Abba Knows Best

Our lemon of a calendar. Or is that an etrog?

shemini atzeret

By Ed Harris, Jewish Sound Columnist

Whew! The cycle of major Jewish holidays has finally come to an end. The succession of celebrations and observances began with Rosh Hashanah amid a cacophony of shofar blasts, continued with the hunger-pang inducing somberness of Yom Kippur, followed by Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and, finally, Simchat Torah. The religious significance of some of these holidays is obvious, such as Yom Kippur, when we refrain from food and beverages in order to concentrate the mind on prayer and quiet contemplation. The meaning of others, however, like Shemini Atzeret? Not so much.

In my case, as the long Day of Atonement dragged on, I became less attentive to the liturgy and matters of ethics and increasingly preoccupied with checking my watch and wondering how many hours left until I could break the fast. And for those Jews like us here in the Pacific Northwest, who live in geographies with real winters, what a stereotypically appropriate way to usher in the New Year: Just as the weather turns gloomy. I understand why the secular world has fixed their start of the year as January 1. The days have begun to lengthen, however slightly, and in the process hope is restored to humanity. Leave it to us to pick the start of the year when daylight diminishes and our spirits sink.

Now the Seattle Jewish community — spiritually refreshed and fortified by the consumption of numerous bagels — has started the entire annual cycle of holidays, major and obscure, all over again. This constant repetition reminds me of a TV show my kids watched when they were younger, “Lamb Chop’s Play-Along,” hosted by the late ventriloquist and (Jewish) entertainer Shari Lewis. The show regularly featured a song titled, aptly, “This is the Song that Never Ends,” which repeats the same few lines over and over again, with a catchy tune, potentially to infinity.

The Jewish calendar is another “song” that repeats itself, over and over, although thankfully with more variety. No sooner do we disassemble the Sukkah and pull the winter coats out from the back of the closet, and we are suddenly caught up in Hanukkah. Is it coming early or late this year? I recall when Izzy was 10 years old he asked me when Christmas was. My reply: “On December 25th. And want to know something amazing? It’s on the same exact date every single year.”

He was indeed amazed. Thanks to his bubble existence comprised of the Jewish Day School, Hebrew school at Herzl-Ner Tamid, summers at Camp Solomon Schechter, Jewish family and a circle of Jewish friends, he was blissfully unaware that the world’s largest faith by numbers, Christianity, followed the strange logic of letting people know with confidence the dates their holidays fall on.

After Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah?) we leapfrog to Purim, then Pesach, and a flurry of spring holidays, including Lag Ba’Omer, which I assume everyone knows is the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. Try explaining that one to your non-Jewish friends.

Christians have a number of advantages, including widely recognized symbols such as Santa’s flying reindeer and the Easter Bunny. Even if you don’t believe in them, they are easy to explain. We shake a pebbly, lemony fruit with a woven frond because…er…well… it’s a tradition. I do remember there is an analogy, whereby the lulav and etrog in combination represent four attributes that symbolize the four types of Jews in the world: Doctor, lawyer, accountant and revolutionary.

The Harris family Sukkah is now stacked up in pieces and back in the garage. The weather has finally turned cold and damp. We Jews in Seattle and the world over have welcomed the start of the New Year and begun the same song all over again. I wonder how many shopping days until Hanukkah, and how many pairs of socks and underwear I can look forward to?


Ed Harris, the author of “Fifty Shades of Schwarz” and several other books, was born in the Bronx and lives in Bellevue with his family. His blog, Fizz-Ed, and additional information about his books are available at