WASHINGTON — As rain came down Sunday evening and the typical Washington, D.C., sound of passing helicopters whoop-whooped overhead, dozens of Jewish young adults stood at the Tidal Basin with fistfuls of Cheerios, ready to spiritually tackle regrets the way Jews have done for centuries.
The Cheerios are a modern twist, but since the Middle Ages Jews have been flinging breadcrumbs, scraps of paper or prayers into water on Rosh Hashana, or the Jewish new year. The ritual is called Tashlich, which in Hebrew means “casting off,” and its open-ended combination of nature spirituality and self-improvement makes it one of the faith’s most popular and accessible practices.
The holiday, which ran this year from Friday night until Sunday night, is the start of an annual three-week season of judgment and reflection, when Judaism says Jews should be laser-focused spiritually on improving themselves as the Jewish year ends and a new one begins.
The group of mostly 20- and 30-somethings stood in a circle on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Plaza and then gathered at water’s edge as a light rain came and went.
“Who wants to have a cathartic start to the year?” Rabbi Ilana Zietman of GatherDC said, inviting people to step toward the center of the circle when a sentence resonated.
“Step forward if you want to let some [expletive] go!” Rabbi Nora Feinstein of Sixth & I historic synagogue said as a follow-up.
The two groups co-led the event, and soon people spread out along the railing at water’s edge, some with their lips moving as they expressed their intention before throwing. One person switching careers wants to let go of fear and embrace change. Another aims to get rid of masks or things that keep her from being “her truest self.” Another wants to be free of resentment at work. Another wants to accept that some life choices may keep her far from family. Another seeks to embrace the newly discovered reality that a child is on the autism spectrum.
“I name something to myself or to God or to the universe, throw the Cheerios into the water, and the combination of the cleansing power of water and the appetite of ducks will pick it up,” said Maggie Shrager, 32, who leads adult education at Prince George’s Community College. She was there with an umbrella, a friend, her mutt Yuki and things she had been preparing for days to ritually cast away. “At the end of the day it’s not magic bread, but there is a power to setting that intention in a way that’s physical and spoken.”
There are many stories and different analyses of Tashlich’s meaning.
There’s an idea of water being cleansing and protective; the Talmud says fish survived Noah’s flood. Beneath the water’s edge is also metaphorically under the radar, and more modest and private, said Rabbi Yosef Weinstock, an executive committee member of the Rabbinical Council of America.
Judaism teaches that the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (which this year starts the night of Sept. 24) are Jews’ window to repent before God’s judgment is sealed for the year that is ending. Some core mystical Jewish texts say God’s judgment isn’t finalized until the fall festival of Sukkot, which ends this year on Oct. 6. Tashlich is typically done on the first day of Rosh Hashana, but it is considered acceptable and normal to do it anytime during these three holy weeks.
Among the prayers and poems common at Tashlich are those asking for mercy, and also those urging Jews to truly let go of the things holding them back; otherwise, these things will return, like untreated waste that can wash ashore in a body of moving water.
The Washington Post interviewed Jews about their intentions for Tashlich 2023 (or 5784 on the Hebrew calendar, starting this past weekend), and rabbis about the history and meanings and various expressions of the ritual.
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Jutta Brettschneider usually does Tashlich with one of the two synagogues in which she is a member. This year, she organized and led one close to her Brentwood, Md., neighborhood.
Brettschneider grew up in Germany as part of a liberal Catholic community. An occupational therapist, she loves touch and sensory things and the many rituals of Catholic life. When she converted about 15 years ago and began observing Tashlich, Brettschneider said, it felt like confession.
At her Tashlich, she said, she asked people how they can get closer to themselves, their local community and to the global population.
“In Judaism ‘sin’ is something that keeps us from connecting, that makes us distant from God, that is a barrier between what I do and what I can be,” she said.
This year she is thinking, personally, about how she can be both an assertive activist in her efforts to improve the world, and also listen well to others’ strategies, to “let go of this feeling that I need to know the right answer.”
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To Rabbi Shira Stutman, host of the Jewish podcast Chutzpod and former longtime rabbi at Sixth & I, Tashlich is a great physical, embodied, concrete practice. “In a faith where we often think ourselves as ‘People of the Book’ or of the head, this shows we’re of our intellect and also our bodies.”
With Tashlich, Stutman says, “you don’t have to know any Hebrew. You don’t have to belong to a synagogue or be within 6,000 miles of one to participate in this act.”
Tashlich was a response to Jews in the Middle Ages being superstitious, she says. Some rabbis over the centuries didn’t like it because it wasn’t called for in scripture. Or because “they didn’t like the idea you can just throw away missteps. We are commanded this time of year to do tshuva — or repentance — and that is hard and takes time.”
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Sara Wolkenfeld researches and advises on Jewish attitudes and ethics toward technology for Sefaria, a digital library of Jewish texts. She and her husband and their five children moved to Washington, D.C., a few months ago and she’s thinking this new year about how to let go of some of the assumptions and baggage from her previous life in Chicago.
“I have my experience but I also make sure it doesn’t hold me back,” she said.
Wolkenfeld, 44, said she’s also working to let go of her previous concept of herself as a mother of young children — since her children are a bit older now. “It’s being willing to let go of a phase, of ways I used to be, and to look for the new ways I will be.”
Like many Orthodox Jews, Wolkenfeld doesn’t throw food into the water on Tashlich because of an ancient legal prohibition on feeding animals that aren’t yours — considered “work” — on a holy day. A more common custom for Orthodox Jews is to shake out your pockets, a symbolic way of casting off sins or things you want to get rid of before the new year.
“The vibe of Tashlich is celebratory. These days have a weird tension. They are serious, God is standing in judgment of us, but also there is this aspect that we believe God is giving us this chance to start over,” she said.
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Maggie Shrager grew up in — and later left — a Pentecostal home, though her father, who died when she was 8, was Jewish. During the pandemic she pined for a spiritual life and began studying and practicing Judaism.
People in the D.C. area, she said, are “workaholics,” and she wants to focus on defining for herself what the “best version of myself is, the truest version, and casting off things that don’t feel right.”
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Josh Maxey, 30, is executive director at Bet Mispachah, and his 2023 Tashlich — and high holiday focus in general — includes letting go of trying to reach perfection in his job. The pandemic dramatically changed Americans’ relationships with in-person congregational life, Maxey said, and people in Jewish professions have to move on from “the way things used to be,” he says.
“I’m starting to realize: We’re not supposed to go back to that time. We’re meant to look for other ways to engage, and that’s OK. We’re in a different world.”
Maxey cherishes the communal nature of Tashlich, and the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which often uses “we” to describe humans’ failings or sins toward God.
“It’s a reminder that as Jews, yes, we’re individuals, but we are one people. If one falls short, we all do.”
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In a yellow raincoat on Sunday, Meleia Cullen Rose looked out at the Tidal Basin in the drizzle, holding her Cheerios and thinking. Rose, 42, a learning officer at the Federal Transit Administration, puts a lot of intention into her spiritual life, going on retreats, using journals and lists of questions meant to prompt and tease out pre-Rosh Hashanah reflections. She makes lists of people with whom she missed the mark, including herself.
This year she’s thinking about letting go of work challenges, frustration with her parents, and how to be more accepting and present for her parenting journey with her son.
The Hebrew word for sin — “chayt” — is defined more like when something aims for but misses the mark. Rose loves the Jewish approach to that.
“Missing the mark is very human. And I love that in Judaism you’re not absolved until you encounter the same thing and act differently.”