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I Don't Really Know Much About Rosh Hashanah Except That We Throw Bread at Ducks | Jennifer Olson

I Don’t Really Know Much About Rosh Hashanah Except That We Throw Bread at Ducks

“We need to do something for Rosh Hashanah,” said Hannah, hovering over me at my desk.

“Fuck, is that really this week?” I replied. I didn’t turn to face her, most of the conversation consisted of her speaking at me while I stared into my computer screen.

“Yeah, it is,” replied Hannah. “I thought you were Jewish.”

“I haven’t gone to temple in years.”

“Like, what even is Rosh Hashanah?” asked Hannah.

“It’s Jewish new year.”

“Is that the thing where they have the coke bottles with the yellow caps?”

“Dude, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I ground my open palm into my right eye.

“You know, when the grocery stores have the two-liter coke bottles with the yellow caps. My husband is really into soda made with real sugar, he buys like ten bottles every time they come out with yellow cap coke.”

“Oh, I think that’s Passover,” I said.

“Jewish Easter!” replied Hannah. There was a pause and then Hannah continued, “But anyway, we really should have something for Rosh Hashanah. We want to make all of the new students feel welcome. This is the first year we’ve had move-in during a religious holiday.”

I was going to mention Ramadan but I let it go. “We could take the students to a lake and throw bread to the ducks.”

“What?” said Hannah.

I turned to face her, feeling that any further conversation spent not looking at her would be antagonistic somehow. “When I was a kid, the parents would take us all to a park and we would bring bread and throw it to the ducks in the water.”

“Awh, that actually sounds really cute,” said Hannah. She was holding her hands together. “What does it mean?”

“I’m actually not sure. Something about sins probably. I don’t know, I was never really a good Jew.”

“Are you sure this is like a real thing? And not just a family thing?”

“I’m pretty sure all the other Jewish families did it too,” I replied.

“Well that sounds like a fantastic idea, like something to help the Jewish freshmen feel like a family. This is so perfect.”

I thought for a few seconds about lakes near campus. I thought for a few seconds about where I had even seen ducks in town. Ducks on a lake always seemed so Americana. Definitely not Hopper Americana, more like Rockwell Americana. San Paulo never felt very Rockwell. It was so un-Rockwell I couldn’t remember ever seeing a duck in the six years I lived there. I wondered if there could be a quality of life metric based on some sort of duck-to-human ratio.

Still facing Hannah, I asked, “Do you know of anywhere in town that has ducks? Like a park or something?”

“San Tomas River Park might have some ducks. That’s probably not the best place to introduce new students to San Paulo though.”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Oh! Arches State Beach! They have a little lake thing with ducks. You should call them to make sure though. I think ducks might migrate in the fall.”

“I’ll call right now just to make sure.” I was sincerely not sure if ducks were a migratory bird.

“Thank you so much!” said Hannah, with what I’m sure was genuine thankfulness. “I’m gonna go meet with Joseph and the rest of the new RAs, just radio me if you need anything.”

I thanked her and said goodbye. Hannah left.

I felt socially anxious about calling the park ranger to ask about ducks. I googled “Arches State Beach ducks” and found nothing. I looked through a gallery of three-hundred and forty-three photos of the beach, posted by Yelp users, and found no photos of ducks. I looked through the California State Parks website and found no information about ducks or a lake, just details about making a camping reservation and paragraph about the moratorium on bonfires due to a state-wide drought. I gave up and googled the phone number for the beach.

The phone rang six times before someone answered.

“Arches State Beach,” said the male voice on the phone.

I put on my professional voice, “Hi, this is Rebecca Teitel, I’m the Assistant College Programs Coordinator for Ansel Adams College at University of San Paulo, I’m calling to ask about your ducks.”

“Here, let me transfer you to Sandy,” said the male voice.

I said “thank you” but the phone had already started re-ringing. I wondered why he was transferring me. I wondered if Arches State Beach had a duck specialist. Maybe he thought I was an idiot and didn’t want to talk to me.

“Hi this is Sandy, now how can I help you?” Her voice had the slightest Midwest accent.

