It’s the season of apples and honey and sounding the shofar. Maybe you’ve been invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with your partner’s family, or are a little unnerved by the trumpet sounds that come from your local synagogue around this time of year, or you just want to wish a tzitzit-clad fellow a happy holiday. In any case, figuring out an unfamiliar religious traditions can be more than a little overwhelming. Nobody could blame you for actively considering just staying home and watching Twin Peaks. Again.
When it comes to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, never fear! With the help of these three simple strategies, you will be on your way to understanding and respectfully celebrating just about any religious holiday. (After all, Navaratri and Eid al-Adha are coming up next month!)
You’re no fool — you know to do this. Your slightly embarrassing search history probably demonstrates that you’ll google just about anything. But searching for a holiday is a little different than searching for “why men have nipples.” Wikipedia can clue you in on subtle intra-religious differences, like the fact that many members of the Reform movement celebrate Rosh Hashanah for only one day (Orthodox and Conservative adherents often celebrate for two), and that some people omit the customary trumpeting if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat. Even so, you will want to browse multiple sites, and come at the topic from different angles, to get a handle on the many varieties of this religious experience.
Given the aforementioned diversity, your diligent research may leave you feeling more confused than prepared. When your new knowledge fails you, don’t panic. Look around. If you put your headphones away and listen to the people around you, you might learn when to say Shanah Tovah, which means “good new year,” or Gmar Chatimah Tovah, which conveys the wish that one will be judged favorably and inscribed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur. If you attend a Jewish holiday dinner, pay attention to when the person next to you drinks their grape juice.
Because you are a sensitive person, you probably worry that your questions are silly or offensive, and don’t want to be remembered as That Goy Who Ruined Rosh Hashanah. Your first instinct may be to keep your mouth shut and muddle through. That's sometimes a good call; it is a matter of tact not to interrupt a reverent moment to, say, inquire as to why the challah is round. But as a general rule, folks are happy, and even eager, to share their traditions and explain why or how things are done. When in doubt, it can’t hurt to preface your query with “This may be a dumb question, but.” In the end your best resources are curiosity, common sense, and the people around you.