The Announcements That Matter


My middle daughter, Sarah, who is 8, loves to make announcements. Whether intoning the day’s kosher lunch menu into the loudspeaker in her day school, or calling her sisters to the dinner table, she enjoys basking in the spotlight that comes from having information to impart.

Call this the season of light, of hope, of rebirth, but it is also, quite significantly, the Season of Announcements. It is the time when both Jews and Christians share glad tidings, whether the miracle of a single cruse of oil burning inexplicably day after day, or the miraculous birth in a manger. Even though these events happened thousands of years ago, we proclaim and then celebrate them afresh every year.

There is something profoundly Jewish about the notion of announcements. We have no holiday like the Annunciation, in which, Christians believe, the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Son of God. But we do worship a Deity whose First “Commandment” is actually not a directive but an announcement: “I am the Lord Your God.” That proclamation marks the beginning of the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Our synagogue services typically close with announcements — of upcoming programs and events — rather than open with them. Nevertheless, think of the declaration of our credo, the Shema, that comes close to the start of our worship: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.” Each of us, simultaneously, gets to play prophet — or, perhaps broadcaster — by making this announcement to the rest of the congregation. Everything that follows in our prayer and devotion flows from that moment of summoning the community to listen — it is the Jewish version (in structure, if not in content) of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

Beyond the synagogue, think about how many recent Jewish novels also begin with an announcement that shapes the course of the ensuing action. Francesca Segal’s British novel, “The Innocents,” set in northwest London, begins on Yom Kippur, a week after the very-public engagement of Adam to his longtime girlfriend, Rachel, and just before Rachel’s voluptuous cousin, Ellie, comes back from New York. And Joshua Henkin’s novel, “The World Without You,” about a Jewish family gathering on Cape Cod to memorialize their journalist son who was slain in Iraq, starts with the parents’ bombshell that they are getting a divorce.

More than simply a plot device, these announcements shift the context in which these characters have always lived. They show how human beings react to the knowledge of a change in their settled relations to one another — and perhaps, in some sense, to themselves. After these announcements, nothing will ever be the same.

We spend much of our energy filtering out the important announcements from the disposable ones, combing through endless messages that pop up on our phones and computer screens. But some announcements condition not just our personal lives, but our communal ones as well. We remember where we were when major events in American history were announced over the airwaves — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the end of World War II, the establishment of the State of Israel, JFK’s assassination, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, the Challenger disaster, the terrorist attacks on 9/11, and so on. Such announcements rupture our very sense of an ordered and predictable structure of our world.

Stuart Nadler’s resonant first novel, “Wise Men,” published this year, begins with the narrator’s father, a phenomenally successful lawyer who sues airlines after plane crashes, announcing that he is moving his family from New York to Cape Cod. The father-son relationship is forever changed not just by this event, but also by the father’s peremptory way of making decisions and communicating them to others.

One of the most dramatic episodes in the Torah, which we read this year on Chanukah, is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, demonstrating that the sundered bonds of brotherhood remain, despite terrible treachery, able to be restored. In the wake of Joseph’s announcement come new hope, new possibilities, new life. If only every announcement in our lives could do the same.

Ted Merwin, who teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), writes about theater for the paper.