TIME TO REFLECT: Local Jews see new beginnings for Rosh Hashanah

Ronn Owens can still smell the New York air thick with cigarette smoke. His mother's family puffed outside the synagogue while his father's family inside recited Rosh Hashanah prayers in tallitot and kippot.

The New Year, he said, always takes the KGO radio host back East — mentally, at least.

"It pulls me back to my childhood, to my family, even though my parents are gone. It's my roots, that's why I love the holidays so much," Owens said. "The beauty of all this is, it's a cleanup time. That's what I love, a nice fresh start."

That symbolism hits close to home, Owens said, as he begins juggling his radio program with a new seven-minute television segment on KRON's First 4 News. Plus, he's been busy getting daughters Laura and Sarah back to school.

"I try to remind them all the time, but especially now, to always try new things," he said.

Many Jews share the view of Rosh Hashanah as a time of renewal. That, however, takes many forms, from the spiritual to the tangible.

The Bulletin asked a range of people — from San Francisco Supervisor Barbara Kaufman to comedian Josh Kornbluth to Alan Kaufman, a local artist who has AIDS — what the Jewish New Year means to them. Their responses follow.


Chana Bloch is a poet. It seems fitting that what strikes her most about Rosh Hashanah is the holiday's imagery.

"I love the notion that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world," she said, "and I am drawn to the symbolism of tashlich, when we empty the crumbs of the old from our pockets and our hearts and open ourselves to the new."

For Bloch, who is a professor of English at Mills College in Oakland, the tradition of throwing crumbs into the water as a sign of casting away sins or releasing the past holds particularly potent symbolism this year.

"As someone who is getting divorced after 25 years of marriage, I find that ceremony especially moving and powerful," she said.


"It's all about kibitzing and cruising for men," Alan Kaufman joked of Rosh Hashanah services, his spirits high.

In the last few months, Kaufman's T-cell count has dropped to below 40, signifying a dramatic weakening of his immune system, but the San Francisco artist is feeling fine. A little tired, maybe, but he still hasn't fallen seriously ill to AIDS.

Perhaps that's why he doesn't think of his life as any more of a blessing or a miracle with this year's celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

"AIDS hasn't really changed the way I look at events, at markings," Kaufman said. "I've always been able to keep up the hope that I will survive. I'm not the walking dead."

In the four years since his diagnosis, Kaufman has become more Jewishly connected, "in a cultural way." He enjoys the feeling of community at San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, listening to the blowing of the shofar at services there, and finds meaning in Yom Kippur, especially yizkor (the memorial service).

But the concept of a new year as a distinct new beginning just eludes him.

"Life is a continuum, a circle. It's hard to pick a spot and say `ah, now it's new,'" he said. "The idea of rejuvenation is a neat concept but one that never caught me," at least not in relation to everyday life.

The process of creating art, he said, is different.

"Before I begin, I clean off my desk. I begin early in the morning so I'm fresh, after my tea and my breakfast. Charcoal here. Eraser there. And then I just start," Kaufman said. "That first line is the hardest part.

"Doing art is very frightening. The process is very, very scary. You're delving into your soul, and each drawing opens up a whole box of questions."

Yet art, like life, has a cycle — a birth, life, and death of its own.

"I get depressed in the last days [of creating a work]" Kaufman said. "When you are done, you grieve because that creation died. And that which I cursed about, which gave me direction, is now gone."


Max Garcia survived Auschwitz. For him, as for many other Holocaust survivors, Rosh Hashanah is bittersweet. On the one hand is a sense of the miracle of having lived to see the beginning of another year.

On the other hand, "it's a time for reflection, in terms of all the things that we have missed, the things that we wish we would have around us," said the San Francisco resident, referring to the parents and sister who died in the Holocaust to whom he never had the chance to say goodbye.

But for survivors, Garcia said, such loss goes hand in hand with a deep sense of appreciation for families created after the war.

"We have grandchildren of our own. We take joy out of that," he said. "We see that we have re-established a family that others wanted to deny us."


S.F. Supervisor Barbara Kaufman associates Rosh Hashanah with family and renewal. This year, she associates the holiday with a specific new beginning — for the city.

That's because she and others have been working for some time to rewrite the city charter now in use, which was enacted in 1931. If voters pass the revised version in this fall's election, she said, they will see a "city government that's more accountable, effective and equitable."

The new charter would unify government, she said, by shortening the term of the appointed chief administrative officer and making that person directly accountable to the mayor and board of supervisors. In addition, the charter stipulates that city commissions reflect the diversity — in ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation — of the city they represent.

"Much of the country is going against affirmative action. This charter is really speaking in many ways for affirmative action," Kaufman said. "We have written in civil rights for all people, including lesbian, gay and transgender people. We're bringing the charter into the '90s."


For actor-comedian Josh Kornbluth, the year 5756 marks the first year of college for his brother Sam, and the monologist's new show, "Pumping Copy," at San Francisco's Marsh theater.

He said talking about his career at this time of year seems "a bit sacrilegious." But in fact, the man known for his quirky view of the world is rather serious when speaking about the High Holy Days.

"Usually about now I think about my late father because he, along with my mother, was responsible for my beginning," Kornbluth said.

"Honestly though, the holidays were a big time for him. My father was someone who had a faith in people's ability to change, remake themselves and change the parts keeping them from fulfillment. I think about that. And I think about the sadness in his life, my own and anyone else's who had hoped for beginnings that weren't fulfilled."


For some, Rosh Hashanah brings them back to basic notions of Jewish identity.

For Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, associate professor and director of the Jewish studies program at San Francisco State University, Rosh Hashanah evokes notions of rededication.

That includes recommitting "to the kinds of forces in my life and in the world that move us toward good," he said. "In part, those are the inclinations that move people toward one another in understanding and tolerance."

Eilberg-Schwartz turns to nature and its challenges for this motivation and strength. "I recently spent time in Santa Cruz, at the ocean," he said.


For most of his life, Manny Kagan had no idea what Rosh Hashanah was all about. The president of Pacific Bay Financial in San Francisco grew up in Riga, Latvia, and any family celebrations of the New Year were secular and underground.

Today, though he is Jewishly educated and a member of the Orthodox Young Israel of San Francisco, Kagan's prime association with Rosh Hashanah is the fall season.

"It symbolizes the cycle in nature. We are reminded that things are coming to end, leaves falling from trees," Kagan said. "Next year will come again and you have to prepare yourself. If you want more flowers in the spring, you have to take care of the ground today.

"It's about going back to one's roots, thinking about where you came from."