The crisp, clean air of fall feels like a new beginning. For Issaquah Highlands resident, Dena Eben Kernish and her family, who follow the Jewish and Gregorian calendars, fall moves by in a flurry of Jewish High Holy Days, starting with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur.
I spoke with Dena in early September to ask how her family will recognize these holidays this year, despite the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to live our lives indoors and in small, controlled settings, including when we celebrate important holidays. Homes traditionally filled with laughter and conversation during holidays will sound differently this year. Like the Kernish family, most of us will avoid large gatherings in favor of home-cooked meals with immediate family.
Dena’s extended family lives in New Jersey and every holiday season has been a bright, busy affair with about a dozen people laughing, hugging, and sharing laden platters around her parents’ dinner table, celebrating the rich traditions of Judaism. But COVID-19 forced Dena, her husband, and their two children to shift from in-person family gatherings to Zoom calls this holiday season.
The tradition of listening to the melodious notes of a shofar – a ram’s horn blown like a trumpet – is so ingrained in Jewish culture that it will be weird to miss it, Dena said.
While COVID-19 derailed most social activities this year, it will not affect the Kernish family’s plans to welcome the new year with golden rounds of challah bread paired with meals of chicken soup, beef brisket, and kugel. They will fast on Yom Kippur, the solemn day of atonement, starting the night before with a pre-fast dinner that includes soup dumplings stuffed with shredded meat. Dena will bake sweet cookies filled with jelly, raisins, and nuts using a recipe handed down from her great-grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia at the turn of the century. She may even make a honey cake to ensure that, despite what we’ve gone through this year, the new year will be a “sweet and good year.”
After Yom Kippur, the Kernish family will recognize Sukkot, a celebration of the gathering of the harvest, and build their annual hut, or sukkah, in their backyard. The family will decorate the structure with symbols of the fall harvest and images of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Since Dena’s backyard in Issaquah Highlands is small, the sukkah will be just large enough for her family of four to dine inside for the week. She has not decided whether her family will join their rabbi for dinner under his large sukkah, normally a profoundly joyous event now risky in these times.
“I think the first holiday we celebrate back the normal way will be the best holiday I’ve ever celebrated,” Dena said.
Photo: On Rosh Hashanah, Dena’s family has round challah bread instead of the traditional braided version. Photo provided by Dena Kernish.
NOTE: This article was published in October 2020 Connections, featuring “Homebound Holidays in the Highlands: Celebrating Together, Apart in Issaquah Highlands.” Stories were provided by the Issaquah Highlands Cross-Cultural Committee. Read more stories in this series here.