Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is the world's birthday in a way, Rabbi Rae Antonoff told congregration members at Adath Yeshurun Synagogue in Aiken last week during the observance of the New Year.
Antonoff, 25, an Atlanta native who received her Certificate in Jewish Nonprofit Management, led services during Rosh Hashanah and will return this week for Judaism's most sacred holiday, Yom Kippur, which begins Tuesday night.
In her sermon Tuesday, Antonoff noted that virtually everyone knows the word “Abracadabra,” the expression that magicians have used as they surprise audiences with their tricks. The word actually dates back thousands of years and means, “I will create as I speak.”
That implies the work of God, Antonoff said, as he created the universe, saying, “Let there be light,” and going on to create humans to walk the earth.
Every word has an effect, some of them positive and others destructive. Antonoff told a story from eastern Europe of a long-ago businessman, Saul, who spread hurtful gossip about another merchant. The rabbi of the town sent for Saul and instructed the man to bring back a pillow. He then told Saul to to cut the pillow apart. The feathers floated everywhere, with many flying out a window.
Pick them all up and put them back in the pillow, the rabbi said. Saul responded with shock that it would be impossible.
“Once words leave your mouth,” the old rabbi said, “you can never get them back.”
The High Holy Days that comprise Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about repentance for transgressions over the past year, Antonoff said.
“What we have said this year, we have no way of knowing (their impact),” she said. “Our words have the power to build relationships, but others can blow them to the ground. Sometimes we have to return to those we've hurt and turn again to those we love.”
Antonoff brought several talents to the service last week. She sang most of the prayers during Rosh Hashanah, accompanying herself on the guitar. Toward the end of the service, it was time to blow blast of sounds on the shofar, or ram's horn – signifying a clarion call to the New Year and repentance.
Antonoff herself provided her own shofar, which is fairly unusual. When she was studying in Israel a few years ago, she wanted her own and learned the instrument from a Frenchman also living in Israel.
“I wanted to be a woman of all trades,” Antonoff said with a smile.
As she prepared to blow the shofar last week, a congregation member noted that Howard Katz, a newcomer to Aiken, had brought his own shofar. Antonoff readily invited him to join her on the bimah, or elevated platform.
“I wasn't expecting this,” Katz said. “But once she knew I could blow the shofar, it was like, 'Let's have fun with it.'”
Their impromptu opportunity turned into a spirited duet that called in the New Year, delighting congregation members.
“Sometimes I think it's like street music, calling to other people to start off the New Year,” Katz said.
Antonoff majored in Jewish studies at the University of Maryland. She later worked on Capitol Hill with an environmental lobby group. After a year of studying in Jerusalem, she enrolled at the rabbinical school in Los Angeles. Antonoff is also working on master's degrees in Jewish education and nonprofit management.
“I find all aspects of Jewish life fascinating,” said Antonoff. “Everyone reacts to it differently. For me, Jewish music is beautiful for each generation it serves. Some chants are so inspiring.”
Most recently, Antonoff has found success in another art form – micrography, also called micro-calligraphy. She creates Hebrew micro-script that is formed into images. Traditional micrography is done in black ink, but Antonoff uses color for a “Women of the Bible” series and two other themes. She currently has a show of her work in Los Angeles, which can also be seen on her website at www.raeandesigns.com.
Antonoff conducted the High Holy Day services in Aiken in 2011 and is excited about being invited to return for the holidays.
“There's something about a community where everybody knows each other,” she said. “You have more resources in larger cities, but you lose the closeness.”
Editor's note: This version of this story has been updated to correct Antonoff's education. The Aiken Standard regrets the error.