Tashlich: Casting off and Building Community

September 2, 2021

Every year, I spend Tashlich at the beach basking in the sounds of jazz, bag pipers and horns – in addition to the Shofar. It’s a tradition that I started with friends years ago when I truly needed community. And this year, after spending so much time apart, we all need community more than ever. This unique tradition, now shared with Reboot and the JCCSF and drawing crowds of hundreds, began in the spring of 1996. I was still getting my land legs in San Francisco. I had just moved from Los Angeles and left behind all my communities, especially my Jews. I was still trying to find my people and feeling isolated in a relatively new city and I was in search of a community, leaning on old rituals to bring a spark and connection to my Jewish heritage. So I invited my few new friends to join me on Ocean Beach for Tashlich. 

Tashlich, which literally translates to “casting off,” is a ceremony performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which happens to fall this year on the rather auspicious day after Labor Day. During this ceremony, Jews symbolically cast off the sins of the previous year by tossing pebbles or bread crumbs into flowing water.”

I’ve always embraced the idea that rituals act as a grounding force, transporting the familiar, and can bring you “home” regardless of geography. The contrarian in me also loves the idea that some Jewish scholars had argued that Tashlich was pagan in nature and had, for a time, been excluded from Rosh Hashanah rituals.

Of course, I brought some bread but I also brought a handful of long branches and twigs. I had the idea of writing the things I wanted to leave in the past year in the sand, so that they would be swept away by the waves – literally erased by the current.

When this all began, it was a tiny handful of new friends, some bread crumbs, sticks, and “new” fruit. In some traditions, the second night of Rosh Hashanah is time to eat “new fruit,” or seasonal produce that hasn’t been tasted yet for the fall season. Fruit symbolizes gratefulness for being alive and allows us to taste all the sweetness life has to offer.

Looking back, now, I can reflect on our modest beginnings: six of us huddled underneath the thick coldness of Karl’s fog, munching on figs, kumquats, and passion fruit. A sweet, sour, and tart mix of casting off our sins and filling our hearts with goals and hope for the coming year. It is hard to believe what that moment has become. Through the years it has migrated into a huge celebration of mixed cultures and communities.

I can’t even remember the order in which we have added new rituals but I recall our growth and progress: 

  • Reboot’s Tanya Schevitz staying up half the night to make individual S’more kits (before COVID)! 
  • Indian fry bread slathered in honey with a giant line of kids snaking through the sand and around the fire pit. 
  • David Katznelson’s genius of adding a soundtrack to our ritual, which of course, brought two communities together, rich with their own traditions and cultures, stirred into the Tashlich pot. 
  • The Church of John Coltrane, brings joyful horns and rhythm, mixing African Orthodox liturgy with Coltrane’s quotes and music. Apparently, the only thing missing was the great highland bagpipes, the sound of Scotland leading us to the water’s edge. Who knew! 

Today it is a perfect balancing act of organized chaos, with hundreds of revelers casting off together to the rhythms of the ocean, shofar blowers scattered across the beach, members of Jazz Mafia and the Ministers of Sound of the Saint African Orthodox Church, and Bag pipers guiding us to the water’s edge.

Never have we needed the sweet embrace of our community more than this year. With masks, and soul and sins to cast off, I hope there will be a beautiful harmony between the rituals we have created over the past years and all the newness of coming together after this period of pandemic isolation.

Featured Image: Image of sunset for Tashlique at Ocean Beach 2021

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