Wednesday, September 28, 2011

L'Shana Tova: Rosh Hashanah


Happy New Year! L'Shana Tova! The Jewish New Year takes place on the 1st and 2nd days of the Hebrew month of Tishri and we've finally arrived at that time of year. This happy time usually corresponds with sometime between mid-September and mid-October on the regular Gregorian calendar, so we're right on track (the traditional western calendar functions according to the sun whereas the Hebrew calendar goes by both the sun and moon -- years coincide with the sun and months coincide with the moon). Luckily, I happen to be home in California visiting family and friends for this year's Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Thus, it is also unfortunate that I will not get to experience the new year celebrations in Israel this year. Alas, all over the world, traditions and customs are the same.

Rosh Hashanah directly translates as "head of the year" and although this new year's celebrations couldn't be more different then westernized traditions of celebrating the new year, there is one thing that is the same: we use this time of year to make resolutions, to reflect on the past year, to  clear the slate and to prepare to make amends. Rosh Hashanah is known to be the time of judgment, whereas the follow-up holiday of Yom Kippur is the day when the judgment is actually sealed. Our decisions, resolutions and fates are all written on Rosh Hashanah. Of course, all of this is done in the company of fellow congregants at your local synagogue where you spend the day in traditional services and in prayer:

On Rosh Hashanah, you will surely hear the shofar being blown, which is made from a ram's horn, as seen in the images below. The blowing of the shofar is one of the most typical and exciting portions of a Rosh Hashanah service and the entire process of blowing the shofar lasts for a hefty number of minutes during which a variety of different blows to the horn are produced. The purpose of the shofar being blown is threefold: 1) to remind us of the story of Isaac, whose life was spared in return for his faith to G-d (a ram was sacrificed in Isaac's place), 2) to summon a coronation of sorts since Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of the human race, and 3) to awaken our souls so that we may pray and repent during the new year's celebrations.


Also typical during New Year's celebrations is the eating of apples and honey, known for being a sweet treat and thus a sweet way to welcome in and hope for a sweet new year. You may also see and eat pomegranates, which symbolize being fruitful, or round challah bread which symbolizes the cyclical nature of the year.


Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah is a 2-day process with services on the first night and also lengthier services on the next full day. Family and friends will usually feast together during Rosh Hashanah and the mood is generally festive. As you can imagine, there is a lot of reunion and camaraderie with friends, family and congregants who only make it to synagogue during the high holidays.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of Yom Kippur, a somber time of atonement and seriousness and also a day during which we fast. The two holidays are correlated in different ways through the symbolic "Book of Life" which is such a central theme to Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people who choose life over death, righteousness over sin, repentance over harboring anger, and charity over selfishness are making efforts to have their names written and inscribed by G-d in the "Book of Life". Though the decisions are made on Rosh Hashanah as to whose lives will be saved and whose futures will flourish, the fate is then sealed on Yom Kippur. In this way, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur interlock with each other as serious times of reflection and duty.


I wish to everyone out there a happy and healthy new year. As they say on Rosh Hashanah, may the best of your last year be just the worst of the coming year. L'Shana Tova!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Riga Stopover

The city of Riga is arguably the most popular tourist destination in all of Latvia, a country nestled amid northern Europe's Baltic states. It also just happened to be our stopover destination between Tel Aviv and London. With six hours to kill, we decided to head into the city center for a small taste of Riga's Old Town and a small visit to this industrial and cultural capital:


Had we more time in Riga, we could have had several options from which to choose to visit.  While the Old City is up high on the list of things to do and see, there is also the option of visiting the Art Nouveau District to see the unique architecture, the Central District for leisurely walks and beautiful scenery or a visit to the beach town of Jurmala, just a short train ride away.

With limited time, we decided to head right from the airport into the Old City. The bus ride was just 1 Euro each way from the city's main airport. Buses run every 15-20 minutes and the ride is a short 20-25 minutes away. We were eager to explore this charming city's Old Town, despite it being 7 o'clock in the morning.

We were looking forward to seeing the colorful buildings and open plazas that are typical of many European Old Towns:

After arriving into the center of town we hopped off the bus and grabbed a map in the nearest hotel. The concierge told us that a stroll through the Old City would only take 15 minutes from end-to-end so we knew we could relax and explore the area:


As you can see, the sun had not yet even fully risen by the time we arrived into the center of town. Not only was it freezing cold in mid-September (probably in the low 40s) but also the sun did not fully rise until about 8 am. Quite different than in Israel where the sun goes up in the 6 o'clock hour.

These cobblestone streets were so quiet in the early morning hours, but rest assured that the city becomes busy and bustling by mid-morning. Like several other European capitals, we found colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, old street lamps and beautiful, artsy facades. You could see that the Old City was filled with restaurants waiting to be filled with eager eaters and busy city life:

We even found a T.G.I. Friday's right there in the middle of Riga. A little piece of home in faraway Latvia. We were told that Riga is very busy even into the early morning hours as there are an abundance of restaurants, bars and clubs that attract nightgoers, seven nights a week.

We found an open coffee-shop around 7:30 am, which was quite exciting since it was one of the only open vendors in town aside from hotels. The closer we got to 8:00 am, however, the city became busier and busier with residents on their way to work and school.

This plaza was one of the centerpieces of town, with a large central square and beautiful, colorful architecture surrounding it:

The streets were clean, the people were friendly and the ambiance felt safe and hospitable. As you can see in the picture below, the buildings are colorful and original, causing you to stop and appreciate it:

On our Old Town map, we we saw that there was a castle on the border of Riga's Old Town, so of course we had to go find it. Here it is in the images below:

We also found an abundance of Latvian restaurants (as well as other international food options) all over the city center which seemed to call our names. Unfortunately, there wouldn't be enough time to dine inside any of them on this short visit.

In addition to sightseeing, Riga is also home to many museums and art galleries, including the one below depicting the occupation of Latvia between the years of 1940-1991. Just outside the museum was a well-known Soviet-style statue on the edge of the Old City:

A visit to Riga would not be complete without a short stroll along the city's Daugava River which is the focal point of town. The busy river is crossed by several well-known bridges which decorate the city:

As I mentioned, traffic picked up the further into the morning we got. It's always nice to see a city on the move. Here you can see the rail systems that carry the locals throughout town:

I don't know what street we meandered onto, but they certainly had a number of interesting storefront names that caused us to pause in our tracks and to even take a picture. Must have definitely been the clubbing part of town:


Though our visit was short, it was well-worth it, leaving us wanting more and more. Six hours was definitely enough time for a quick stopover. Should you ever find yourself on a stopover in Latvia, take the effort to head into town.  It's a quick and easy trip that is well worth the visit!