Trying to understand all of the Jewish holidays is still one of the hardest things for me. My first real experience with a new holiday was going up to my in-laws for Rosh Hashanah dinner. Since I didn’t know ANYTHING about the holiday, and my husband’s explanations left a lot of questions, I looked for outside resources. One of the best was Anita Diamant’s Living a Jewish Life, a book I’d recommend to anyone serious about learning what this Judaism thing is. I’ve adapted her explanation and mushed it in with my own observations.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are often lumped together as the “High Holidays.” They happen in September/October, I can’t give you a more specific date since the Jewish holidays follow the Jewish calendar and move around a bit from year to year, and last for ten days.
These holidays are the start of the Jewish year, and the point is to reflect and look back at your actions and prepare for the new year. The High Holiday services are more lengthy and formal, and many people who never set foot inside a synagogue the rest of the year make a point to go.
Some of the traditions associated with Rosh Hashanah are attending services, which focus on judgement and repentance, and having a large family meal. Often a round challah is used, to symbolize the cycle of the year, and apples dipped in honey are eaten so the year begins sweetly.
One informal ceremony I read about is the tashlich, which comes from the Hebrew for “send off” or “cast away.” People will symbolically “cast off” their sins by emptying their pockets (filled with stones or other things) into running water.
The next ten days are an opportunity to reflect and repent and to ask forgiveness from the people in your life that you have wronged.
The holidays end with Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, healthy adults will fast and services that focus on confession and repentance run all day.
There is a good chance that even if your significant other does not attend synagogue they have some sort of ritual with these two holidays. For my husband, it is a dinner with his entire extended family. I know what comes next will sound cheesy, but I really do mean it. You may also find that your special someone has very strong childhood memories attached to these holidays. Hearing about their experience with the High Holidays as a child, and talking with them about how they embrace them now, can be a really powerful way to understand what being Jewish means to them.