You could make a movie about the way Sigal Farkash spends the High Holy Days. In a way, someone already has.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’? That’s how we celebrate,” the Israeli from Sherman Oaks said, describing the lively atmosphere of food and family that pervades this time of year.
Fariba Gowhari, on the other hand, associates the Days of Awe with the time she spends at shul with other Iranian Jews — although instead of sitting quietly and attentively like many of their American counterparts, those at her services tend to be busy socializing and laughing.
It only goes to show that while the High Holy Days may preach the same annual message — repent for your sins of the past year and envision a positive new one — the customs practiced on Judaism’s two most sacred days can be vastly different for each individual, each family and each cultural community.
As a cross-section of nationalities — and Jews — the Conejo and San Fernando valleys provide fertile ground for examining the many ways of finding meaning in the High Holy Days.
Celebrating at Shul
First and foremost, the holiness of this time of year calls to mind visits to synagogues. But just where to attend can have tribal underpinnings.
Amir Gnessin, an Israeli living in Woodland Hills, said the majority of Israelis he knows here go to Chabad to pray during the High Holy Days because — as most congregations in Israel are Orthodox — they feel comfortable in a more religious setting, no matter what their level of general observance.
Mira Paz of Agoura Hills attends Chabad’s services held at the Hyatt Hotel in Westlake Village, and she said that she has become more religious since moving from Israel to the United States. Here, she explained, Jews are a minority and she embraced religion in a more concrete way in order to maintain that aspect of her identity.
“Here it’s very important for me to belong. And that’s part of why I go to synagogue — especially on the High Holy Days — to feel like part of a group that has a tradition and to celebrate the holidays in the same way,” Paz said.
Gnessin said he attends services at a Reform temple because he likes the rabbi there, but he still feels like an anomaly.
“As an Israeli in an American congregation, I must say that I feel like an observer,” he said. “I feel comfortable, I like it, but I don’t have a sense of belonging to the congregation.”
Gnessin said he and his family wear white clothing as a symbol of purity on the High Holy Days, but also for another reason — members of kibbutzim in Israel would receive one set of clothes for work and one set of “holiday clothes,” which were white.
Many Iranian Jews attend services at Sephardic congregations in search of a sense of belonging, such as the Eretz Cultural Center, the Hebrew Discovery Center or the Netan E-Li Synagogue, all in the San Fernando Valley. Gowhari of Tarzana used to attend a Reform congregation but said she felt a yearning for the memories of her childhood synagogue.
“This is not home for me, and I often feel like a stranger here,” Gowhari said. “Yes, of course, the bond of Judaism is there. It’s just that there are other pieces missing, like my identity as a Persian. There will always be something missing.”
Gowhari said she now attends services at different Iranian synagogues, which typically rent out big salon rooms in hotels or auditoriums in schools to accommodate the thousands of people who come to pray.
The result? Lots of shmoozing.
“It’s more like a social event rather than listening to what the rabbi has to say,” Gowhari said. “It’s not that they don’t listen, it’s just that the services have a more social meaning rather than an officially religious one.”
Food and Family
While some Jews search for different levels of belonging by going to synagogues, others, like Farkash, haven’t been to temple at all during the past few years. For her, the High Holy Days are a time to spend with family.
“To me, it’s more traditional than anything else. I don’t like the word ‘religious,’ ” Farkash said.
She described the meal as one of the most important staples of the holy days. For her, the lively atmosphere and togetherness of the family makes the day special.
This might not be surprising, as some Jews find their meals almost as holy as prayer. After all, what’s a Jewish holiday without food? And there’s much more to Rosh Hashanah than apples and honey.
Lior Haykeen, a 21-year-old USC student, who grew up in Tarzana after moving from Israel when she was 12, said her family enjoys their own unique dishes during the holidays. Haykeen’s favorite dish is one made with garbanzo beans that are cooked for hours, peeled one by one and then covered in a special dressing, which she eats during the meal on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Gowhari said her family’s table is always covered with many different kinds of foods, each of which has a certain meaning for the holiday. Take the pomegranate. Jewish tradition suggests that there are 613 seeds — the same number as commandments in the Torah; Gowhari said family members eat the seeds because of another tradition that the fruit has 365 seeds, symbolizing a mitzvah for each day of the coming year.
Her family also includes a piece of lamb’s head meat on the table representing leadership and success for the coming year. The dish also references the story told on Rosh Hashanah of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac, she said.
Nima Natanzi, 17, said his family has a similar tradition, just involving a different piece of meat. Natanzi’s parents moved to the United States from Iran about 30 years ago and now live in Encino. They include a cow’s tongue at their Rosh Hashanah dinner.
Carrying on thousands of years of tradition is important — even if your country has been around for less than three centuries. Edward Gilbert, a 75-year-old American Reform Jew living in Sherman Oaks, said that carrying on Jewish values and customs is what motivates him to continue celebrating the High Holy Days.
“L’dor, v’dor — from generation to generation. It’s important for me to carry on the Jewish values that I was brought up with and pass them on to my children and grandchildren,” Gilbert said.
This can take many different forms. Services can be important and thought-provoking, but, in the case of screenwriter Barry Levy, so is a visit to the local duck pond.
A Conservative Jew living in Encino and a member of Valley Beth Shalom, Levy said his family makes a big point of taking his first-grade twin girls to the duck pond in Los Encinos State Historic Park near their home, performing the ceremony of tashlich and symbolically casting their sins into the water.
“It was a way of enticing the girls, getting them excited about it. It sort of stuck,” Levy said. “One year, we went to Balboa Park and the ducks started following us!”
Paula Lenarsky lives in Hancock Park but attends High Holy Days services at a hotel, staying at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills with the Calabasas Shul. Lenarsky said she likes to focus on the past year as well as the year to come. Referring to the bestseller and subsequent movie, “Eat, Pray, Love,” she said, “Basically, we eat, pray and learn.”
Rabbi Yakov Vann of the Calabasas Shul said his goal during the High Holy Days is to connect. Whether that’s accomplished through a sermon, talking, music or friendship, connecting plays a vital role in the High Holy Days experience.
“Connecting people with their Judaic roots, I think that’s the most important,” he said. “You want to make them feel connected to the message, connected to God, connected to their friends and connected to themselves.”
The connection doesn’t always have to be a religious one. Gilbert said he attends services but doesn’t feel a strong connection to the Jewish practices for religious reasons. Instead, he finds a connection in what Judaism teaches.
“We believe in the faithful, not faith,” he said. “I’m faithful to the Jewish tradition, laws and values.”