“Hi Sandy, I’m Rebecca Teitel, I’m the Assistant College Programs Coordinator for Ansel Adams College. I just wanted to ask if you had ducks at the state beach.”

“Oh,” said Sandy. “Yes, we have ducks! Why do you ask?”

I probably should’ve hung up right then but I continued, “Well, it’s Rosh Hashanah, and it’s an American Jewish tradition to throw bread to ducks. I was planning on bringing the new freshman move-ins, well the ones who want to do something for Rosh Hashanah, down to Arches.”

“Ooh I’m afraid I can’t let you do that,” said Sandy as happily as someone could say that.

“Oh,” I replied.

“Bread is actually really bad for ducks. The poor things might eat too much and get serious digestive problems.”

“Oh, well, I guess we won’t come by then. Thanks for the help.”

Sandy cut me off, “Oh no, we can figure something out! C’mon now, lets think about it.” Sandy said hmmm into the receiver multiple times.

I didn’t know what to do so I just kind of stared off into space while Sandy thought and hummed. It would be great to have ducks on campus, I thought in my head. But then I realized that they might shit all over cars. I tried to think of a time when I had ever seen a duck sitting on an electrical wire like a Seagull.

Sandy finally asked, “What exactly is Rosh Hashanah?”

“Oh,” I said, “it’s Jewish New Year.”

“Why do you feed ducks? What does it mean?”

“I’m actually not sure, it was just a tradition thing I guess. Something to do with sins maybe. My parents probably explained it to me at some point but we only did it when I was young and the details probably just never took in my memory.”

“Kinda like the Christmas pickle,” said Sandy.

For a moment, I hoped that maybe she would just leave it at that and I wouldn’t have to listen to an explanation about what a Christmas pickle was, but my silence and inaction was an invitation for Sandy to continue. Apparently, Sandy’s family would hide a small pickle somewhere deep inside their Christmas tree. The kids of the family would then have to search through the tree, without disrupting ornaments or lights, and find the pickle. The kid who found the pickle would get an extra present, usually chocolate or some sort of candy. It was a German-American tradition, said Sandy.

I told Sandy, “that’s really interesting.” She continued to hum, thinking about what else I could do at Arches State Beach, instead of throwing bread at ducks, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

I realized why the male voice that answered my phone call transferred me to Sandy. Sandy was the loneliest park ranger in the world. He was doing Sandy a favor. I wasn’t even annoyed, I kind of liked Sandy now. She had one of those ageless voices, with an ageless vocabulary. She could’ve been twenty-two or should could’ve been forty and I would have no idea. I went over her life in my head. She was a transplant, without any family in San Paulo. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment near the beach, with a low-maintenance animal. She probably listened to NPR on her drive to work every morning. She didn’t go to bars, instead she would spend some of her weekend free-time at the tea cafe, that had a big sign over the counter that reads “This is an electronics-free space. We kindly request that our patrons refrain from using their cell phones and computers. We hope that for just a part of your day, you can come here with a friend or a book and enjoy being free from ever-present distractions of electronic devices.”

“Oh, I just came up with the greatest idea, Rebecca.” Her use of my name was cute.

“Lets hear it,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, as if she were preparing a pitch. “So we have these caterpillars. They’re non-native caterpillars and the eat up a bunch of the chaparral. Usually we have days where the park rangers go around wearing gloves, and we just pick the little guys right off the plants and throw them in a garbage bag. What I was thinking, was that you could bring your students down here, and we could pick the caterpillars right off the plants. And when we have enough caterpillars, you can feed them to the chickens we have at the research center. That way you’re still feeding something to some sort of bird!”

This was the cutest idea I had ever heard. It seemed a bit complicated though, and I wasn’t entirely sure if it kept the spirit of the simple tradition of feeding bread to ducks. I said, “That’s a great idea Sandy!”

“Do you really think so?” she asked.

“Yeah of course! That’s so creative!” I wasn’t being condescending, even if I was being a bit disingenuous. I added, “well I’m going to call my Rabbi and ask if this is acceptable for Rosh Hashanah.”

