Before every major holiday, I indulge in a special manicure featuring Jewish-themed nail decals with my son’s girlfriend Vivyan. For Chanukah, the tiny blue dreidels spin with every wave of our hands. On Passover, the plagues are upon us — hail on our thumbs, shank bones on our pinkies. Even though I never intended a manicure to be anything other than a manicure, this fun tradition has also unexpectedly become a painless opportunity to explain Jewish customs and history to Vivyan, a Buddhist Vietnamese-American.
She’s not particularly conversant with the Bible or with its theology, but she gets the basic outline: God appeared to some Hebrew people in the Middle East several thousand years ago, and chose them to follow specific laws and observe certain holidays and expects them to keep on doing it, millennium after millennium, wherever they are, just because. Right.
So, with the Ten Plagues as the go-between, I have helpfully related the story of Passover. For enslaving the Hebrews, God brought plagues upon Pharaoh and the land of Egypt, which sparked the Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt. How long were they in Egypt, Vivyan asked. Oh, about 400 years, I answered. Why were they there? Reaching deep into the recesses of my knowledge of the Bible, I said there was a famine in Israel, so they went to Egypt and things were fine for a while, but then not. That often happens to Jews, historically, when they end up in foreign countries, I said, adding my editorial perspective.
For Chanukah, the menorah and the candles were the segue into a probably inaccurate summation of Greek rule in Israel during the, what, second century BCE, and how the Greeks had desecrated the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing pigs to their foreign gods. Chanukah represents the Jews’ victory over the Greeks. What about the menorah, what’s that about? Vivyan asked. So I went into how the oil miraculously lasted a week, thus the seven candles plus the helper candle, in the temple when they rededicated it to the Jewish God. Light over darkness, I added, just so she knew there was a spiritual message there, too. Pretty sure I missed a few links in both stories, but there’s no need to belabor the details when you’re deliberating between a Star of David and “Happy Chanukah” for your pointer finger.
But these High Holiday decals gave me pause. An apple, a honeybee, a ram’s horn, the scales of justice — how to explain these disparate items to a non-Jew? Because Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year, the apples and honey represent the hope that each of us will have a sweet year. And we blow the ram’s horn in synagogue, like they did all those years ago — I’m not sure exactly why, but I’ve always thought of it as a big, loud collective shout-out to God. Scales of justice is judgment day; Yom Kippur, deciding if you get written into the Book of Life. Even if you don’t believe the book exists.
Mentally conjuring my casual conversation with Vivyan, I realized that these decals would require more of an imaginative leap than did Passover and Chanukah to convey the meaning behind the holidays. First, there were no epic battles here, so how could I piece together a narrative about holidays that are totally God-centered, and not about the spiritual and national survival of the Hebrew people (Passover), or about Jews claiming the right to a Jewish state (Chanukah)? No, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur revolve around self-reflection and judgment and forgiveness from a God who appeared to man a zillion years ago but then withdrew, seemingly, from the human narrative, and let us go at it on our own. These are individual, one-on-one, up-close-and-personal-with-God holidays. Though many people Photoshop God out of the picture, if God disappears, then to a non-Jew like Vivyan, what was left, and how meaningful were apples and honey without some greater imperative?
At the nail salon, we sat next to each other and Vivyan inspected the decals. “There’s always a Star of David, isn’t there?” she commented. Then, “Ooh, what’s the whale for?”
Delighted to have a story with a narrative arc and a spiritual message to share with her, I said that the book of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur. Jonah was called by God to prophesy to the people of Nineveh to repent and change their ways, but Jonah didn’t want to be a prophet. Instead, he boarded a boat and was tossed over, swallowed by a whale for three days and nights, prayed to God and then was spewed out. Finally, he went to Nineveh and told them to repent, but when they fasted and prayed and were saved, Jonah was mad at God for saving them. They didn’t deserve it.
From Vivyan’s slightly frowning expression, I knew that the whale of a tale was perplexing, but I pressed toward the ending. Then Jonah sat under some kind of plant, (the narrative was becoming less clear), and the worm ate the plant, I think, and Jonah felt bad for the plant, and God said, What, you’re more sorry for this plant than you are for the people of Nineveh? So that’s what Yom Kippur is about — I tried to tie it up into a nice message: That we’re all deserving of God’s compassion if we repent.
I knew that I’d missed several links in this story, too, but that was the gist, and I was happy that I’d managed to get God back in the story, something that isn’t important to all Jews but is to me. I was at a party this past summer and a friend was asked what being Jewish was to her, and she said, “It’s a Danish!”
A Danish would be a decal that would require one heck of an explanation to someone who wasn’t Jewish. Being Jewish is complicated, because it carries with it layers upon layers of history, and at times, that history seems to override its original intent, which was figuring out who God is and what God wants from us. And all those nail decals — from the round challah symbolizing the circle of life to the Torah — were circling around what was at the center of these holidays: our ongoing, ever-so-complex relationship with God.
Angel Himsel is a freelance writer living on the Upper West Side.