New Customs for the New Year

Girl releasing a paper ship into the waterA few years ago, a guest lecturer from New York visited the Berlin synagogue at Fraenkelufer and showed our congregation a new way of practicing an old Rosh ha-Shanah custom, that of tashlikh.

Usually Jews gather for the New Year holiday at the bank of a river and scatter breadcrumbs in the water as a symbolic way of shedding their misdeeds of the last year. The American professor did not strew breadcrumbs in the canal across from the synagogue however; rather, she placed a little homemade paper boat into the water, in which she’d tucked a letter to God. In the letter, she begged for forgiveness for her offences and affirmed her resolutions. The letter also contained thanks for the good experiences of the last year and her wishes for the coming one.

This new twist to an old custom was well received at the synagogue on Fraenkelufer. Since then, a number of congregation members gather on the bank of the canal shortly before the first service of the evening and send their brightly-colored tashlikh boats out to sea. And the custom has developed even further: last year some threw petals onto the water from flowers they had collected and dried, to follow the boats. This gesture fit well with the theme of forgiveness, since a bouquet of flowers is often given as a token of apology. Thus, in a way, one sends off last year’s apology flowers, and returns home with the empty vase – ready for a new blossoming.

paper boat floating in the waterUnintentionally, though unsurprisingly, this ritual is particularly popular with women and girls, such as the daughter of a friend of mine shown with her tashlikh boat in the photograph.

The traditional tashlikh prayer is spoken on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah. It is recommended that the letters in the boats remain anonymous, since they could land in the hands of curious residents of Kreuzberg. The true recipient will know who wrote them!

Shanah tova!

Shlomit Tulgan, Education