“Okay! Please let me know what he says. Here, I’ll give you my personal number, you can call or text me when you find out.”

The offer of her personal number threw me off. What kind of park ranger gives someone their personal phone number. Sandy gave me her number. We both said our goodbyes. I thanked her, and she told me “It’s so comforting to know that such amazing people work in education.”

After I hung up, I looked at my phone screen. We had talked for more than twenty minutes. I had other things to get done for freshmen move-in but all I did was sit at my desk and think about Sandy. I didn’t plan on spending so much time thinking about such a small duty for my job, an afterthought from my boss. I don’t know why I told her that I was going to call a Rabbi. I was actually pretty sure that her idea wouldn’t work as an appropriate substitute for the bread-to-ducks tradition because I was sure that a body of water had something to do with it.

I thought to myself, “maybe I should just bring the kids to the duck pond anyway.” But there was the possibility of Sandy finding us. I couldn’t let down Sandy, at least not like that.

After sitting at my desk for thirty more minutes, Hannah came back in to tell me Joseph needed my help in the crafts closet. I tried to tell Hannah about the phone conversation I just had with Sandy. She was too busy. She asked me if I could tell her later. The next couple of days before move-in were incredibly busy. It was the busiest part of the year for our jobs. I was responsible for dozens of student Residential Assistants, and those students were responsible for hundreds of move-ins. Rosh Hashanah sort of left my mind.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day after move-in, I was making a poster for throwing bread at ducks. My friend had a pond behind his house that had a small population of ducks, and he didn’t care about their digestive tracts, so I decided I would bring the students there.

As I was filling out paperwork to use a school van, I realized I had never called Sandy back. She gave me her personal phone number but I never gave her mine. I felt so incredibly guilty that I just tried to ignore it. I smoked weed, trying to make myself feel anxious about other things, but all I could think about was Sandy.

I waited at the poster-advertising meeting spot, at the poster-advertised time. I was high and eating a burrito. I looked into the burrito and noticed that it had both cheese and meat. I said out loud to no one, “what kind of asshole eats a meat and cheese burrito on Rosh Hashanah during a spiritual field trip.” I sat and waited thirty minutes after the posted time and still no one showed up. I would learn later that the dining hall had advertised latkes, fish, and fresh honey challah.

After giving up on Rosh Hashanah, I went into Joseph’s office and listened through the voicemail for the activities office phone. We had been so busy through move-in week, no one bothered answering our phone. Our voicemail instructed parents with questions about move-in to call the housing office and not the activities office. This still didn’t stop more than three-quarters of the messages from being about move-in.

After fifteen minutes of skipping through voicemail from parents concerned about parking, I found what I was looking for.

“Hi, this is Sandy from Arches State Beach, I was calling to speak with Rebecca, we had spoken on the phone the other day. Well, just have her give me a call back. Looking forward to seeing you all!”

Six messages later was also Sandy. “Hi there again, this is Sandy, from Arches State Beach. I was just calling again to-”

I cut off the message. I didn’t want to listen to anymore. “I’m a horrible person,” I thought out loud. Instead of thinking, “why do I care so much about this,” I thought “why would I do this to Sandy?”

Close to sunset, I drove down to Arches State Beach. I walked around, half-heartedly looking for Sandy, while also trying to avoid her. There were a bunch of couples wearing North While walking by a bunch of sage bushes, I noticed brightly colored caterpillars. I grabbed one in my palm. I tried to find the chicken coop but I couldn’t. I threw it at the ducks but the ducks didn’t eat it. The caterpillar crawled away very slowly. None of the ducks touched it. Driving home, I realized that the caterpillar was poisonous. My hand swelled up to twice its normal size. I took a photo of my hand with my phone. I sent it to Sandy’s phone number with the caption “look what the caterpillars did.”

Seventeen hours later, Sandy replied, “that’s why we wear gloves.”

I replied, “what about the chickens??”

Sandy replied, “their stomachs can handle it.”

About Jennifer Olson

Jennifer Olson is the editor of Sad Girl House. She lives in Santa Cruz, California and would love for you to both follow her on twitter and email her nice things.

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