Tabula rasa
Starting the new year from the beginning

Tabula rasa

Starting the new year from the beginning

Mindy Geliebter, left, and Esther Kook show off Rosh Hashanah toys.
Mindy Geliebter, left, and Esther Kook show off Rosh Hashanah toys.

Transitioning from lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer to the busy holiday season and the expectations for the year ahead can feel daunting. We’re headed toward the New Year on the Jewish calendar and a whirlwind of holidays and activities beginning with Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur, and then Sukkot.

There’s much preparation going into these holidays, which are so close to one another. “Cook, bake, and freeze,” is one of my go-to mantras. The first menu is set, and the lists are made. It’s my survival mode for preparing many meals to be ready when famished folks return from synagogue and are raring and ready to dig in. (But I will buy a few side dishes at the supermarket.)

During this time of year, I remember our grandmothers. They were a whole different breed of homemaker. If they had freezers at all, they were tiny, and our grandmothers often were cooking right up to the last minute. The words “take out” were not a part of their lexicon. Our grandmothers’ recipes were tried and true, often made from memory or jotted on well-worn pieces of paper. Dishes were cooked from scratch with oodles of schmaltz and made with loads of elbow grease — in other words, hard work.

Meals were homemade all the way. Tables were filled with gefilte fish, kugels, chopped liver, and chremzlach — fried potato pancakes — floating in fatty chicken soup.

High cholesterol content was never ever given even a flicker of a thought.

Times certainly have changed. Because cooking in volume up to the last moment is not my cup of tea, this past Labor Day I baked challah and apple cake for my end-of-summer activities, and then those goodies went into gallon-sized baggies and into the freezer.

Doing all this in advance began to put me in the mood for the upcoming holiday season.

To segue, I treat myself in little ways. One year, I bought a piece of art, but often it’s just a hat, a dress, or even some new makeup. And, of course, there’s the new fruit we traditionally add to the table in order to make the Shehecheyanu blessing for something new.

These are the tangible ways we prepare, but how can we get ready emotionally? It’s a time that calls for introspection, but how do we get there?

In Teaneck and nearby, there are a wealth of classes related to this season. Rebbetzin Nechamy Simon of the Chabad of Teaneck discussed it in a recent women’s class, talking about ways in which people can reframe their approach to the holidays and theme of teshuvah — atonement — in a positive way.

“When reflecting back on our past year, looking towards an even better year, we must remember that we must strive to improve and grow,” Rebbetzin Simon said. “We should acknowledge and elaborate on the good things we have done too.”

Her words reminded me of a book, “Growth Mindset,” by Carol Dweck. The theory of growth mindset describes a way of viewing challenges and setbacks, with a belief that even with difficulty, it is possible to attain certain abilities and skills. You can reframe your approach to challenges. Instead of thinking “I can’t,” you can change to “I can.” Setbacks can provide a way forward. The growth mindset isn’t necessarily something we are born with, but it can be developed. We can learn that something may be hard now, and we may not have mastered certain skills.

Not yet, but soon.

My friend Mindy Geliebter, a social worker with the Bronx Psychiatric Center, remembers Rosh Hashanah as being the happiest time of the year. “It was a special time filled with sweet food and new clothing,” she said. “My parents bought each child their own toy shofar stuffed with Barton’s candies. Now it seems more of a solemn holiday focused on prayer, repentance, and nervous and hopeful anticipation of what the new year will bring.”

She also noted that some people may struggle with the holiday season, especially if they are alone or going through difficult times. Mindy suggests they reach out for emotional support. Conversely, if people are aware of anybody who feel isolated, it’s important to seek them out as well.

Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my mind also wanders back to the first day of school, when my seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Ratchford, wrote the words “tabula rasa” in large letters on the board. We had no idea what that was. Table of what?

We looked at each other and shrugged and offered some smart-aleck comments, but they didn’t ruffle Mrs. Ratchford. She calmly explained it means blank slate. Her new students were blank slates, and the beginning of the school year was our chance to start fresh.

That stuck with me.

I loved that message. It resonated with me then and now. Mrs. Ratchford didn’t try to find out who we were before we found ourselves in her class. Throughout the year, she didn’t disappoint us. There was kindness in her interactions with her students. She didn’t care that I still counted on my fingers in math.

Mrs. Ratchford taught us how to diagram sentences, and she made subjects, predicates, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, with all those lines going in opposite directions, just so much fun. She also had a fabulous sense of humor, and she laughed when we teased her about her new hairdos, which always seemed to coincide with a test she was giving that day.

Throughout this month of Elul, the sound of the shofar blowing is like an alarm clock, reminding us to awaken. The advent of the High Holy Days, particularly Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can be a major tabula rasa, and an opportunity to grow.

Here’s to that little engine that could. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….”

Shanah tovah! Happy New Year!

Esther Kook of Teaneck is a learning specialist and freelance writer.

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