Sweet and Bittersweet Reflections at the New Year

By David Bernard

As the Yamim Nora’im approach each year – especially Rosh Hashanah – my wife and I remember with great joy, warmth and happiness, tinged with some sadness, how we have celebrated this very significant time in years past.

Over my own 75 years, and our 50 years of marriage, we have lived in many cities all over the world, but have always gathered on Erev Rosh Hashanah with friends and family who honor this enduring Jewish tradition, as well.

This tradition began when my parents emigrated from London to South Africa in 1939. My dad, a family physician, landed a job in a small town outside Johannesburg, where they knew no one. One of his first patients was a lovely, warm Orthodox Jewish woman with a large family. Upon learning that my parents had nowhere to go to celebrate the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, she immediately invited them to join her and her family. That was the start of what has turned out to be a 75-year-long friendship, which endures to this day.

In 1973, my wife and I moved to Boston with our two young children. Although my sister had lived there for a few years and had accumulated friends, we didn’t have any friends there. Yet once again, on our first Erev Rosh Hashanah, we were “adopted” by many Boston families who soon became firm friends. In the following years, our own home became the focal point for this annual Yom Tov gathering, which became known as “Rosh Hashanah at the Bernards”. At this warm and wonderful event, we regularly hosted many friends, families, out of town guests, and various stragglers with nowhere else to go. This meaningful tradition has been experienced by us so many times and in many different places—in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch, South Africa, where the Yamim Nora’im take place in the southern springtime; and in London, Jerusalem, Florence (Italy), Delhi, and Philadelphia in the northern autumn. As time has passed, our Erev Rosh Hashanah ritual has kept the same traditions, while including our ever expanding and diversifying family. We now look around the table and see cousins, nieces, and nephews who are of Chinese decent, Japanese descent, and African Americans who are singing and saying their prayers along with us, dipping apples in honey for a sweet New Year.

In 1992, our joy and delight surrounding this day was dented by the death of my wife’s beloved father, who died on Erev Rosh Hashanah in 1992. Remarkably, on Erev Rosh Hashanah seven years later, her beloved mother died. The sadness of their yahrzeit mixes with the sweetness of sharing apples and honey, reminding us in each coming year that joy and sorrow are so often mixed and that our lives are filled with moments of complexity from each Rosh Hashanah to the next.

David Bernard

Over his 50 year career in healthcare, David Bernard held numerous clinical, executive and academic positions, including that of Professor of Medicine at Boston University, The University of Pennsylvania, and, most recently, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He now works with his son conducting Clinical Research on new medications for patients with chronic illnesses. He began coming to BJ after moving to New York in 2002.