In September of 1998, life was not exactly going the way I'd planned. Work and love, two of the big pillars of life, had shifted, and I was feeling just a little wobbly. The previous May, taking a hard look at my savings and a big leap of faith, I'd left a job I hated to work on my very first book proposal. After 16 weeks of work and at least as many rewrites, 60 pages were gone, submitted to publishers. Sure, I was excited, but I'd made one little mistake: Without the proposal to work on, I hadn't thought about what to do while I waited for an answer. And who knew how long that would take? Or what the answer would be?
I was also struggling with a failing romance. My relationship with my fiancé was feeling like a long-distance romance, and I don't mean geographically. The Hollywood ending I'd been hoping for was starting to seem scripted more by Kurosawa than Capra. I needed to do something that felt definite: I wanted to prove to myself that I still had some small measure of control over my life. So I got on the internet and started looking up apartment rentals in Italy.
That is how it happened that I found myself in Florence for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was the first time in a number of years that I would be away from my New York community of friends, and my synagogue, for the New Year. I thought about observing the holidays at the beautiful Moorish-style Tempio Israelitico in Via Luigi Carlo Farini, but the one Friday-evening Shabbat service I attended was a little sad, a little lonely: It wasn't a place I wanted to be for the holidays known, with reason, as the Days of Awe.
I decided that I'd be happy simply to observe taschlikh, the time when Jews symbolically empty their pockets of sins, of sorrow, of poor intentions. The word tasche, in German, means "pocket"; taschlikh literally means "of the pockets." The custom began in Europe about 800 years ago, and the simple outlines haven't changed much. You simply stand above or beside a moving body of water--a brook, a river, an ocean--and if you choose, say some simple prayers. And you symbolically empty your pockets of sins, disguised as breadcrumbs, and scatter those crumbs on the moving water. Even in its simple outlines, the ritual echoes the great themes of repentance and renewal that reverberate throughout the Days of Awe. How do breadcrumbs help balance out our sins? George Robinson, author of "Essential Judaism," notes that the word for "sin" in Hebrew is kheit, a term derived from archery, which refers to a shot that falls short of its mark. "Hence," he writes, "those sins that we repent at this time of year are a failure to live up to our potential, a failure to fulfill one's obligations." During the High Holy Days, we not only repent our sins, but vow to do better, to try to make the arrow hit its mark more certainly in days to come.
The Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live, is said to have the greatest population of Jews outside of Israel. In the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a great wave of people make their way to the western edge of Manhattan island, crossing curving Riverside Drive, following one of the sloping paths through the green band of Riverside Park, through one of the tunnels under the Henry Hudson Parkway, and emerging down on the narrow strip of asphalt that lies just a few feet above the Hudson River. Clustering together, groups of people stroll, chat, and pause at the metal railings lining the path to say some words of prayer and scatter breadcrumbs in the moving waters of the Hudson.