From where I sat at the Shabbos table, I could see half of Jerusalem through the sliding glass door. The sky was dark, really dark and I was searching for the moon when Lori handed me the plate of sushi. We were 15 people spread across a dining room table and a bridge table with Sushi, sesame noodles, Lori’s world famous guacamole and cut up salmon fillets in teriyaki sauce. It was Friday evening, Dec. 31st, 1999.
Now, most of us scoffed at the idea of anything really serious happening on the millennium New Year. But we all took a precaution or two. Extra money from the bank, a filled bathtub, bottles of spring water, canned food, calling home—hearing the voice of family one last time before the millennium went out. You know, the basic precautions.
But, we didn’t leave the city as parents back in America might have hoped. You know, we didn’t leave Jerusalem, the center of the world where all that religious stuff was suppose to happen. Like the beginning of the end of the world, for example. I did harbor a fear that one minute after midnight I might be no more—but I didn’t share it with anyone. Because everyone else seemed so calm, cool and collected.
“Carol, I love the brown rice sushi. You can’t tell the difference!”
They had trust in G-d. Bitachon. Well, so did I. But, still, I’d only been religious and G-d fearing for two and a half years, so I did carry with me the parenthetical (you never know).
It was Shabbat. And we had to go about business as usual – light the candles, make a bracha with kevana (concentration), say tehillim– reciting names for shidduchim, set the table and roll the sushi. We had to focus on G-d and keep conversation limited to anything but millennium talk. The impending midnight. What would happen…
“Oh my gosh—your whole wheat challah is phenomenal!”
“Baruch Hashem. I got the recipe from Allison.”
If some enemy decided to fire scud missiles into the center of town, I would have had a perfect view of the city blowing up (God Forbid). I drank more Shabbat wine than usual.
“Who wants a L’Chaim? Chocolate Liqueur or Scotch?” We raised our glasses. Lori wrinkled her eyebrows in thought, and then circling the room with her wide brown eyes—she declared in a strong voice, “May Hashem help us all to see the good in the world, to overcome our daily struggles, to meet our bashert (intended spouse) and to live meaningful lives.”
“Amen!” And we meant it.
The champagne at dessert was a quiet reminder of past New Year’s Eve activities.
How strange… It seemed like just yesterday that I was standing in Times Square with hundreds of thousands of people, frozen and exhausted, waiting for that stupid ball to drop. That ball that I couldn’t even really see. With this community of people that wasn’t in any way a community except for the fact that they all communed on the same few streets, waiting for something big to happen, though I didn’t know quite what it would be. I probably drank beer even though I hated beer, but you had to be drinking something and chugging a bottle of merlot would not have been appropriate in the squalor of Times Square. I was freezing because I was wearing a cute dress with stockings and high-heeled shoes and a fashionable unlined winter coat in 70 below freezing weather. That’s because we were with a couple of guys that I didn’t even like. They kept making silly jokes and talking about the events of the year as if they really had something meaningful and insightful to say about life and living and the coming year.
“Isn’t it amazing how we’re all gathered here, drinking, sharing this passage of time. It’s like totally spiritual. I’m working on a painting about this idea of communal experience. It’s mind blowing. Just being on 42nd Street—the rest of the world looking on, counting off together…”
“Really…how interesting.” I didn’t know they were going to be such a disappointment when I dressed for the evening. So the truth is, the only thing I thought of all night long was my down comforter, flannel nightgown and heated room. The warmth and security of my bed and a bowl of popcorn.
This New Year’s Eve was something different, though. At 10:30pm, Carol was already reaching for her Lands End jacket and Shari was buttoning her Pea Coat and heading out the door. Wait, I thought—you’ve got another hour and a half. We should be together when the new millennium arrives.
“I’d like to go over the parsha before bed.”
“I’m exhausted. And I want to get to Shul early tomorrow. Plus, Rabbi S. is giving a shiur in the afternoon.” I know it’s Shabbat, but technically we’re not breaking any halacha if everyone stays up till midnight and drinks champagne. But, one by one, the guests left. They’re party-poopers, that’s all. They’re just trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing, like they’re really holy and above all this millennium stuff. I smiled and went along with the whole charade, but deep down, I wanted to stay up and make sure I didn’t blow up or that the dead didn’t rise from their graves. I wanted to make sure the world didn’t come to a complete and final stop without me being there to witness it. I felt there was enough dramatic tension leading up to this moment that I had to see it through.
The few of us that remained, sat around the table sipping herbal tea. A couple told the story of how they met, Lori flipped through the pages of the Chumash, and others picked at the left over lemon bars. I looked out the window.
Could one passing moment really change the face of the earth? Australia had already been through the New Year and we hadn’t heard of any destruction. Was G-d waiting for the New Year to pass through Jerusalem or New York before he did his thing?
And then, it was just a minute before midnight. Some of us stepped out onto the balcony. Others remained in the dining room, sipping tea as if it were any old midnight. Off in the distance, we saw a light flash. Gunfire, I asked? A small bomb? No. Just a few measly firecrackers. After, we heard screams. A terrorist attack? No. It was just midnight and a few people were acknowledging it. Somewhere near the Old City, a few colorful fireworks lit up the sky. Down below us, however, the streets were empty and dark, except for a few stragglers heading home from their Shabbos meals and the yellow light of the street lamps. In a couple of windows, we could make out the dancing silhouettes of new millennium celebrants. But mostly the shades were drawn and the cars parked for the night.
Five minutes after midnight, Jerusalem was silent. Defiantly silent, I thought. By ten after midnight, the remaining guests put on their coats and we all wished each other a good Shabbat as if it were any Shabbat. No one said, Happy New Year. Except maybe me—under my breath, of course. And when they left, we cleared the table and cleaned the dishes.
I looked out the window and Jerusalem was a picture. An extraordinary picture.
Because I’m sure no other city in the world looked this tranquil at ten past midnight on January 1, the year 2000. And I realized how lucky I was to be in Jerusalem where nothing happened and all my friends were too busy trying to make Shabbat than to worry about trying to make a moment in time fill voids and expectations. And I never once thought the entire night about my down comforter and warm bed or that I was trapped in a dull beyond dull conversation or that life was completely meaningless.
Really, I just appreciated sitting around with a bunch of individuals that were not running to get anywhere, that were not desperately trying to catch one moment, or get in some crazy experience just so they would have a good story to share at some later date.
There were no moments to “catch.” Just moments to transcend. And I realized that life had been very lonely back in the days of Times Square and New Year’s Eve celebrations, where my community and communal experiences were defined by a street, a drink, a lit up ball and a few heartless resolutions. Because when the ball dropped and a moment or two had passed, the community dissolved. We trekked to the subway and blinked wearily at each other under the fluorescent lights of the #9 train. I later crawled into my bed, fell asleep and woke-up with a headache and an empty feeling. I was alone.
Maybe I’ve romanticized the Millennium New Year in Jerusalem because I tend to over romanticize everything—but really, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more pleasant and peaceful New Year. And maybe that’s because I realized for the first time, on an emotional level, that — it’s NOT MY New Year! I have Rosh HaShana! And I was SO grateful that it wasn’t my New Year and I was under no obligation whatsoever to celebrate it. I realized, “I am a Jew!”and it’s really good to be a Jew that keeps Shabbat. Especially when Shabbat falls on New Year’s Eve and I’m living in Jerusalem.
Tara Eliwatt has an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. She is the founder and former Director of the Clifton YM-YWHA’s Camp Oh! Manuyot, an all girls’ camp for the Fine and Performing Arts. She currently resides with her family in Passaic, New Jersey.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.