Rabbi Shmaya Friedman believes there’s a spark inside every Jewish soul, a tiny light that never stops flickering. During the High Holidays, he says, it’s this glimmer that draws people back, if only for a day or two.
“Sometimes the religious experience reminds me of a yo-yo,” says the rabbi, associate director of Chabad of the North Shore in Swampscott. “As silly as that might sound, a yo-yo starts out up top, all rolled up into itself, then gradually unfolds away from its origin.
“Sometimes, we try and get real funky and go ‘around the world.’ The result is always the same, though: A yo-yo is designed to roll back up to where it all began.”
Whether a spark burns like the eternal light or dances like a yo-yo, at sundown Sunday Jews will begin confronting the indefinable, filling synagogues to usher in a new year, reflect on their lives, take stock of their failings, and pray.
For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (Oct. 11), the Vilkomirs, a Newton family, will teach their children about their roots in the former Soviet Union, where being Jewish came with a cost. In Randolph, Sandy Slavet, her husband Joe Strazzulla, and Marie Strazzulla, 30, the youngest of the couple’s four adult children, will share a vegetarian meal and have FaceTime with family in New York, Virginia, and Tennessee.
For Friedman, 30, a Hasidic rabbi who dresses in jeans and boots, tzitzits (four tassels hanging from the fringes of clothing, a commandment in the Bible to Jewish men) dangling from under his shirt, the holiday will begin with services in the Chabad of the North Shore synagogue in Swampscott — a far cry from the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up.
“There was a whole different energy, a powerful anticipation, an energy in Crown Heights where the streets were abuzz, thousands of guests from Israel and across the world coming to spend the holidays,” he recalls.
Friedman remembers new clothes, polished shoes, and more than 30 first cousins sitting around a communal table
“People have memories of the brisket, the gefilte fish, but the biggest part is the introspection, the reflection,’ he says, remembering how his grandfather, Rabbi Yehudah Krinsky, walked from door to door in the neighborhood to deliver prayers to his grandchildren on the eve of the holiday.
As emissaries for Chabad — a movement to bring Judaism to unafilliated Jews — Friedman and his wife, Aliza, 29, will welcome about 15 guests into their home Sunday night to share a holiday meal with their three young children.
At the table, they’ll recite the kiddush — the blessing over the wine — and say prayers of thanks for every person and every bit of food on the table — apples and honey for a sweet new year; pomegranates as a reminder that their good deeds should be as numerous as the seeds inside the fruit; and challah, the braided bread that for the new year is baked into a round, symbolizing the circle of life and God’s sovereignty.
“Before we were married, we talked about whether we wanted a micro or macro Jewish lifestyle for our children,” says Friedman. “We wanted our children to realize that their Jewish family is bigger.”
At the Chabad shul in Brookline, Viktoriya Vilkomir,32, her husband, Vlad, 32, and the two oldest of their three children will recite the ancient Hebrew prayers, listen to the haunting blasts of the shofar, and ask for the blessing of a sweet new year.
Earlier in the week, Vilkomir and her two daughters, Giselle, 9 and Sophia, 7, packed boxes with clothing to send to an orphanage in Ukraine, a gesture of charity and gratitude that 10-month-old Gabriel, the youngest child, will join in a few years.
Both Vilkomir and her husband, who met as high school students in Boston, emigrated from the former Soviet Union as children. She was born in Kiev and came to the United States when she was 10. He was 4 when his family left Odessa.
“As [Vlad] and I became a family, our families became more observant,” says Vilkomir.
She was 5 or 6 when her grandmother took her into a concealed synagogue, hidden because of rampant anti-semitism in the Ukraine.
“It was a little culture shock,” she says. “My grandmother said, ‘We’re Jewish. This is our religion, how we celebrate the holiday.’ I was infatuated with the beauty of it all.”
Sunday night, the family, which lives in Newton, will gather for a special meal with parents and in-laws, and afterwards attend services at their shul.
“Ultimately, it’s the sense of family and being together as a family,” says Vilkomir. “As a child, we were hiding it” . . . Now, “We can walk proudly as Jews.”
Nearly 30 years ago, American Sign Language interpreter Sandy Slavet, 66, of Randolph was a Hebrew school dropout, a former hippie, the mother of four, and married to man who was deaf and raised Catholic — “a double mixed-marriage,” she says — when she received a phone call from a rabbi offering her a job at a reform synagogue in Canton interpreting for the deaf.
At first, Slavet balked.
“I haven’t been in a synagogue since my brother’s bar mitzvah in 1960,” she told the rabbi, who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“It was my first experience with Reform [Judaism], a female rabbi, music, singing,” Slavet says. “I’d gone to Jewish summer camp, and it all came rushing back to me.”
She and her children — then, 10, 8, 5, and 2 — joined the temple, agreeing that once they made the commitment, they would stick with it. Her husband accompanied them to the monthly services that offered ASL interpretation, and had long conversations in sign with the rabbi. Four years later, he converted, just before his oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah.
“We started our journey at the same time but from two different places,” says Slavet, who is serving in her second year as president of Temple Sinai of Sharon, a Reform congregation she and her husband joined six years ago.
Vegetarians, the family adjusts the traditional holiday menu — roast chicken or brisket — to fit their preferences: soy chicken and vegetables on Rosh Hashana; macaroni and cheese before Kol Nidre, the evening prayer of atonement beckoning Yom Kippur.
“When my parents were alive, we had holiday meals together and went to temple together,” says Slavet, nostalgic for the gatherings that have been replaced by phone calls and FaceTime.
Slavet’s husband, Joe, won’t be attending services Sunday evening because there is no ASL interpreter at their temple. But he will accompany his family on Yom Kippur, when as the holiday is closing, congregants will begin lining up while the choir sings in a soft voice and worshipers wait their turn to stand before the open ark.
“Sharing that moment and affiraming the blessings in our life is profound,” Slavet says.