FAQs for Jews — High Holidays Edition


We’ve all been in the uncomfortable position of having to explain our Jewiness to goyim, whether it’s describing those funny hats we wear, why we prefer turkey bacon or why we spell “Sabbath” wrong. Sometimes non-Jews just don’t understand, even if they mean well.

But explaining the High Holidays comes with a separate set of questions entirely.

Q: 5776? But it’s 2015.

A: Remember how Chanukah started on Thanksgiving last year (and created the best mash-up holiday ever, Thanksgivukkah)? There’s a reason for that. Jews follow a separate, lunar-based calendar, which means Jewish holidays occur on different times of the secular year. No offense to the Gregorian calendar, but we were here first.

Q: Why do you need to take off two days from work just to ring in the New Year?

A: Rosh Hashanah bears no resemblance to watching the ball drop in Times Square while surrounded by hundreds of thousands of revelers. It’s mostly a day filled with sitting in synagogue and eating a lot of food. It’s not exactly the place you most want to be on a Tuesday, but Jewish guilt obligates us to go.

Q: So if you get the days off, can I have the days off, too?

A: Honestly, it makes no difference to me. Some of us take advantage of getting the day off for Christmas, so why not? But whether you’re working or not, it’s important for non-Jews to understand that they SHOULD NOT plan any important meetings or events on the High Holidays. I once had a professor in college who promised us fresh homemade chocolate chip cookies for three weeks straight. And the day she brought them in was, you guessed it, on Yom Kippur. Maybe I’m just bitter, but there is something deeply cruel about that. It’s on your calendars, people! Make note of it. Would you plan a business luncheon on Christmas? No. Just don’t do it.

Q: Who’s Shemini Atzeret and how come we can’t get off of work for his birthday, too?

A: I believe the Shemini Atzeret was an old, dilapidated wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era. Or, it’s a fancy term for the last day of Sukkot. One of the two.

Q: What’s that poorly made trumpet I see rabbis playing?

A: A “shofar” is a ram’s horn, simply put. Shofars vary in colors and sizes, which also affects the sound. If it reminds you of medieval times with a man blowing a horn and shouting, “Hear ye! Hear ye!” you’re not entirely wrong. The sound is kind of an obnoxious alarm clock, waking you up for the New Year and telling you to repent and celebrate a fresh start.

Q: So how do you pronounce it?

A: This is actually a valid question. A lot of Jews have trouble differing between pronunciations. “Rosh Hashanah” is fairly straightforward, but “Yom Kippur” is a little more challenging. Some say “Kipper” like the fish. Personally, I go with “Yom” (rhymes with “home”) “Key-poor,” because I think there’s something too ironic about a day of fasting associated with a herring.

Which brings us to our next question:

Q: Would you like some (insert delicious food that you can’t eat because you’re fasting here)?

A: So maybe you’re super-secular and you work on Yom Kippur but you still fast. I once broke the fast in a three-hour lab in college by scarfing down an Einstein’s bagel, showing no remorse for disrupting the class with my pathetic meal. Ignoring a generous offer is a difficult task, and it can be uncomfortable to decline from a co-worker, especially when that’s all you can think of. The best way to tell people why and how you’re fasting is to just be polite about it. Sure, it’s uncomfortable when they don’t say anything in response (or, worse, they say too much), but it’s better than coming off as a hangry Jew (angry + hungry = hangry).

Q: So, is this holiday more important than Chanukah? 

A: Extremely. For a lot of secular Jews or people who call themselves “just Jewish,” attending High Holidays services is the equivalent of Christians going to church only for Christmas and Easter: It only happens twice a year and it’s kind of a big deal.

Q: Oh, I get it. On Yom Kippur, you repent your sins — it’s like Easter!

A: Not quite. Although both holidays have a theme of sin, Jews endure the less-fun day of twiddling their thumbs in shul and counting down the hours until sunset (see bagel anecdote above). To put it another way, there’s usually no Hallmark card for Yom Kippur; it’s a pretty serious holiday. ●


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