentially over and fall  which officially begins Tuesday  is getting int0 full swing. For me, ringing in the Jewish New Year always coincided with starting my first weeks of a new grade in school. Since I graduated from Boston University this May, there is no new grade for me. I am new here as a reporter for the Morning Sentinel, about six weeks in. So that’s my big fall change.

Celebrating the start of the Jewish year 5781, albeit differently than usual, meant more than in previous years. I do miss the old ways and hope we can get back to them soon, but it also makes me realize how much I love and value my family.

Truth be told, I am not an overly religious person. I had a bar mitzvah and am proud of my Jewish identity, but I do not attend synagogue often. Nonetheless, seeing the Jewish community come together on holidays fills me with pride. And for some reason, even in a much smaller setting, I still feel that sense of community emanating through my family.

Growing up, my biggest reservation with Rosh Hashanah was missing school. Will I miss a test? What homework is due? Of course, this year there’s plenty more to think about.

For the first time since high school, I celebrated the holiday’s entirety with my parents, Ken and Nancy, and sister, Andrea. Just like old times.

At the Levinsky household, family members tuned into Rosh Hashanah services at two synagogues simultaneously via Zoom. Greg Levinsky/Morning Sentinel

I attended high holiday services at Boston University’s Hillel during college the past four years, and was lovingly welcomed into the homes of extended family members in the greater Boston area. Shout out to the Brody/Gluck family, which has plenty of ties to Waterville.

Jewish holidays always begin the night before, Erev, transliterated from Hebrew. My mom, who graduated from Colby in 1983 and grew up in Lewiston, did a reading  virtually, of course  for the service at Auburn’s Temple Shalom. My mom usually hosts a dinner on Erev Rosh Hashanah for a couple dozen friends and family, but the pandemic had other ideas.

Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat this year, which added some prayers to the Friday night and Saturday services and postponed the shofar blowing until Sunday. We Zoomed into Temple Beth El services Saturday morning, hours before I finished writing this column. We plan on Zooming in to another service Sunday. At times, we tuned into services at different synagogues at the same time, a positive experience.

“This is the first time in my Temple Beth El career that we’ve been on time,” Rabbi Carolyn Braun, who joined the synagogue in 1994, joked on the Zoom service.

My mother prepared a Saturday lunch featuring kosher chicken and my favorite roasted potato dish. That night, we went to Bubbie and Zedy’s or dinner. We usually do post-services lunch with a large gathering of family and friends at Bubbie and Zedy’s, but this time it was just the six of us. We also ate at a distance in compliance with safe coronavirus practices.

I enjoyed my grandmother’s delicious brisket, always tender and moist. One of my favorite Rosh Hashanah traditions is dipping apples in honey, and then pouring honey onto a slab of round challah bread. We always get ours from Portland’s Big Sky Bakery. Zedy and I prefer the kind stuffed with raisins.

Before Rosh Hashanah, I called Rabbi Rachel Isaacs of Waterville’s Beth Israel Congregation and asked her what this year’s holiday means to her. The congregation had in-person outdoor services and shofar blowing at different sites Waterville.

“We’re the inheritors of a tradition that comes from a resilient and strong people,” Isaacs said. “I take comfort in the fact that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been celebrated in almost every country for thousands of years. … At least we are still celebrating together in Waterville.”

No matter what you celebrate, I wish you all health and happiness.

Shanah Tovah.

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