Reflecting on the Jewish High Holidays: ‘a living, breathing legacy’

Lynne Meredith Golodner is a popular writer and author, whose most recent book is The Flavors of Faith. You can read more about her work at the end of this column.

Making the High Holidays Meaningful


EVERY fall, my children and I spend a few hours on one of the Jewish High Holidays at Cranbrook, walking through the grounds until we reach the river next to the Japanese garden. When we pass the over-turned canoes and school buildings and start to hear the rush of water over the dam, we know we have almost arrived at the point of casting off our sins and starting the year fresh.

After I got divorced and started to live my Jewish life according to my own meaning, I took my children there to give the rite of tashlich a tangible expression. Tashlich is a ceremony conducted sometime between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each fall, where Jews throw bread crumbs into a body of water as a symbolic way of casting off the sins of the year prior so that we can enter the new year with a clean slate.

My children were young when I first embarked on this ritual, so I didn’t use the word “sin.” I changed it to choices, as in, “What choices did you make last year that you’d like to make differently this year?”

The answers ranged from “I won’t fight with my brother” to “I will spend more time on my homework” to “I will help my mother more and set the table.” My littlest child was 3 or 4 when we first started, so the choices were precious, and I simply stood back and handed over stale bread when they ran out of pieces to throw. I joined in, of course, to be the role model I wanted them to have of someone who is always trying to improve and is never too self-inflated to admit a mistake.

In my 42 years, I’ve been through a variety of Jewish observances–from a Reform/secular childhood to a decade in the Orthodox world to somewhere in-between now. Add to that a couple years of a college relationship with a devout Catholic man, and the past seven or so years in the world of yoga, learning about traditions more ancient than my Jewish roots, and I have compiled a real amalgamation of meaning as a good starting point for creating my own system of beliefs.

In our world of structure and segment, it’s hard to admit that I don’t fit–or rather, I don’t choose to fit–into one particular denomination or faith. I see beauty, meaning and reverence–and problem, too–in all.

There are pieces of Christianity that I love, like the taize service I attended in Dublin, Ireland on Good Friday, 1994, or the way a particular local church goes into challenged public schools to tutor children in reading every week of the school year. There are pieces of Islam that feel home to me, like the ladies baking bread early on Sunday mornings at the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn.

Recently, I met a new Orthodox family that had moved in across the street from us. It was a Friday evening, and they had already lit their Shabbat candles. The mother and several daughters emerged from the house in traditional Shabbos robes and were making their way down the block to a relative’s house, when they stopped in front of our driveway to say hello.

Though we were in shorts and tank tops, hitting tennis balls against the garage, they were not put off. We introduced ourselves and our children, and they invited us over to play any Saturday that my children wanted. I was heartened that even though I don’t live in that world, we could still connect.

As they walked away, I turned to my children and said, “There are some elements of an observant Shabbat that I miss. Like the quiet after candlelighting on Friday night, the silence of no phones, no TV, no music, just the whisper of the trees and the mellow of a family being together with no distractions.”

We watched them walk down the street and embrace relatives at the corner. Then we went back to hitting tennis balls against the garage.

Spirituality is a very personal journey, one that each individual must come to with knowledge and experience and the confidence to make a decision of what is most meaningful and the courage to discard what is not. For some who read this, it might come across as blasphemous–but I’ve always believed that the rules and structure of a congregation or community exist to ward off potential anarchy. After all, everyone deciding for themselves? How could we possibly build cohesiveness, or community?

Except that everyone does decide for themselves in the quiet of their own homes and days, and you never know whether a fellow worshiper is following the same rules in the same way. And in the end, who really cares?

If we are people of faith, then hopefully we are guided by a sense of doing right, healing the world and building bridges between all of humanity rather than preaching exclusivity and judgment. In that way, it does not matter whether we sign on to a particular religion, denomination or none at all–if we are faithful, respectful, reverent people, we must embrace religiosity as the right of all people and the exclusive domain of none.

