September 25, 2008
The very best Tashlich custom is a toss-up
Every year since he was 8, Mauro and his friends at Temple Israel of Hollywood have marked the afternoon ceremony, which the synagogue holds at a beach in Santa Monica, with a sand-logged scrimmage.
"It's a routine now," said Mauro of Studio City. "We bring a couple of footballs and give some to the younger kids. The games used to be kids vs. parents, but since we've gotten bigger and stronger, they kind of back off."
Family ball games, picnics and drum circles are revitalizing Tashlich as a booming social event, local rabbis say. Built on the traditional casting of sins -- often symbolized by breadcrumbs, rocks or lint -- into the ocean, the ritual now draws throngs of participants eager to celebrate community, revel in the great outdoors and cut loose.
"People are really gung-ho about Tashlich," said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. "After spending the morning in synagogue, they get to take off their stockings and shoes and suits and ties and dresses and put on shorts and T-shirts and bathing suits and sun block. They take picnics and blankets, and we all meet at the beach."
Maybe that's why the ceremony, which Missaghieh brought to the Reform congregation when she joined its staff 13 years ago, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Starting with about 100 participants the first year, Temple Israel's Tashlich event now draws a gathering so large -- more than 450 people, Missaghieh said -- that they have to obtain a permit from the city of Santa Monica to accommodate the crowd. The city also assigns lifeguards to watch over the waterside festivities.
"It's a great service for people with families," said Temple Israel member Bruce Miller, who has taken part in Tashlich for the past six years with his wife, Tracy, and their three young children. "You're not sitting in one place in a big room where you have to be quiet and sit still. Three-year-olds don't do that so well. Here, they can run around. Tashlich is more connected to things kids can relate to."
Miller, a television writer based in Hancock Park, also enjoys the chance to experience Judaism amid nature's majesty.
"It's wonderful to hear the shofar outside at the beach," he said. "Near the water, under the sky, it seems more spiritually relevant to what the holiday is about."
A few blocks south on Venice Beach, Nashuva encourages Jews of all ages -- including total strangers catching rays nearby -- to tap into their spiritual sides by taking part in a drum circle. With more than 1,000 participants, Rabbi Naomi Levy said she's been told Nashuva's Tashlich ritual is the largest Jewish drum circle in the world.
"We've been doing this for four years, and it's been growing exponentially," Levy said. "We blow the shofar at the beach as a call for all Jews to come. You'd be surprised how many times we get an Israeli jogger passing by, or a couple of sunbathers who happen to be Jewish. You see people coming from all different parts to join in."
Members of the Nashuva community, which during the rest of the year holds Friday night Shabbat services at Brentwood Presbyterian Church the first week of each month, gathers for Tashlich at the beach off Venice Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Organizers hand out percussion instruments, but attendees are also urged to bring their own. Drums, tambourines and even spoons are welcomed.
The first time Brentwood resident Carol Taubman took part in Nashuva's Tashlich ceremony in 2004, "it took my breath away," she recalled. "There were so many people, all dressed in white, and this fabulous drumming circle. There was a great sense of community, and it was very powerful."
Taubman has attended Tashlich ever since, drawn back by the inclusive spirit of the event.
"It's such a welcoming experience," she said. "Some people can be intimidated by all the prayers at a synagogue service, but anybody can hit a drum or bang two spoons together. It's like sharing a communal language."
But the point of Tashlich -- to cleanse oneself of the past year's sins -- shouldn't be undermined by the ritual's festive atmosphere or the ease of tossing breadcrumbs into the ocean, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.
"The notion that we can dispose of our sins in such a casual manner is problematic," said Shevitz, whose Conservative beachfront service gathers 200 to 400 people each year. "You can't just empty your pockets and be rid of your sins. It takes more work than that."
Shevitz has put together a reading reflecting the idea that sins can never be truly cast off, but they can be "purified, as we treat sewage."
The ceremony, which Mishkon Tephilo has done for decades, attracts more and more congregants each year, he said. "It's as much a social occasion as a liturgical one. It's a refreshing alternative to the sobriety of the morning service."
Further inland, Encino-based Valley Beth Shalom has seen a spike in Tashlich attendance for the same reason. The Conservative congregation has been holding a ceremony on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the past 10 years at Encino's Lake Balboa.
"Tashlich is amazingly popular," said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom. "The sunshine is wonderful, we're out in the fresh air, and we can begin to smell the autumn coming. It's really joyful."
This year, Valley Beth Shalom will partner with Valley Village congregation Adat Ari El for a joint Tashlich service. Feinstein is expecting a crowd of about 250 at the lakeside park, which Los Angeles park rangers keep open an extra hour for the ceremony.
An added bonus of holding Tashlich at the site, Feinstein noted, is that the bits of challah thrown into the water end up feeding the ducks that live on the lake grounds.
Temple Israel of Hollywood chooses to forgo traditional breadcrumbs for a more novel approach to the purging of sins, Rabbi Missaghieh said. As soon as the crowd gathers at 4 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, all the children begin building a wall of sand along the shore. After songs and readings, participants consider an area of their lives they want to improve in the new year, then inscribe their thoughts by hand into the wall. The waves eventually wash the sand away, carrying congregants' written confessions out to sea.
"I think there's something very magical about it," Missaghieh said. "You spend the whole morning thinking about God, talking to God. But then you actually go out into nature and feel the grandness of God's creation on the day of creation. It's a very visceral moment; not just your mind, but your whole body is experiencing the rebirth of the world."