Years ago my family decided to take our celebration of Rosh Hashanah out of our Conservative synagogue. We were feeling stifled by the long hours sitting in uncomfortable clothes — we were distracted by the outfits, the gossip, the perfume and the fur coats. Rosh Hashanah had lost its meaning for us, and we wanted it back.
My mother is fond of saying that of all the animals on earth, human beings are unique in our ability to step back, to reflect, to separate certain times and days as sacred or special. We knew that we had to maintain the sacredness of the holiday, to separate it from the sameness of other days. For years we had relied on the institution of synagogue to do it for us — now we were on our own. So we took to the woods. We went camping. And we are not avid campers. We are not campers by any stretch of the imagination.
We packed three cars with tents, air mattresses, down blankets, brisket, matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, challahs, honey cake, apples and honey, white linen table cloth (for the picnic table) and my great-grandmother’s silver candlesticks.
Once we got there, we talked about our year, and the year ahead of us. My parents talked to me and my brother and sister about what they wanted for us as people — about they way they wanted us to be in the world. We succeeded completely in separating ourselves — in creating a sacred space, a bubble around us, where the world did not exist — a place of reflection and escape.
I’ve been asked over and over again about the role of magic in my first novel, Vaclav and Lena. I’ve always imagined that the performance of magic is just like storytelling — we all know that the woman is not sawed in half, that the quarter did not disappear. We all know that the characters are fictional, the events a fabrication, but still, we laugh and cry and worry along with them. We suspend our disbelief for a time, and allow ourselves to be carried away to another place, another time — where we escape our everyday lives and are able to explore our minds, hopes and dreams, unhindered by the things we’re distracted by in our everyday lives.
When my family camps out in the woods to celebrate a new year, we light candles, and a sacred time begins. We sit by a fire together, and we can escape the everyday, and think about what we truly want for ourselves, for the year, for each other.
Haley Tanner’s first novel, Vaclav and Lena, is now available. Come back all week to read her posts.
The day my first novel, Vaclav and Lena, was published, I didn’t do anything wild or anything flashy. There were only two people in the world I wanted share the experience with: my parents. After dinner, and some champagne, we walked to our local bookstore to visit my book—to see my book for the first time in a bookstore. My mother, who is completely without shame, found the manager and proudly announced that there was an ACTUAL author in the store. My dad and I hung back and giggled. The store manager indulged us, had me sign some copies, and stuck some “local author” stickers on the books. We thanked him, and he walked away, and then my mother ran after him — for what, we didn’t know. She came back with an extra “local author” sticker and stuck it right on my chest. We all cracked up. It was a long and difficult road to that “Local Author” sticker and my parents were there every step of the way.
When my family had Shabbat dinner, each and every Friday night – whether it was brisket or Cajun meatloaf or pizza, my mother blessed us. Instead of thetraditional blessing, asking god to make my sister and me like Sarah, Rebeccah,Rachel and Leah, or my brother like Menashe and Ephraim. She said. “May you be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are.”
It is not easy to raise a writer. It is not easy to raise a creative child. It is not easy to emotionally support your child when she’s graduating from college and NOT jumping feet first into the job force, but instead jumping feet first into a writing a novel. When everyone else’s twenty-something kids are going to law school, or med school, or getting promotions, your twenty-something is living with five roommates, working odd jobs, and writing this nebulous mysterious book that she refuses to talk about. It is not easy to help your writer (or painter, or actress, or musician) figure out how to make a life that is satisfying and fulfilling and structured while they pursue their dream.
In my novel, Vaclav & Lena, the main character, Vaclav, wants to become the worlds greatest and most famous magician. His parents, recent Russian Jewish immigrants, worry about his future, about the prospects for a child who wants a singular and difficult dream. Vaclav’s parents struggle, as mine did, to support and protect their child. I’m sure that at times, my parents felt like Vaclav’s mother, Rasia:
I’m sure that my parents struggled with supporting a writer, and sometimes I think that the blessing, “May you be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are,” was as much a blessing for me as an affirmation for them.