When I was Orthodox, I had a hard time with the High Holidays every fall. The biggies, as they are viewed, are considered by many to be the epitome of Jewish observance. On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate and welcome a new year and the concept of starting over—but the liturgy is tainted with notions of the King of Kings sealing in the Book of Life, who shall live and who shall die.

This notion of Judgment follows us through Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when we refrain from eating or drinking or engaging in sexual relations so that we may focus on atoning for sins, making amends with our fellow humans and seeking God’s forgiveness.

Heavy notions, both, and in the most extreme corners of my community, the services are long, foreboding and in some ways, inaccessible for newcomers. A revered Orthodox rabbi once encouraged me to attend services at a congregation for the newly-religious so that I could step-by-step find my way through the thicket of this liturgy.

Now, we belong to a Conservative synagogue, where ritual is beautiful and fun–but I still need something else on the High Holidays. I need to commune with the Holy on my own, not as one of thousands turning the same pages, hitting the same notes.

Perhaps that’s because this notion of spirituality is so very personal. When the children are with me (their father and I switch off between these holidays each year), we sometimes attend the family service, but more often we find a way to be in nature to reconcile the notions from the prayerbook with the notions in our hearts.

And when the children are not with me, I take some quiet time to reflect, to read, to connect with those I love, and to contemplate a deliberate approach toward a meaningful life.


I fully believe that even for people who love the rite and ritual of a synagogue service, it’s imperative to make these holidays your own. It’s wonderful to follow a lineage of history, and observe in the ways our ancestors did.

It’s also empowering and gratifying to add our own little nuances and details to the rituals. That’s how we continue the chain of meaning through the generations–sharing the lessons and liturgies of generations past with the revelations and ideas of today. We build on the foundation already laid for us with respect and reverence, while being empowered to add our own signature to the mix.

We are a part of a living, breathing legacy. No tradition is meant to be a closed book to read from afar. If we are to live it, surely we must have something meaningful to add.

After my college boyfriend and I broke up, and I realized I couldn’t not be Jewish, I met with the dean of admissions at Hebrew Union College in New York, convinced I should become a rabbi. We talked for a good hour and agreed that I wasn’t yet at the point of seeking ordination.

The more I speak to public audiences and the more I write about what is most important to me, the more I realize I am building some sort of interfaith ministry. Yes, I am a Jew, through and through, but I have such respect and reverence for all faithful paths. My spirituality is a combination of so many experiences, lessons and rituals–some from my own backyard and some I picked up along the way.

That’s what makes us human. It’s what makes the world interesting. It’s what highlights our ultimate humanity and interconnectedness.

This year, on the High Holidays, I calmly await these revered periods of time not because I’m supposed to do a certain type of observance nor because I can’t wait to rush through them and get to things that are easier for me to digest. Finally, I have embraced my own unique path and allowed myself the freedom to observe in the way most meaningful to me.

That makes High Holy Days significant, special and yes, holy–because I have claimed them as my own.

CARE TO READ MORE? Read The Spirit also has a Rosh Hashanah holiday overview, featuring a video on how to pronounce “Shana Tova!” And, we have a delicious Feed The Spirit column by food writer Bobbie Lewis—with Bobbie’s recipe for Honey Cake.


Lynne is the author of The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, the first in a series of books published by Read the Spirit, about how faith and food come together. She owns Your People LLC, a public relations and business development firm in Southfield, Michigan. She lives with her husband and four children and blogs daily at Join Lynne for a two-day transformative workshop Oct. 26-27th. (**Mention Read The Spirit and receive a discounted enrollment fee.**)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Debra Darvick says

    Beautiful essay, Lynne. Like the water in the image accompanying this piece,
    observance has its own ebb and flow. Sometimes there are tidal waves that
    bring change, or rivulets break off from the main creating channels for
    new experiences. Lovely to imagine you and your three kids performing tashlich
    at Cranbrook.