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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Shana Tova

Today at sundown marks the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is the the beginning of a time of reflection in the Jewish faith called aseret yamei teshuva, or ten days of penintence; Rosh Hashanah is not just about asking forgiveness from God for the things we’ve done wrong in the past year, but about seeking out and apologizing directly to those we’ve harmed. It’s the time of year to reflect upon how we’ve been doing with regard to repentance (teshuva), prayer (tefillah) and charity (tzedakah).

But what do those things really mean, as we apply them to our lives? The idea of repentance isn’t just about apologizing and being forgiven, it’s about strengthening community, about trying to live a life of righteousness. It’s about how you make your life have meaning outside of yourself, every single day, about the kind of person you strive to be — not just on Rosh Hashanah, but every day of the year. And you don’t have to be Jewish to find value in the spirit of what Rosh Hashanah means.

While I am not Jewish myself (or at least, not that my Polish Holocaust-survivor grandparents would ever admit), our family belongs to the Unitarian Universalist church, and one of the things we Unitarians value is teaching our children the core positive values of all faiths — in part because we believe that if we raise our youth to see the similarities between us rather than the differences, and focus on the positive things that bind us rather than those which divide us, we are doing our small part to help build a more unified community in our neighborhoods, our cities, and the world.

So as I was driving my son to school this morning, Rosh Hashanah was on my mind. How am I living my life in a positive way, what can I do every day, in even my smallest interactions with others, to help make others’ lives better? How can I think outside the bubble of myself and my immediate loved ones, to how my actions impact other people?

One small thing I’ve been doing for many years now is to buy the coffee order of the person behind me in line at the Starbucks drive-through. I do this at random times, usually a couple times a month. Many years ago, when my now-14-and-12-year-old daughter and son were small fry, someone randomly did this for me at the drive-through. It happened to be a day when I was feeling very overwhelmed about the choice I’d made at that time of my life to be a stay-at-home mom for a few years. My kids had been having a cranky morning, I was pregnant with their sister, I was tired, I was sick of going to playgroups and playing with blocks and fingerpainting, and I was generally feeling resentful of my own choice to give up a high-paying career to raise my kids through their early years. I’d lost sight, in that moment, of the bigger picture, that this was a brief moment in the history of my life, in which I had decided to sacrifice a corporate career path for the sake of being there every minute of every day to raise and nurture these children who were now squawking and fighting ungratefully in the back seat of our minivan.

I felt, in that moment, uncharacteristically sorry for myself and completely bereft, so I decided to make my morning better by splurging on a decaf soy latte for myself and kid-sized vanilla steamers for the ungrateful wretches sitting behind me holding hands and sniffling because I’d lost my temper and yelled at them to knock it off. Nothing brings solidarity to siblings like a mommy in a pissy mood, and they were in that moment, I’m sure, quite convinced that their mother was mean, crazy, or possibly both. When I pulled up to the window with my debit card, the cashier smiled at me and said, “No charge. The woman in front of you paid for your order, and said to tell you and your kids to have a great day.”

Baffled, I looked at the car ahead of me as the driver pulled away. My foul mood evaporated like Seattle morning fog. I didn’t know that woman, and I never had a chance to thank her; she drove off quickly without looking back. She never knew how much that small gesture she made meant to me on that particular day, at that moment when I was feeling so blue. But I paid it forward by paying for the order of the man behind me that day, and I’ve never forgotten how that single act of kindness completely shifted my mood and my outlook when I really needed it.

So since that day, I’ve made a habit, at least a couple times a month, of doing for others what that kind woman did for me on that day, by paying for the order of the person behind me when I’m going through the Starbucks drive-through. Often, I’ll choose a mother with young children to do this for, because with five kids of my own I know what it feels like to struggle through those days of towing kids around. But I’ll also very often choose someone who just looks stressed out: a businessman, impatiently drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, wanting to get on his way; an older woman who looks (in my overactive imagination, at least) a little sad and lonely.

There are countless ways to show others a little kindness and compassion, even if you don’t want to spend money doing so. I try to make a habit of always looking people in the eye, greeting them with a smile, asking them how their day’s going. This goes especially for people who work in any kind of service industry — your barista, your cashier at the grocery store or movie theater concession stand, the teller at your bank. People often treat people working in these jobs as dispensable, invisible, there only to serve their immediate needs. Sometimes they’ll look up in surprise that I’m asking how their day was. Most times, they’ll smile and seem happier because of being asked.

When I’m at a film festival, I try to remember to consistently thank the volunteers as often as I can. The volunteers holding the door open, the volunteer scanning my badge, the volunteers queuing people up in line. They’re all there giving their time, and it’s such a little thing to show them some appreciation by saying, “Thank you for volunteering. I really appreciate you being here.”

Of course, there are countless ways in which you can give back to others and to your community. Volunteer to teach at your church, if you have one. Serve a meal at a soup kitchen, or sort canned goods at a food bank. Donate food to a food bank — and not the crappy expired kidney beans from the back of your pantry, but a whole grocery bag or two full of canned goods, peanut butter, rice, beans. Gather friends together to make 100 nutritious sack lunches, then go downtown and hand deliver them to homeless people — and be sure you include two sandwiches per bag, and a bottle or two of water. Bring extra water, too — it’s not that easy to find clean, free drinking water in most urban downtown areas.

