The Birthday of the World

An American Jew’s experience of the Jewish holidays is inextricably linked to the American calendar, to regional weather patterns and to the distinct geographies of his or her surroundings. It’s hard for me to imagine the period of Rosh Hashanah through Sukkot without thinking of the onset of autumn, of leaves that are beginning to change colors, cool evenings and fall harvest vegetables. The fall carries with it its own rich poetic symbolism – a yellow leaf can signify the fall from Eden, decisions that can’t be undone, or the flourishing of love in face of the inevitability of death. So what does this all have to do with the Jewish New Year? Not much if you live in a climate where autumn is not as pronounced. Yet for an American Jewish writer like Emma Lazarus, the grandeur of the the Jewish New Year is inextricably linked to its seasonal setting:

Not while the snow-shroud round dead earth is rolled,
And naked branches point to frozen skies.—
When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold,
The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn
A sea of beauty and abundance lies,
Then the new year is born

Emma Lazarus
Emma Lazarus

In The New Year, Lazarus imagines the goodly tents of Jacob described by the prophet Bilaam as stretching out to include the New World. Her striking poem emerged in part as a response to the influx of Jewish refugees who came to the United States from Russia following the pogroms of 1881. Lazarus sees religious significance in the way in which they make America their home, just as she also admires those who immigrate to Palestine:

In two divided streams the exiles part,
One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled,
Each separate soul contains the nation’s force,
And both embrace the world.

I wonder how others relate to the ease with which Lazarus folds the American experience into her prophetic vision for the Jewish people. Yet there is a way in which the expansive reach of her poem is entirely appropriate for Rosh Hashanah, a day that the sages associate with the “birthday of the world.” For Lazarus, the Jewish New Year is part of the fabric of the universe, and thus when the leaves on American trees burn with color, they burn in a way that announces God’s kingship on earth.

In her poem “The late year,” Marge Piercy meditates upon what a “late” Rosh Hashanah looks like in her own New England landscape. Even though Rosh Hashanah is early this year, I am moved by her visions of umber and scarlet, of migrating birds “davening” on the wires upon which they are perched. Perhaps the most memorable image of the poem is the “rockface” of the speaker’s life, which emerges “pitted/and pocked and pickaxed/eroded.” This poem does not seem to engage very seriously with Jewish sources, yet I believe it nevertheless captures something essential about the holiday, the “whisper/whose words we cannot/yet decipher but will.”

The late year

I like Rosh Hashonah late,
when the leaves are half burnt
umber and scarlet, when sunset
marks the horizon with slow fire
and the black silhouettes
of migrating birds perch
on the wires davening.
I like Rosh Hashonah late
when all living are counting
their days toward death
or sleep or the putting by
of what will sustain them—
when the cold whose tendrils
translucent as a jellyfish
and with a hidden sting
just brush our faces
at twilight. The threat
of frost, a premonition
a warning, a whisper
whose words we cannot
yet decipher but will.
I repent better in the waning
season when the blood
runs swiftly and all creatures
look keenly about them
for quickening danger.
Then I study the rockface
of my life, its granite pitted
and pocked and pickaxed
eroded, discolored by sun
and wind and rain—
my rock emerging
from the veil of greenery
to be mapped, to be
examined, to be judged.

Marge Piercy, “The Late Year” from The Crooked Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

One thought on “The Birthday of the World

  1. robertmb

    It is interesting how Emma Lazarus here conceives of Jewish immigration to America in parallel spiritual terms to immigration to Israel. It seems wrong to me personally to attempt to infuse Jewish communal life anywhere but Israel with this specific type of religious significance – i.e., that which emanates naturally from the connection between Jewish communal life and the geography of a particular place. However, if one is going to do so, Lazarus here presents a relatively benign model whereby the significance of Aliya (as it were) is not somehow diluted in the process.

    Liked by 1 person

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