Sunday, October 02, 2005

184. Tashlikh


Whenever I'm most doubtful about the possibility of world peace, I remember the ritual of tashlikh ("casting away") as performed on the Upper West Side. On tashlikh, which happens on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (unless it's Shabbat), you throw pieces of bread into a a body of water--preferably running, and with fish--to represent the purging of your sins for the year. In other words, according to a particularly creative visiting scholar at my synagogue, tashlikh is like going to the bathroom. It's a time to get rid of toxins.

Tasklikh is very simple; you don't even have to say a prayer (although many choose to). Because it requires leaving one's usual surroundings and going out into nature, or what passes for nature, I think it's one of the strongest memories many Jews have from childhood. Even those whose families didn't participate remember watching others do it, or perhaps the procession, on a sunny late afternoon, of people in their holiday finery marching through local streets to the nearest body of water.

When I was a child, my parents and I would join the rest of the congregation and head for Kissena Park Lake, an excursion through a neighborhood nicer than ours of wide lawns and old oak trees where I always got lost when I rode my bike. I remember walking in between my father, in white canvas sneakers and a wrinkled grey suit, and my mother, with a perfectly teased beehive and tiny clutch purse, and being glad for this chance to visit foreign terrain with reinforcements.

One year when I was no more than seven or eight, a boy from my school--I didn't know him, but had heard stories--had set off a cherry bomb, a massive firecracker, from inside the hollow of a light pole. I'm not sure if he really died from the explosion, or if it was just a rumor. But the brown stain on the sidewalk that my mother and I passed that afternoon on our way to tashlikh was definitely his blood. I held my mother's hand tightly as she pointed to the ground with the other and, as if warding off a curse, shook her head back and forth. "It's horrible, just horrible." And then she pulled me away and we kept walking, her heels clicking on the concrete as I tried to keep up. I wondered how anyone could be so bad that God would let him die. If I threw my bread into the water, would God forgive me? Would God let me live, even if I was bad?

But I was soon distracted from my fear. We reached the lake and I ran off with friends, maybe up the hill to carve my initials in a tree, while the adults dodged cyclists in the park and shmoozed by the water. Years later, on the bus to R.'s dad's house for one of our annual excursions to the synagogue of the nearly dead, I would watch black-suited men from the Orthodox part of the neighborhood gather under a bridge for tashlikh at the very opposite end of the same park.

But getting back to world peace. There are roughly 70,000 Jews on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (out of about a million in all of New York), and I think most of us go to Riverside Park for tashlikh. For a few hours the narrow, mile-long strip between 72nd and 96th Streets is packed with every kind of Jew there is, from black-hatted and Orthodox, with their heavyset wives in sheitels trying to rein in a dozen toddlers, to Birkenstocked men in caftans, to a wide array of people in uncomfortable suits, to me. And lots of men and women from other religions, too, because you don't have to wear a kippah or speak Hebrew to perform this ritual. You just have to be wiling to speak to your own heart. This is the only holiday when people bring along their dogs. We stand around and catch up on gossip, commiserate and congratulate, and then we move over to the railing by the edge of the Hudson River. Everyone else keeps a respectful distance from those throwing bread into the water. We stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers whose religious or political viewpoints are probably opposite ours, but in that moment are grateful to share each other's space. We stand in front of the water, a part of creation that preceded our own, and are all equal before God.

Throwing pieces of bread is a visceral and satisfying way to express emotion. Bread is central to many Jewish rituals: the two challot at Friday night dinner, for example, one for your usual soul and the other for the extra one you get on Shabbat; or matzah, the Passover bread of affliction. Bread is a stand-in for many human conditions. Sometimes I throw with anger and other times with compassion, glad that my refuse can be food for the fish. Sometimes I wind up like I'm throwing a softball, hoping my crumbs will reach a distance proportionate to my fortune for the coming year. Other times each piece feels like one more tear added to a collection of many.

R. and I wandered around the park as people I barely knew came over to shake my hand, wondering why they had never seen me lead services before. Afterwards, I flung my bread into the water with gratitude at the wonderful thing I had been allowed to do.

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