Hold the door open for someone who’s not expecting it. Offer to help when you see someone struggling. Instead of rolling your eyes in exasperation at the toddler throwing a tantrum in the checkout line, make eye contact with his mom or dad, who are probably feeling embarrassed and crappy and wanting to strangle their offspring; smile, tell them it’s okay, and that it gets better. Because it does. Order more than you can eat when you go out, and before you start eating, box up half of it and give it to someone in need on your way out. If you don’t like to give spare change to panhandlers, just look for someone who looks like they really need a meal, and buy them a big, juicy gyro or burger or a healthy burrito with beans and rice and meat. Because no one should go hungry, no matter what bad choices they’ve made in life.

I can’t say I do all these things every single day, but I do try to do many of them consistently, and to encourage my children to do them as well. I learned compassion from my parents, my uncle-the-priest, my aunt, my grandmother, my great-grandmother. I was raised with the value that kindness to others is a virtue, service to others its own reward. And we work hard to teach our kids compassion for others, and to look at things from the other person’s perspective.

Maybe that big kid you think is a bully just feels bad because other kids are scared of him and no one will play with him, and so he strikes out first as a defense mechanism. What would happen if you tried smiling at him, saying hi, asking him if he’d like to play? Maybe that girl who’s being mean to you has a lousy home life, or her mother’s sick, or her family is about to lose their home. What would happen if you tried just being really nice to her, no matter how she acts to you? It’s hard for most people to continue to be mean to someone who consistently treats them with kindness and respect. Thank the cashier as we leave the store. Say please and thank you to the waitress taking your order, and look them in the eye when you ask for what you want. Hold the door open until that family gets through it, please. That lady dropped her bag and her groceries are spilling all over the parking lot, let’s stop what we’re doing and help her. Be kind to others. Don’t look the other way from someone in need. Turn the other cheek. Let go of anger and resentments. And so on.

Trying to live your life by thinking consistently about how your actions impact others is, to me, the spirit of what Rosh Hashanah is all about. We cannot help but do wrong in our lives, because we are human, and to be human is to err. But we can try to be aware of this, to acknowledge honestly that we pretty much always have something to repent for: a harsh word when a kind one would have been a better choice; starting — or continuing –a fight on Twitter with a colleague; snapping at our partner; holding onto resentments; failing to be grateful for the myriad kindnesses others show to us.

But if we all carried the spirit of Rosh Hashanah with us, every single day and not just once a year, how much better could we make our communities, the lives of our friends, the lives of our neighbors and co-workers, and even the stranger in line behind us at Starbucks? If you chose to try to live every day being positive and happy and mindful of others, who knows how much that spirit of kindness and community might pay forward to the lives of others, in ways that you’ll never know?

Shana Tova, my friends, and especially to any among you to whom I may have given cause to think me an enemy. May your days be blessed with light and laughter, and may you pay that forward to all and sundry that you meet.

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8 Responses to “Shana Tova”

  1. Edward Jackson says:

    Don Heights Unitarian Congregation (Toronto) is where I drive to each Sunday morning with a 96 year old Alziemer’s lady who with her late husband were founders of the “church”. I am not a member (Roman Catholic) but enjoy the warm feeling among all of the people in the small congregation. I get the feeling that they are the sort who would “pay back” if given the inspiration that you seem to have in abundance. Thank you. I also did some volunteer driving for a Hungarian Jew until he was 105 years of age and knew about Shana Tova and the kiddush cup (wine) at this time of year.

  2. Randy Strong says:

    Thank you for such an inspirational column. Your words are so true. Wish more people followed your spiritual and charitable principles. The world would certainly benefit from a more generous attitude.

    The energy of a few, fuels the imagination of the masses.


    Randy Strong

  3. Howard Boos says:

    Kim, thank you so much for the great article. Thanks for the reminder that we can choose to be human beings rather than constantly being caught up in the human “doings” mode.
    Thank you, again,
    Howard Boos

  4. CJ Morgan says:

    Brilliant. Simply brilliant.

  5. Fournier says:

    LOVED!!! Thank YOU!

  6. Theresa says:

    Wonderful post…

    I find that as I get older, I do more of this kind of stuff.

    I’ve done the coffee thing, myself, but now have to find other ways to do that seeing that I’ve bailed on Dunkin’ Donuts, and 99.9% of the Starbuck’s I frequent do not have a drive-through. Other things you can do… if you’re travelling, help someone with their bags, or if on a train or bus, give up your seat for someone. If you got good service from an employee, seek out their manager and let them know – too many people are quick to criticize, but slow to compliment. Do something for a shut-in neighbor….

    All of the above are things that my husband and I do, or have done.

  7. Kim Voynar says:


    Giving up your seat on a bus or subway is a great one. I can’t count how many times I’ve been on one or the other and seen an elderly person, pregnant woman, or mom juggling a baby or toddler (or both) get on, and no one offers their seat. I’ve seen grown men, athletic jock types, teenagers and 20-somethings, avert their eyes and pretend they don’t see the frail 70YO woman trying to stand on a moving bus.

    Seriously, get your butt UP and offer your seat. If you are young(ish) and healthy, it’s not going to kill you to stand for five or ten minutes. I try to be mindful of keeping my eye out as others are boarding for anyone who needs my seat more than I do, but thank you for that reminder!

  8. Barbra says:

    Shana Tova

    Thank you for such an inspirational column.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon