How To Mark A New Year

Emily Barth Isler holding her book, After/Math. Photo by Beja Grinage.

My debut novel came out on Rosh Hashanah. The culmination of over a decade's worth of work and hustle, a huge career milestone—all on a day when I normally wouldn't work at all.

It wasn't the first time I didn't go to temple on Rosh Hashanah. In 2019, I was volunteering with an amazing organization called Immigrant Families Together to help reunite families separated at the border due to the US's inhumane family separation policies, by freeing those who were detained. I was waiting for bail to be set for a detained migrant: an LGBTQ woman who was separated from her partner and their daughter at the border because she wasn't considered the child's parent (not being biologically related to them). Bail was set the day before Rosh Hashanah, but the coordinator told me I could wait an extra day if I wanted to come bring the money after celebrating Rosh Hashanah.

How could I possibly sit in a comfortable, air conditioned synagogue all day with my husband and kids, lost in quiet reflection and prayer, while this woman waited in a cell to be reunited with her family? I couldn't. So I broke all the Jewish Holiday Rules. I started my day at five am to get to the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles before it opened at seven o'clock. Once I had secured my place in line with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, I headed to a bank in Chinatown to get a bank check for the amount of the bond. The ensuing paperwork was anticlimactic—a different volunteer would go to pick up the detainee when she was released that evening—and I drove home through the sunny, palm-tree covered hills of southern California. It was the best Rosh Hashanah I'd ever celebrated. My husband had taken the kids to synagogue, and when I got home, we took turns regaling each other with our stories of how we spent the day. My kids still talk about what I did that day, and I’d like to think it might have influenced their sense of justice more than if I’d gone to synagogue.

When it dawned on me that the day my book, AfterMath, would publish, September 7, 2021, was also the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I thought of that day two years ago, the first time I celebrated the Jewish New Year in a non-traditional way. I might have resisted spending all day online, doing interviews and zoom-launching the novel, if it were a different book.

AfterMath was difficult to get published. Because it centers on the lives of seventh graders who survived a school shooting a few years earlier, still coming to terms with their grief and identity and futures, many editors and publishers didn’t want to take on the topic. I was told several times that kids aren’t really thinking about school shootings and gun violence (they are—shooting drills start in kindergarten for most, earlier for some), that parents wouldn’t want their kids reading about it (parents are, for the most part, grateful to have a way to start this discussion with their middle schoolers), and that people wouldn’t want to buy this book for their kids (it’s early, but so far, so good!). I think the hunger to talk about difficult things has only grown with the pandemic, with the protests for racial justice we saw last summer, and with abortion bans and political upheaval and climate change at the front of our minds.

As Jews, we can’t hide from the hard things. Tikkun olam—it’s our commandment to repair the world, a task which we cannot complete with blinders on. The more I thought about it, actually, the more appropriate it felt to launch AfterMath into the world on Rosh Hashanah. Normally, I would have been in temple, setting my intentions for a brand new year. What is a better intention, though, than to use my voice and my platform to speak out about ending gun violence, fostering empathy, and helping others? During the Days of Awe, we come together collectively to atone for the sins of our community. This book is my atonement—my shofar’s call to all who will listen—that it’s time to use our collective strength to regulate guns and end violence in our streets, schools, grocery stores, temples, mosques, churches, and shopping malls, and to foster a kinder, softer world.

The High Holy Days are a time to remember loved ones we’ve lost. The theme of grief in AfterMath is quite appropriate for Yom Kippur and Yizkor, that people who die live on in our memories of them, that we honor them by continuing the work, as it's written in Pirkei Avot.

Working on the computer and being present on social media feels nothing short of sacrilegious (for me—I know everyone observes differently!). But if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is to be soft and to be flexible. There are ways to observe that look different than they used to. There are ways to bring the Holy into our previously profane spaces. There are ways to pray that we might not previously have recognized as prayer. This year, AfterMath is my prayer for the world. Next Year in Synagogue.

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Congratulations, not only for writing the book, but for keeping up your courage and determination and for actively pursuing tikun olam.
wishing you a bright and blessed new year.

How to cite this page

Barth Isler, Emily. "How To Mark A New Year." 14 September 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/how-mark-new-year>.

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