RSS Feed

A Writing Workshop for Tashlich

Last year, I ran two writing workshops at my synagogue, to help empower people to write their own blessings, and to validate more of their real emotions and experiences on a daily basis. I only had a small group of writers with me each time, but the work they did was revelatory and worth the effort. So, with the very unusual world we are living in today, and with High Holiday services scheduled to take place entirely on line, my rabbi asked me to come up with another workshop, on Zoom this time, to prepare for the ceremony of Tashlich, which usually takes place on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, outdoors. This will be our only chance to connect in person at a safe distance as a community during the holidays, and the rabbi wanted to give people a chance to prepare for it more fully, and also a way to include the people who, for reasons of health or age, would still not be able to participate in person.

The word Tashlich means “casting off,” and it is a ceremony where we gather together at a body of water to cast off our sins from the past year. This is when my congregation usually goes to a nearby pond, to hop over goose poop, meet everyone’s dogs, sing with the cantor, and toss our sins out to the ducks, in the form of birdseed or anything else that won’t kill them.

“Are we going to shul with you?”

It is one more avenue for doing Teshuvah (Repentance, or Return), which is the goal for the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on through Yom Kippur. It’s sort of like a six-week version of the twelve steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, including making amends for past bad actions. There is a heavy emphasis on sin and guilt, and the implication is that we’ve all got big garbage bags full of sins from the past year that we need to empty out.

I’m not a huge fan of the emphasis on Sin and Repentance, but I do see the value in looking back on the year to see how we’ve inevitably veered off track, or gotten preoccupied by too much external noise. And I like the idea of making the process of casting things off more concrete, creating a safe container for our more difficult realizations about ourselves, and the emotions connected to them, and then physically throwing them away.

Despite all of my experiences of Tashlich occurring at duck ponds, it turns out that the preference of the rabbis was that the body of water would have fish in it, because fish can’t close their eyes and therefore they remind us of God’s constant protective watch over the Jewish people. But, if you can’t get to a body of water, you can also toss your sins into a bucket of standing water, or into running water from the kitchen sink, or you can even flush them down the toilet. You can write your sins on paper towels, or tissues, or rice paper, or you can even write them in sidewalk chalk and wash them away with a hose, or water balloons!

“Don’t be silly.”

But the words Repentance and Sin were still holding me back, until Jon Batiste, the bandleader of The Late Show with Steven Colbert, said something I found really helpful. Colbert had asked him his thoughts about the late Congressman John Lewis’ influence on the world, and Jon Batiste said that he saw John Lewis’ legacy as an invitation to growth and change, as opposed to Steven Colbert’s feelings of guilt and shame as motivation for change.For me, an invitation implies that there’s a party to go to, and a pool of energy to tap into that doesn’t have to rely solely on what I can bring with me. That’s what I love about community (and about this blog community especially), that whatever I bring with me takes me to a place where there is so much more of what I need. I’m invited, with all of my questions and doubts and confusion, to join a party that will energize me for the next step in the journey.

At its best, that’s what a writing workshop can do (though if your experiences of writing workshops took place in graduate school, with strict deadlines and competitive classmates, you are probably scoffing right now). My goal with each writing workshop is to respond with a “yes, and” to everyone; to let their ideas lead all of us to more of our own thoughts and feelings, so that we walk away with more gifts than we could have created on our own.

This period of Teshuvah, which starts in mid-August this year, is also coming along at a good time, given the Black Lives Matter movement’s resurgence, and the time for reflection offered by the Covid 19 shut down, with its inevitable emphasis on mortality. In preparing for the writing workshop, I had to think about what I might want to cast out of my life this year, and the first thing on my list would be the time spent beating myself up for the passage of time, and for my turtle slow pace. If I can stop looking at the clock, and the calendar, and the competition, and just focus on my own next step, next year will be a lot more productive, and a lot more fun than this one.

“We need more fun.”

            May we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

83 responses »

  1. Don’t you just love it when, out of the blue, someone says something that just clicks with you? That ‘aha’ that you had not even thought about. I think your ‘party’ will be great, with lots of casting off of negativity and so much hope for the new year. I’m with your girls–we do need more fun!

    Reply
  2. Stop looking at the clock, the calendar, the competition… This is what I need to do! I love that you run writing workshops. I am SO notnthere myself, but yet I will continue to write! Thank you for this post.

    Reply
  3. Is this process an annual event symbolic of casting away sin or is it the actual process that Jewish people believe removes their sin?
    Please forgive my ignorance of your faith.

    Reply
  4. What a beautiful prayer. I pray it’s fulfilled.

    Reply
  5. The fish eye detail is fascinating, Rachel.
    As is, as always, your writing. xo

    Reply
  6. The participants of the writing workshop are so blessed to have you as their teacher leading them through the process and encouraging them as they create their written gifts. Thank you for your closing prayer and may I echo the Amen.

    Reply
  7. There are so many things I’d like to cast out of my life this year, starting with masks. 🙂 This actually fascinates me. The whole concept of writing something down, or making a symbol and casting it out is not new to me, but I didn’t know it was part of the Jewish religion. Again, you teach me! Thank you!

    Reply
    • I’m so glad! It’s a good thing I didn’t write about the swing-a-chicken-around-your-head custom instead.

