Welcoming the New Year and the “Strangers” in Our Midst

fallBy Eliza Slavet

Somehow early fall feels more like a beginning than any other time of year (spring and/or January 1 being the obvious alternatives): a time for reflection that’s enacted by the Jewish rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The High Holidays bring intense and conflicted feelings: it’s when many of us feel not only the most intensely Jewish, but also the most intensely estranged. Each of us is alone with our own regrets about the past year and hopes for the year to come even as we are surrounded by “our” people.

This strange loneliness is intensified for those of us who finagle tickets at the last minute or sneak in the back door: we gather together with hundreds or thousands of others, chanting, reading, praying, singing… Too often, when the services are over, we go home to dip apples in honey and break the fast by ourselves. Looking back, I sometimes wish I had had the guts to wear a big sign saying “Stranger in your midst here! Wishing someone would invite me back for a nice break-the-fast. I promise to be nice and polite!”

Some of this loneliness was alleviated by dragging my boyfriend (now husband) along with me to services. In fact, he was more than willing; I was dragging myself (and him) to a space filled with ambivalence: when we came upon lines in the mahzor alluding to Jewish ethnocentrism, exceptionalism or nationalism, I squirmed in discomfort, imagining how this would feel to someone who was not a part of the “People of Israel, whom You lovingly chose.” Meanwhile, he was unfazed, regarding the whole enterprise with fresh eyes: looking from the outside, sitting on the inside, he could see the ethnocentric lines as expressions of peoplehood, self-examination, and self-creation.

And yet, he was surprised to see the experience through my eyes: to learn that we were required to purchase expensive tickets just to get in the door and that despite my desire to find a warm welcoming “home” for the holidays, I could not figure out how to make this happen. Looking back, I think that I felt more like the “stranger” than he did, for it’s not so strange to feel like a “stranger” when you are a stranger, when you are in a new context where you don’t know the traditions or languages or patterns of ritual. It is far stranger – indeed intensely estranging – to feel outside and unwelcome when you expect (or hope) to be welcomed home for the holidays.

Many of us like to think that we would welcome the strangers in our midst, but we have no idea who or where they are. In Jewish tradition, the “stranger” is often regarded as a non-Jew or a convert, but the word (ger) is so capacious that it can describe nearly anyone, depending on the context: a category of people (foreigners, newcomers, or outsiders), or a category of feelings about ourselves (discomfort, disgust, or unease). At some point in our lives, everyone – and I mean every one of us who has moved out of the house in which we grew up, aged into and out of kindergarten, in and out of our teenage years and into our 20s, to middle age, to each new stage of life – every one of us has at some point felt like a stranger in a strange land. Aside from those snapshots freezing the moments before we go off to a new school, or job, or stage of life, most observers would never know that we were the “strangers” in their midst.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the commandment to “welcome the strangers in our midst” is that we are all of us strangers and we all have the potential to welcome each other. Ironically, some of us feel most strange precisely when we are reminded that we are all responsible for welcoming the strangers in our midst. “The holidays are a time for our family to get together not for inviting random people to the house,” says one person. “I don’t want to feel like a stranger in my own home,” says another. Communities proudly note that they have welcoming committees and new member programs and yet, the bulk of people who attend services at the high holidays – the 90+% of us who do not attend services at any other time of year – are not touched by such programs.

We founded GRAPEJUICE to empower more people to welcome each other, to connect and celebrate together, whether for Shabbat, high holidays, Passover or otherwise. We hope to offer a tech platform that would facilitate hyper-local community-building, connecting individuals across denominational and demographic divides, including leaders, members and non-members of organized Jewish communities; interfaith and in-married; students and alumni of Jewish educational programs; consumers of both traditional and alternative online resources, and everything in between and beyond.

While our platform is not quite there, here are a few ideas that could help us feel more at home in welcoming the strangers in our midst (in the meantime): Congregations could distribute color-coded stickers, one for hosts willing to welcome a few more guests to their gatherings, and one for guests in need of a “home for the holidays.” And if *you* find yourself in need of a break-fast, wear a sticker or post to Facebook: you might be surprised to find that many people would welcome the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of welcoming a stranger to their celebrations.

As we enter this new year, let us consider how we are strangers in each others’ midst. Let us face the strangeness of welcoming others or being welcomed by others. Let us remember those moments when we felt strange, new, or uncomfortable. Let us look at these snapshots, hold them in our hands, and find a way to welcome them home.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Eliza Slavet is the author of Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question (Fordham UP 2009) and the founder of GRAPEJUICE.buzz, Your home for the holidays, Shabbat and beyond.