David Mladinov


            There is an old black and white photograph with hundreds of solemn people facing a river somewhere on a stretch of waterfront of the Lower East Side or Brooklyn holding prayer book in one hand and small pieces of bread in the other. Judging by the way they are dressed, the women in simple, long dresses with their hair tightly pulled back into buns covered with lace and the men with wide-brimmed, black hats in dark suits, the photograph must have been taken at the very beginning of the 20th century, most likely before the First World War.

            Puzzled by the image, Josh Shapiro had always wanted to take part in the ritual, but thought it had died out. Thus, when few years back, it was announced that the congregants of the synagogue he attended for the High Holydays would be meeting in the early afternoon of Rosh Hashanah to perform Tashlich, he was determined to join the group.

            But he and his wife Rachel never did. Utterly exhausted by the hours of intense prayers with another full day to go and Yom Kippur only a week away, by the first afternoon they had no desire to get dressed up again, walk back to the synagogue, and then, with the congregation and the Rabbi, trudge to the closest body of water to symbolically cast off their sins.

            Their Rabbi’s repeated insistence that Tashlich was just a folk custom and not a crucial commandment, made it easier not to follow the ancient practice of throwing bread crumbs into open water in order to free themselves from the past year’s transgressions.

            The first day of Rosh Hashanah ushering the year 5771, marked the beginning of another glorious New England fall in Brookline, MA of 2010. The balmy air and luminous leaves just starting to turn under the bright, autumnal sunlight seemed like an ideal moment for overcoming their usual inertia and taking advantage of the brief hike to get rid of their accumulated sins. Being able to project into each crumb of bread any sin they deemed offensive, they had decided two slices neatly wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag would suffice.

            Before they left, Josh googled “Tashlich,” and was surprised by how many entries there were. He wanted to print a brief prayer in English, Hebrew and its transliteration, not certain whether the synagogue would provide any materials.

            As he surfed through the headings, Josh stumbled upon a lively Tashlich discussion forum run by a well-known rabbi. One of the participants wanted to know why it is preferable to do Tashlich by a river that has fish? Just as fish are suddenly caught in nets, was the Rabbi’s answer, so too we are caught in the net of judgment for life or death. Such thoughts should stir a person to repentance. The answer seemed poignant to Josh.

            The second response regarding the same question stated we need fish to protect us from the evil eye, just as the fish hidden under the water are immune to it. This made less sense, but was still more or less acceptable.       

            The third explanation that their presence in the water symbolizes our hope to be fruitful and multiply like fish sounded utterly illogical. Josh could see no connection between their sins and fecundity, especially in regard to fish.

            The column continued with a series of  further questions. Vying with each other in anticipation of perceived obstacles the participants seemed to be reveling in advance at the insurmountable, final disaster that would prevent them from conducting the ritual.

            One of the readers wanted to know what if the river had no fish? Tashlich still may be said there. What if the closest river is far from one's home? If the river can be seen in the distance Tashlich may still be said. What if there is no river at all in the vicinity? One may go to any natural body of water e.g. a spring, well, lake, or pond. Some say Tashlich by a mikveh. What if one cannot find a natural body of water? He may say prayers by any collection of water, e.g. aquarium or a container of water. What if there is no natural body of water, no mikveh and one doesn’t have an aquarium, yet another reader inquired further raising the stakes. Oh, for G-d’s sake! There is an occasional oasis even in the Saharan desert, notwithstanding the lack of mikveot or aquaria there. Josh had to admire the unwavering patience of the Rabbi who always tried to find a solution, although the discussion somewhat dampened his enthusiasm for the ritual.

            When at the prescribed time they walked to the synagogue, a large group of people was already assembled there, each participant carrying at least one large, plastic bag filled to the brim with a variety of baked goods. Regardless of their meager two slices of bread, they didn’t feel any more virtuous than the rest.

            As they started walking toward Beacon Pond, a small nature reserve Josh and Rachel haven’t even known existed, the flock following the rabbi resembled a destitute nation on a new exodus struggling to carry all their earthly belongings. That the overflowing bags were symbols of their sins made the scene even more heartrending.

            The group made a sharp turn from the main boulevard and through an almost hidden passage between two elegant brick buildings they entered not a back parking lot, but a beautiful grassy area of a large baseball field and in its corner a fenced off picturesque, miniature pond surrounded by willows.           

            A narrow path made of wooden planks raised over the wet, marshy ground followed the outline of the pond through lush, almost tropical-looking vegetation connecting a number of wider observation sites built on sunken pylons above the water.

             On all other days an occasional visitor would stop there by the balustrade to observe birds or to admire the vast, weeping willows along the banks by the water.

            Today, any semblance to a quaint nature hideout was gone. His group, led by the bellwether Rabbi, slowly followed one after the other along the confining path, carefully bypassing an equally numerous line coming from the opposite direction. Each observation site was so densely packed with people throwing their sins into the water in profusion, that his group had to proceed to the next stop, hoping the earlier arrivals had already exhausted the baked-goods supplies stored at their feet. Judging by the energetic, leavened cannonades one would have thought these were the most sinful people on earth.

            Had they been living in an age of miracles, the Brookline’s Beacon Pond would have been instantly evaporated, transformed, in a flash, into dirty, boiling steam by divine wrath, destroyed much faster and more thoroughly than Sodom and Gomorra ever were and the Divine one would never had even bothered to ask for the one and only righteous man in order to forgive them.

            They might have been saved solely by His pity for the collateral damage: ducks, geese and turtles or some other minor, endangered creature dwelling in the waters; possibly by the environmental concerns or the desire not to further lower the prices of the luxury condos abutting the two sides of the pond.

            And what was the symbolic meaning of the assorted items in the baked good abundance? It would have been too easy to assign certain sins to a lowly bagel. Regardless of flavor, their round holes encircled in leavened doe, would render any association much too crude and utterly void of even a semblance of a higher form of symbolism. Croissants posed a more formidable challenge, though their flakiness came immediately to mind and he did not deign to ponder on the hidden meaning of the occasional sticky bun.

            The imprecise quantity of breads in relation to participants’ sins did not leave much confidence in the causality of their selection. Whether bagels or rugelach, it was irrelevant to the crowd. They would have brought anything stale or fresh from their kitchens just for the thrill of throwing it into water.

            “Stupid birds,” Josh thought while watching the water fowl relentlessly and greedily gobbling up the floating bonanza of their soggy, overdunked transgressions. “The foie gras geese at least don’t have a choice and the sin of their gluttony-damaged livers could be solely assigned to the animals’ heartless force-feeders.”

            With the thick crust of disintegrating pulp, it was impossible to tell whether fish lived in the murky waters underneath. Not even a strong breeze managed to ruffle the inert, marred surface to ripples.

            They were told fish are essential for the success of the ritual. Since they have no eyelids, their eyes are always open symbolizing God’s constant, protective watch over the Jewish people.

            Seeing a small flock of overfed, heavy-bodied geese lazily resting on a steep, grassy bank by the pond with their eyes closed shut, he had a feeling of having suddenly understood the true, precise reason for the sad, incorrigible, almost hopeless state of the contemporary world. 


Copyright © David Mladinov 2012

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