It looked like a slightly subdued New Year's party in September, and that indeed is what it was.
Jewish Heritage Night at the Irvine Fine Arts Center last Wednesday was an amalgam of celebration and reflection, tradition and contemporary culture, high spirits and introspection.
The first such event held at the center, it was an opportunity for an estimated 200 Jews from throughout Orange County to see--during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--ancient and modern Judaism as it was represented in art, song, drama, film and dance. The evening was co-sponsored by the center and the Jewish Community Center of South Orange County.
Rosh Hashanah, which fell this year on Sept. 16, marks the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur, which will be observed Wednesday, is the traditional Jewish day of atonement. It is a practice for many Jews to fast beginning at sundown the day before Yom Kippur until sundown the next day.
Reflection on Past
The High Holy Days offer Jews the opportunity not only to celebrate but to reflect on the past and the coming year.
"It's very specific in that it gives each Jew the opportunity to ask God for forgiveness," said Carl Leiter of Irvine. "It's not so much atonement as reflection, rededication to high ideals."
"This takes you back to your roots," said Paul Elkin of Irvine as he watched a group of women and children dancing in a circle in one of the center's rooms. "You can see tradition here. Judaism is based so much on tradition. It's really a way of life. You actually live it, the song and the joy of it.
"Look at them dancing," he said, nodding to the women and children in the middle of the room. "They go from 3 years old all the way to 75. They're all partaking of life."
While the dancing was perhaps the most active event of the evening, a comedic presentation of Sholem Aleichem's short story "Heaven" attracted the largest crowds. Also presented were two documentaries: "Jerusalem: Center of Many Worlds" and "Story and Saga of the Old Testament," as well as folk singing by Sharon Wayne.
In one room of the center, several paintings by Jewish artists were displayed. Nizza Kutany of Woodland Hills, the owner of several of the paintings, said the works "symbolize the foundation of Western religion. In some of these paintings (you see) symbols of the holy days."
One painting in particular, by Israeli artist Abram Ebgi, showed, in several panels, symbols of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, such as the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn, a Rosh Hashanah tradition.
'God, Listen to Us'
"To accept the new year," said Kutany, "you have to be pure, you have to try to find the best of you and get rid of the sins of the last year. The blowing of the shofar is a signal to open the gates of heaven. It says, 'God, listen to us!' "
Easily one of the most active attendees was Erna Sharf, 62, of Laguna Beach, who danced enthusiastically and often throughout the evening. She said she always fasts on Yom Kippur "because it's healthy for the stomach."
Born in Vienna, Sharf said she and her husband, Paul, 72, met at a dance there and have continued dancing, particularly at the Jewish Community Center, where she took up Jewish folk dancing.
The new year, she said, "is a happy reason to celebrate. Life is funny. I think we have to celebrate it every day and make the best of it. And whenever I hear music, I just love to dance."
David Siegel, president of the Jewish Community Center, said the evening was "a perfect opportunity for the Jewish community to get together. I'm sure we'll try to do it as an annual event."
Which means, he said, that the next Jewish Heritage Night will be held in the Jewish calendar year 5747.