My husband, Jim, and I hit the beach this Sunday morning, a day that was supposed to be delightfully sunny and warm, a bonus summer day in mid-September, but a bewildering gray haze hung across the sky.
I was always happy and looking forward to spending the day together, relaxing and reading under an umbrella, toes in the sand and the music of the waves in our ears, even though the sun was not shining brightly against a beautiful azure sky. . My spirits were somewhat chilled knowing that the source of the haze was the wildfires in the west, reminding us of the tragedies that unfolded all summer in California and Oregon. I told Jim that I dared not be upset by a small mist interfering with my day at the beach when we have so many blessings to count.
As Jim drove, my thoughts wandered to the Jewish holidays. We were then in the period between the two great holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I have noticed that Jewish holidays and practices are always bittersweet, never purely festive, much like beach day today.
Receive The Jewish Standard newsletter by email and never miss our best stories Sign up for free
The first great holy day, Rosh Hashanah, is a celebration of the Jewish New Year, when Jews wish each other a sweet New Year, taste apples dipped in honey, and serve honey cake. Yet one of the traditional calls for the New Year, sounded on the trumpet-like instrument known as the shofar, the ram’s horn, is called shevarim, and it sounds like weeping.
Some Jews practice the custom of getting rid of their sins from the previous year by throwing pieces of bread into running water to wash them away. It seems to me that this holiday is as much about looking inward with repentance for past transgressions as it is about looking to a sweet New Year. The most solemn of Jewish holy days comes eight days after Rosh Hashanah and is called Yom Kippur, a day of atonement. Jews forgive each other as they practice their own repentance. Practicing Jews fast to cleanse body and mind; some make charitable donations this time of year as they seek God’s forgiveness. While Yom Kippur is clearly a solemn holiday, the closing service is full of hope. It is about anticipating a new year. Breaking the fast is usually done as a celebration with family and friends.
In the Jewish faith, it is not only the great holy days which are marked by the contrast of celebration and suffering. A minor but well-known Jewish holiday is Chanukah. It sounds like a happy celebration, with lights and dreidel games, but it commemorates a military victory and the dedication of the Temple. Even the most festive of Jewish weddings, celebrating the union of two families, includes the bittersweet moment of crushing a glass, often interpreted as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple.
The theme of my day at the beach continued to be the bittersweet nature of life, both pleasurable and marked by pain or suffering.
I took a long walk along the shore a few miles north of Spring Lake to Belmar and noticed all kinds of bittersweet moments. I watched a kindergarten boy happily run over the waves, successfully rushing to the safety of his mother. But once he wasn’t fast enough, and the waves blew him to his feet, leaving him screaming, no longer in pleasure but more in fear. Luckily, Mom was there to save him from that bittersweet moment.
A little higher up, two toddlers, probably siblings judging by their matching porcelain skin and red hair, were playing happily in the sand, laughing and smiling. Suddenly the older boy took a large shovel and repeatedly hit the girl with it. An adult intervened quickly, but not before I saw the girl’s face crumble in joy, shock and anger, accompanied by a sinister moan. It was a very easy to spot bittersweet moment.
I managed a big surf competition, the Playa Bowls Belmar Pro 2021, with dozens of competitors. There was a huge booth and a podium as well as several loudspeakers with the voice of an announcer. I stopped to watch a few surfers who were able to catch a wave and ride it to the beach. Others were refused in their attempts to stand on their boards for a time when their turn came; surfing has conquered them. There were plenty of bittersweet moments as promising attempts turned into a humiliating submersion as the boards were swept under wobbly legs.
As I made my way north along the shore, I noticed a marked change in the people I passed. This section of the beach was now very busy. The behavior of a lot of people there was unusual, their posture just a little off, some heads and arms held at weird angles, some repetitive movements. A few banners confirmed what I suspected. I had come across Autism Beach Bash. When I got back to my chair, I googled it on my phone. to learn that this was the largest annual gathering in New Jersey of people with autism and their families.
I thought about how nice it must be to join as a community, to feel supported for each other and to enjoy a non-judgmental day on the beach. I saw adults wearing Surfers Healing t-shirts and chatted with a woman. She explained that their mission is to expose people with autism to surfing. I envisioned the range of bittersweet moments families must experience, both in their quest for a happy day at the beach as well as any day. There is no doubt that their lives are filled with bittersweet moments of small and significant victories among many struggles.
I turned to walk back to Jim and our place in the sand after walking about two and a half miles. I have contemplated so many examples of bittersweet times of the day: how nice it is to bask in the sun and how painful a burn can be; that it is pleasant to walk in the sand and that it is impossible to remove all the sand from between my toes when it is time to leave; how soothing to watch the waves crash, but how torturous to turn the pages of a newspaper in the wind on the beach.
I think my Jewish friends are right: Holidays are bittersweet occasions because they are like life itself.
Susan FitzGibbon of West Orange is a teacher. She has been a member of the JCC for almost 35 years and acquired her knowledge of Judaism through the years of her husband and two sons in the JCC kindergarten.