Cheshvan: Embracing the letdown in community

A close-up shot of the Astronomical Clock in Prague shows the multitude of different hands, numbers, and symbols used for tracking many different kinds of time.

Yesterday marked the beginning of the month of Cheshvan, famously (or infamously) the only month in the Hebrew calendar without a single holiday.1 This month’s beautiful moon manual by the At The Well project speaks of the letdown that must have followed on the heels of an entire month of festivals and celebrations for the ancient Israelites. Returning from their pilgrimage to the Temple, our ancestors would have found themselves reentering their daily lives, harvesting the last of their crops as they prepared their fields and homes for winter. It must have felt surreal, walking back to reality. As the days grew shorter, they’d have little to look forward to until Hanukkah at the end of Kislev, the celebration of light amid the darkness.2

Growing up, I was intimately familiar with the feeling of letdown. The lowest of lows always followed the highest of highs—and they still do, if I’m being honest. At least now I can recognize this cycle and give myself space to feel the emptiness without shame (or I can try to), but as a kid, I had no idea why I was feeling the way I did.

My family would throw Halloween parties every year. We weren’t “supposed” to, once I started at a Jewish day school in kindergarten, but they’d become a beloved tradition while I was in preschool, and so we kept it up for another few years. I loved our parties. We didn’t do much entertaining, and I was an only child, so this one day a year was an excuse for me to go absolutely wild decorating the house with fake cobwebs and rubber spiders, to stuff my face with Pixy Stix and gummy worms, and to have all my friends over at once.

I have a vivid memory of one of our last years, when I was maybe eight or nine: as the last guests filed out the door, I was hit with an overwhelming wave of sadness. The door closed, and I fell to the ground and cried. My parents must have thought I was being dramatic, but in that moment I felt truly devastated. Call it brain chemistry if you want (is that a dopamine withdrawal?), or write it off as childish melodrama—all I can describe is the experience.

I take some comfort in knowing that this cycle, the highs and lows, was something intrinsically understood by my ancestors. A Halloween party isn’t quite the same as a pilgrimage to the Holiest of Holies, but try telling that to an eight-year-old. The letdown always follows on the heels of celebration, and not only is that okay, it’s something to organize our lives around.

I’m experiencing a letdown of a different kind this month. After finally turning in the final draft of my thesis novel—after two and a half years devoted to writing it—I know that this month is going to challenge me. It already has. I’ve barely been able to drag myself out of bed for the past week, I’m having trouble focusing on my schoolwork, and somehow I keep forgetting that there’s a reason for it all. As I try to recommit to a daily writing practice, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s okay to be gentle, it’s okay to go slow. I’m in the low right now, but I’m not alone.

And that really is what’s made entering this month feel actually exciting. I turned in my thesis on the same day as the other students in my cohort; we’re all celebrating and struggling together. I welcomed in the new moon Wednesday night with a group of six sweet friends, the first time I’ve celebrated Rosh Chodesh in community since middle school. (Now that was a disastrous missed opportunity. I’m not sure we understood why they were separating us by gender, and so my friends and I watched resentfully through the window as all the boys played flag football while the girls around us listened to a radio program about menstruation. I couldn’t wait to trash-talk the incipient Rosh Chodesh program to the administration, and I don’t think the school ever tried it again.) Last night I joined a webinar on Jewish protective magic by the incomparable Dori Midnight, where I felt held in community and deeply rooted in ancestral practice. I still feel that ache in my chest, but it’s mellowed by the knowledge that I’m surrounded by others feeling the same highs, wading through the same lows, and holding space for everything that comes in between.

Cheshvan is also a month of recommitting to the values we’ve set in our intentions, and so here are mine. I want to keep holding myself and my community gently. I want to keep reminding myself that the letdown is only as bitter as the celebration was sweet, that the sadness doesn’t diminish our joy but only deepens our appreciation for the beauty we were able to hold for a time. And most of all I want never to forget that we’re here in this place together.

1 As with all things, there’s an exception: Ethiopian Jewish (Beta Israel) communities celebrate the holiday of Sigd on the 29th of Cheshvan. 50 days after Yom Kippur, Sigd commemorates the day G-d first revealed themself to Moshe, and has been traditionally celebrated with a mountaintop fast and Torah recitation, followed by a feast and dancing. 96% of the Beta Israel community now lives in the occupied territory of Israel/Palestine, so even though Sigd isn’t part of the “official” Hebrew religious calendar, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) voted in 2008 to make it a State holiday. You can read more at the Jewish Virtual Library.

2 The Hebrew calendar is lunar-solar, meaning that each month is the length of a lunar cycle, beginning on each new moon, but the calendar as a whole remains generally aligned with the solar seasons. Since there are only about 355 days in the lunar year, the Hebrew calendar occasionally adds a “leap month” to bring the holidays back into alignment with their seasons. (The Muslim calendar, in contrast, is purely lunar, which is why Ramadan, the ninth month, can occur during any season of the solar year. The Gregorian calendar, meanwhile, is purely solar, which is why Christmas or Easter can occur on any phase of the moon. Jewish holidays always fall on the same moon phase during the same season.)

I mention this for context as I write about the “darkest” time of the year—Hanukkah can begin as early as Thanksgiving or as late as Christmas, but it tends to fall in the vicinity of the winter solstice. Sukkot, the holiday for which Israelites would have just made their fall pilgrimage to the Temple, tends to occur around or just after the fall equinox. This year is an early year, so Sukkot began two nights before the equinox, and Hanukkah will end two weeks before the solstice.

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