The Liebermans’ Tasty New Year

This year, 5763, Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, the weekly observance that Sen. Joseph Lieberman calls "a sanctuary to put the outside world on hold and concentrate on what’s really important — your faith and your family." And although Lieberman, who was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000, will experience the same joy he feels every Friday night as he takes off his watch and prepares to get into the Sabbath mood, during Rosh Hashana all activities are heightened — the prayers are longer, the conversation more intense, the urgency to evaluate the past year and make resolutions for a sweet New Year more palpable.

Since Lieberman attends an Orthodox synagogue, he will have to wait until the second day of Rosh Hashana to hear the blowing of the shofar. When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, that ancient instrument, which is fashioned from a ram’s horn and sounds eerily like a human cry, cannot be played during the 25-hour observance, explains Rabbi Matthew Simon, former spiritual leader of B’nai Israel congregation in Rockville, Md.

"According to Jewish law, playing the shofar is considered work, which is prohibited during Shabbat, as is the actual carrying of the instrument," Simon says. "Because the shofar acts as an alarm clock to those of us who have fallen spiritually asleep, this Rosh Hashana will be more challenging. We can’t hear the sound of the shofar, so we must remember its message." Typically rabbinical, Simon illustrates his point with an analogy: "It’s like the Sherlock Holmes story: what gave it away is the dog didn’t bark."

Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts feels Shabbat is holier than Yom Kippur. "When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, it reminds us that this microcosm of spiritual fine-tuning comes every weekend. We don’t have to wait for Rosh Hashana to tell us that a whole year of Shabbats have gone by," he says.

Baron’s congregants will hear the sound of the ram’s horn on the first night of the Days of Awe, since it is played in Reform and Conservative congregations, but he agrees with Lieberman that our wake-up call should be about the appreciation of living and the importance of family gatherings — not merely once a year during the High Holy Days but every week.

"When we cease working for those 25 hours, we hear the message loud and clear: focus on gifts before you, rather than on the brass ring." Baron is gratified that since Sept. 11, when we’ve all had to face our vulnerabilities and reevaluate our priorities, more families than ever before are celebrating Shabbat.

The High Holy Days will begin at sundown when the senator’s wife, Hadassah Freichlich Lieberman, will light the candles and recite the blessings. Some years the Liebermans host the Rosh Hashana dinner in Georgetown or New Haven, but this year the family will gather around the table of Lieberman’s mother, Marcia, in Stamford, Conn.

Marcia Lieberman, who has already started getting ready for the holidays, loves reminiscing about past Shabbats. "When Joey was growing up, I would start days before; making sure everything was spotless, polishing my mother’s brass candlesticks — they’re my treasure. Everything good comes out of the closet and is on my table.

"On Thursday I shopped, on Friday, I cooked — I’d always bake honey cake and challah. The house has the glow of Shabbat — a sense of peace and comfort. Maybe it’s because of the sweet smells coming out of my oven. That’s what Shabbos and Rosh Hashana smell like."

(Ashkenazi Jews say Shabbos; Sephardim say Shabbat.)

What do the holidays sound like? To artist Mindy Weisel, close friend and frequent guest at the Liebermans’ Shabbat and Rosh Hashana table, it’s Hadassah’s beautiful voice. "Their family sings together more than most families," she says. "When Hadassah lights the candles and leads us in the traditional songs, the whole energy in the room changes."

Many of the religious rituals are the same. Joe Lieberman will make kiddush over the wine, then make hamotzi, the blessing over the golden brown challah, plumped with raisins. During the Days of Awe, the days beginning on Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, the challah is round, to symbolize no beginning and no end. Raisins are added for additional sweetness, as is the plate of sliced apples to be dipped into honey, and the tray of exotic fruits, preferably varieties family members haven’t eaten during the year, so the family can make the shehechiyanu, the new-fruit blessing.

Many families serve pomegranates, since rabbis tell us there are 613 seeds, the same as the 613 commandments in the torah. Dates are often served both because they’re sweet and are symbols of beauty and peace. Dried fruit, sugar, and honey are added to main courses, salads, vegetables, and of course, desserts. All are symbolic of the wish for a sweet New Year.

Lieberman particularly delights in the ritual of blessing his four children, Matthew, Hana, Ethan and Rebecca, and now, his two granddaughters, Tennessee and Willie. "You put your hands on their head or shoulders and bless them, but since our older kids aren’t always with us, I mention who’s here, who isn’t, and why not," he explains. "I like to talk about where they are and what they’re doing: ‘Bekka’ is in New York, Ethan is in Israel — sometimes I think I’m trying to direct the prayer off the satellite so the blessing goes directly onto the head of the child who isn’t there."

New Year’s resolutions are also part of Rosh Hashana. The Liebermans will spend time, both privately and among themselves, evaluating what was good during the past year, making lists of what they want to improve about themselves and the world in the upcoming year. "There is also a sense of joy that we made it through another 365 days," Weisel comments. We pray that God will grant us another year."

Although the dinner is always delicious — both Hadassah and Marcia pride themselves on their culinary skills — the dinner table is as much about honoring their ancestors and showing love to their family. And the conversation at the table is always enlightening.

Hadassah and Joe encourage serious subjects — sometimes asking a question or discussing a Rosh Hashana reading from the Torah, but it’s also an opportunity to discuss what’s going on in each of their lives.

"It’s always been a conducive setting to talk about important issues with the children, whether it’s school or social activities, and now, their own families," Hadassah says. Lately, though, "everyone wants to talk about what’s going on in the world."

"Rosh Hashana is a marking of time, the ending of the old year and the beginning of the new," says Marcia Lieberman. "This is the time we remember those who aren’t with us anymore: Joe’s father, Henry, his grandma, Minnie…." Lieberman often says that his parents and his grandma, who had lived with them, gave him the faith he relies on every day.

In his book, "In Praise of Public Life," Lieberman credits Minnie, whom he called by the Yiddish "Baba," with being his "window to the Old World" of Central Europe, since she would tell him stories about Jews being punished or sent to the camps when they would try to celebrate the Jewish holidays.

"When Minnie moved to America she was exhilarated when she’d walk to synagogue on Saturday and her Christian neighbors would greet her, ‘Good Sabbath, Mrs. Manger.’ This was an endless source of delight for her," Lieberman remembers.

When Mindy Weisel and her husband, Shelly, are in attendance, the conversation often turns to the Holocaust, as Hadassah and Mindy are both daughters of survivors. "Both of our mothers, who lived in neighboring towns in Europe, were arrested at their Passover tables on the same night and sent to Auschwitz," she says. "This bond makes us feel closer than sisters." Weisel edited a heart-rending book, "Daughters of Absence: Transforming a Legacy of Loss," for which Hadassah wrote a moving chapter, dedicating it to "my beautiful mother; Ella Wieder Freilich, a presence in the absence."

On the second day of Rosh Hashana the family celebrates Tashlich, the ritual casting of sins upon the water, to symbolically throw away mistakes from the past year. During the campaign, the family was walking toward the park, carrying bags of bread to toss into the water.

Hadassah, the children, and Joe, who was pushing Marcia in her wheelchair, engendered quite a group of onlookers. "Joe began explaining to them what we were doing," says Marcia Lieberman. "Before we knew it, we had a whole group walking with us — we must have had 30 people — all in a line. When we got to the park, Joe recited the prayer. He usually does it in Hebrew, but this time he did it in English, so our new friends could understand. On the way back, an Italian gentleman presented me with a bouquet of flowers. ‘That’s because you raised a son like Joe,’" Marcia relates, kvelling the way any mother anywhere would do.

If Baba could see her grandson now.