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The Month of Elul

            The last weekend in August marked the beginning of Elul, the Jewish month set aside for doing Teshuva, leading up to the Jewish high holidays. Teshuva means different things to different people, but basically translates as repentance, or returning to the path. You are supposed to take this time to look over your behavior from the past year and see where you went wrong, in your treatment of others, or of yourself, and warm up for the big communal repentance Olympics that is the high holidays. So it’s not a fun, happy time, and I just don’t have the energy for more self-flagellation right now.

“We’re all exhausted.”

            Intellectually, I see the value in a month of self-reflection and taking stock of our lives and what we’ve done wrong and could do better. But emotionally, and spiritually, it feels like I’m beating myself with a hammer after having already been beaten by ten hammers. At some point, being told to blame myself for all of the wrongs done within my community, and in the world at large, feels like overkill.

I would much rather have a month full of peace and kindness, and people telling me how wonderful I am. I want my dreams to be filled with cotton candy trees and happy puppies, but that’s not how it goes in my brain. Most likely I’ll continue to have nightmares accusing me of failing to save puppies and babies, and the trees will all be rotten and dying.

            One custom I don’t usually participate in leading up to the High Holidays, but maybe should, is the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning of the month of Elul. The idea is that the shofar, the ram’s horn that sounds like a dying ram calling out to its mother, is expected to wake you up from automatic pilot, the state where most of us spend most of our time. And the hope is, if you hear it a little bit each day, and build your awareness bit by bit, the long shofar calls and deep guilt work of the high holidays won’t feel so overwhelming.

            Each shofar, or ram’s horn, is distinct. It has been emptied out and polished, but it still retains the individual character of the animal who wore it. It can be small or big, with one curve or more, each twisted in its own unique way. Like us.

(Not my pictures)

Part of the power of the shofar, for me, is its imprecision. Whereas a musical instrument, like a trumpet, can make more beautiful and melodic sounds, the shofar captures something animal, something deeply human, that we often try to ignore. So we’re not just being woken up by a random loud sound, we are being reminded of our need to cry out for help, and reminded that we are supposed to cry out for help. Maybe listening to the shofar could remind me that repentance doesn’t always have to be about recognizing and correcting my flaws, instead it could be my reminder that needing other people, and asking for help, is a good thing.

“Help! They won’t let me drive the car!”

            And, maybe, just maybe, we’re being woken up out of automatic pilot in order to experience joy and hope more fully, instead of just being awake to what’s gone wrong.

But, still, what I really want for Elul this year is peace. I want to rest under my paw paw tree, in a cool breeze, with a pile of books, a sleeping dog or two, and a glass of ice cold chocolate milk. Is that so much to ask?

“We’re ready!”

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.

42 responses »

  1. No, it’s not too much to ask. After all you and your mother have been through this summer, I think you’re due for a little r & r. Give yourself joy…you deserve it.
    P.S. This week when Pretty picked up Ella from her 2-3 year old class at her Jewish School, all the little children in her class were telling her bye, bye to which, according to Pretty, Ella replied “Shalom.”
    Pretty said the blackboard had Learning the Torah written on it in their little class.
    We are thrilled for her to have this experience.

  2. Your writing was a beautiful cultural education. I also picked up on how the shofar can trigger conflicting emotions. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. I hope you experience the peace and joy you crave, Rachel.

  4. I think you do plenty of introspection all year, Rachel. Time to just relax and be happy.

  5. I agree with what others have written above…I don’t think Elul needs to be about guilt, and maybe the HHs don’t need to be about guilt either. Just a turning back to the path of who you want to be and how you want your life to be. Rather than the rabbis or the ritual “telling” you what you should be doing, I think of the HH as the time in the Jewish calendar for me to give strong consideration to what kind of human being I want to be, and letting that “bump” me back on the track that leads me in that direction. Yes, we acknowledge how we’ve fallen short, but we look more forward than backward (where we’ve been informs where we’re headed, but does not limit or define us). So, given that interpretation, peace and kindness are exactly and fully what these HHs should be for you!

  6. Okay, I hereby give you permission “to rest under your paw paw tree, in a cool breeze, with a pile of books, a sleeping dog or two, an enjoy a glass of ice cold chocolate milk.” 🙂 🙂

  7. I too am in need of and longing for peace…a refuge from so much of the now. May we know that peace!

  8. I vote for your idea of a month of peace and kindness, and people being nice to you, Rachel! In fact, I vote for many months like that!!

  9. Well this hit home, kind of makes me wish i had a shofar to blow each morning. 🤗🤍

  10. It’s not too much to ask. You and your mother have had a wild year. Get those books, the dogs and a chocolate milk, and curl up under the paw paw tree.

  11. If that’s what you want, then that’s what you should do. Celebrate what you’re good at, no one is good at everything and don’t focus on negatives.

  12. I’d say this is a very healthy attitude

  13. Is it kind of like a new year celebration?

  14. Rachel, You are wonderful, and I wish you peace, kindness and dreams of cotton candy trees and energetic puppies.

  15. I think you have suffered enough this summer Rachel! I hope your mouth is feeling more comfortable. Why not use this time to do something good for yourself every day of this period, don’t worry about how you have affected other people.

  16. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all your troubles and lack of confidence and your guilt disappear. This doesn’t fit with the occasion, but you need to put your own spin on the Holidays. Take care of yourself.
    I can’t be as sage as the other commenters. 💕

  17. I also struggle with the self-reflection and improvement “shoulds” during Elul. Intellectually, I don’t have anything against the concept. But something about it, and also all of the so-called inspirational messaging around this time of year just rubs me the wrong way.

  18. I really appreciate your connection of the sound and music of the shofar being so intrinsically tied to (the imprecision of) life.

    May you be blessed with beautiful dreams, restful sleep, and a gentle month of Elul.

  19. That’s definitely not too much to ask. Go for it!

  20. “We are being reminded of our need to cry out for help, and reminded that we are supposed to cry out for help. Maybe listening to the shofar could remind me that repentance doesn’t always have to be about recognizing and correcting my flaws, instead it could be my reminder that needing other people, and asking for help, is a good thing.” Great insight, Rachel.


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