A Jewish Recipe for Relief 
     EVERY YEAR, when an old friend writes to bid me a happy and healthy Jewish new year, he asks if I will be doing tashlich. I should, I always think. But I never do. Or never did. Until last year, that is.
     I’d always meant to participate in this annual Jewish ritual of symbolically casting away sins by throwing bread crumbs into a body of water. Somehow, though, I was invariably too busy, preparing for holiday guests. Last year, however, everything felt different. My mother was ill -- gravely ill. Then, that spring, she died, bringing sharply into focus the truth that sometimes there isn't a next year, or next month, or even necessarily tomorrow. If you mean to do something, don't put it off until you aren't busy. Life, face it, will always be busy. Don't wait. Do it now.
     I did not participate in the official ceremony held by our rabbi, to which the congregation was invited en masse. My event was on a smaller scale. Much, much smaller. Semi-private. A gaggle of geese. A school of fish. And me.
     I was totally spent by the time my relatives departed after Rosh Hashanah, having devoured vast vats of chicken soup, brisket, noodle kugel and tsimmes. The sky was already verging on sundown. There were beds to change and dishes to do. Still, I felt like a woman on a mission. A sacred mission. For so many years I'd put it off. I would not fail again.
     I'd recently bought a new clipboard with a "to-do" pad attached. Quickly, I jotted down a list, not of errands to accomplish, but burdens to unload. Negative feelings to purge. Accumulated angst slowing me down, as if I were lugging around a bulging bag of garbage instead of throwing it out.
     Then I drove to my favorite scenic local spot, Elizabeth Park. On this balmy evening, it was crowded with joggers and picnickers, making me feel self-conscious. Then again, who'd know or care what I was up to? Its central pond was teeming with geese and fish. They would destroy the evidence.
     Perched at the water's edge, I reached into the plastic bag of bread I'd brought along. Grasping a few crumbs of shredded whole wheat, I began reading my list aloud, softly. Each time I uttered a word or phrase, I paused to toss in a handful. "Self-doubt!" I announced. "Sadness! Uncertainty!" Each time, within seconds, several fish rose from the murky depths and made it disappear.
     What kind of fish were these creatures? Carp? Koi? They looked like goldfish on steroids, brilliant orange with dark speckles or stripes, but nearly large enough to eat a cat, rather than be eaten by one. Whatever they do eat, it must not be enough. Throw anything remotely edible into this pond and a ravenous horde rises to the surface.
     And I do mean ravenous. Ever been "hungry enough to eat a horse"? Well, these sea demons were hungry enough to eat anything. Feelings of defeat. Despair. Malaise. All my sins, as well as my sources of self-loathing. From hopelessness and indecisiveness to regret and fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. All gone in one swift gulp.
     I had been thinking toxic waste. They were thinking, "Dinner!" The geese, lolling on the shoreline as dusk descended, didn't stand a chance.
These sea demons were hungry enough to eat ANYTHING. Despair. Hopelessness. Gone in one swift gulp.

        The bag empty, my inventory of anguish recited in full, I watched as fish continued to forage open-mouthed. Almost guiltily, I regretted having no more to offer. Couldn't I have brought along the leftover challah, certain to go stale in the coming days? Similarly, had I neglected to unleash any lingering doubts or deep-seated discontent?
     Then, a bit abashed, I recited the roster of traits with which I hoped to replace my travails. Optimism. Energy. Determination. Enthusiasm. Joie de vivre. Maybe even joy.
     I used to think tashlich was strictly meant for casting away sins. But I sense now that it is more about starting anew with a clean slate. Maybe there are people out there awaiting apologies from me, bruised by caustic remarks I made or calls I neglected to return. But in a year in which I lost my last remaining parent -- and served as her chief caretaker and daily confidante – I believe that I was much longer on sadness than on actual sins. I’d also like to believe that I left them in the water that day.
     How did this first foray into an ancient ritual feel? A little awkward, I guess, like almost anything unfamiliar. I'd thought I might begin crying as I recited my litany of woes. I'd also hoped that afterwards I might feel lighter, even giddy, my hardships and downheartedness dissolved. The truth is that it was all so foreign, not to mention far-fetched, that it felt rather artificial and contrived. Theatrical. Even if the fish were my only audience.
     Religious rites like this one are a bit like magic. They only work if you believe. I believe it will take a little more work to truly make a fresh start. But after my trip to the park that day, I was finally ready to make that start. And I had a whole year to follow through.
     Now, 12 months later, I’m ready to try again. To give up so easily would indeed be a sin. Last year was only my first tashlich. It will not be my last.

Questions? Comments? Please sign my GUESTBOOK/COMMENTS page.