      Reply
      • Rachel, so funny. I can’t wait to hear about the swing-a-chicken custom, and I’m sure your doggos will love to participate, just in case you lose your grip… 🙂

      • Fortunately, many people who do this custom today replace the chicken with a bag of coins that then goes to charity. But the swing-a-chicken version still happens too. I have never had to witness it in person, though, Thank God.

      • LOL, you made me laugh 🙂

      • Are you sure you’re not a witch????? (and that’s a compliment coming from me, by the way) Also, now I want to know about this chicken thing!

      • There are some old world customs that really should stay in the old world. Can you imagine being the chicken? Someone grabs you by the neck and swings you over their head?! I think it’s mean to be like a scapegoat, absorbing all of the sins of the people and giving its life as a sacrifice. Oy.

      • Oh, absolutely! I’ve always felt terribly sorry for the poor goat! Or the whipping boys who had to take the punishment for the royals – how awful a life!

  8. Excellent post. I also appreciate the way you describe your upcoming religious holidays in a relatable context.

    Reply
  9. What an interesting post! I’d love to come to one of your workshops, if only you were closer……

    Reply
  10. Another great post, Rachel. I love the idea of seeing John Lewis’ legacy as an “invitation to growth and change” and I can see why it appealed to you when you heard it. How much nicer to be seeking something life-affirming, rather than feeling compelled by a sense of guilt and shame.

    Reply
  11. We could all use more fun in our lives, especially after the uncertainties of 2020.

    Reply
  12. I learn so much from reading your posts.

    Reply
  13. I think it wonderful that you are giving writing workshops. Especially great to be asked to do a repeat. Hope you have fun doing it. Beautiful blessing at the end.

    Reply
  14. I second your prayer. Lovely post Rachel

    Reply
  15. A very thoughtful piece. Given mass similarity of experience in 2020 – abrupt change of lifestyle toward isolation, thus reflection – cause garbage bags to harmonize in content.

    Reply
  16. Wonderful post and I really love the idea of time spent reflecting on our actions and inactions. Writing allows us to voice those things. Sometimes the things we write surprise us. We didn’t even know those things were down inside and yet there they were.

    Reply
  17. Pingback: A Writing Workshop for Tashlich - Anj's space!

  18. Love this post. I don’t suppose your zoom workshop is open to the public, is it?

    Reply
    • Thank you! I’m sorry, but this Zoom is limited to the synagogue, so that people feel safe sharing their more vulnerable thoughts and feelings. But thank you for making me think bigger. It’s kind of terrifying to imagine doing a workshop for the larger world, but I hope to be ready for that someday.

      Reply
  19. Brilliant. Brilliant! I am so delighted with this idea. I want to steal it, or combine forces to lead one through hamaqom.org with you, or … I dunno, something. I am literally bouncing in my chair.

    Reply
  20. Amazing post! Recently I too was trying to find various ways in which I could open up myself, reduce the burden of my past wrong doings, how funny that I couldn’t think about my most favourite hobby, writing, thank you for this amazing post! Best wishes for the workshop:-)

    Reply
  21. Lovely. Needed to hear this, tonight. Thank you!

    Reply
  22. I had to laugh as I recognized myself at the end as you say you would be more productive if your quit worrying about being productive! It is so extremely hard to get away from productivity as the measuring stick. I hope you will be more calm, happy, accepting and rested if you quit worrying. Same for me!

    Reply
    • It’s always good to have a goal, even when it seems out of reach. But really, sometimes I just need a nap.

      Reply
    • Whew, me too. One of my main goals this year was to spend more time *doing* what a care about and less time beating myself up about being lax. It’s weird how COVID has put a wrench in that and also has been a bit of a kick for me, kind of a reset. A chance to revisit what matters the most to me and create healthier routines.

      Reply
  23. I’m adding a few this year I failed to from prior years.

    Reply
  24. Wow. Who knew it was so easy to get rid of your sins. If I was a woman, I could go with South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein:
    “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair
    I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair
    I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair
    And send him on his way”
    I suppose I could change the words to ‘that woman right outa my hair’, but I don’t have any hair, so it’s a moot point.
    Nevermind. 🙂

    Reply
  25. I think I’m going to cast out this year. I like that.

    Reply
  26. This is so interesting. I love reading about the meaning behind your Jewish traditions. Rituals are so powerful!

    Reply
  27. May the fish snatch away all our burdens and baggage and lead us to a place where there is indeed a party, a place where all our questions will be put at rest. 🍀

    Reply
  28. Beautiful post! I’d be interested in what you go into in your upcoming workshop. Though I always celebrated Rosh Hashanah, I haven’t done the Tashlich ceremony, and I think it could be really rejuvenating.

    Reply
    • Thank you! Tashlich can be a lot of fun, if only because it’s a break from sitting and praying for hours at a time. And because it doesn’t have a set of prayers that you HAVE to say, you can use whichever songs or words work for you.

      Reply
  29. The writing workshop is an excellent idea! I also like the aspect of not necessarily casting off for sins, but for what the year has brought us, individually, in our growth, and spiritual attainment.

    Reply
  30. That sounds like a beautiful tradition! The guilt aspect was has also been very strong in my life, so I’ve struggled with letting go of the guilt while still maintaining the “lesson” so to speak.

    Reply
    • It’s a hard distinction to make when you are used to feeling guilty for everything. In order to get rid of a belief system you have to start hearing those thoughts differently in your own head.

      Reply
  31. Yes, may we all live kinder, happier, and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. And let us be there for one another on the journey, if only to answer: Amen.

    Reply
  32. Very beautiful post.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: