I have been asked to bring something appropriate as a side dish, light and perhaps vegetal. Since some of the people joining us have mild lactose intolerances, I keep myself from making a dip of any kind or using cheese, and instead head to the local Sprouts to check out their salad bar. I am in luck: broccolini salad with some craisins and a lactose-free demi glaze. Yes, the price is high for two pounds of the stuff, but why run the risk of buying a lesser product? I pick up some white wine from Francis Ford Coppola’s Diamond collection and rush home to get dressed. I put on a soft blue button-up, a gray floral cardigan, and black corduroys; sharp but lazily hip is the name of the game. When I drive up to my friend’s home, I tiptoe inside, a few minutes late, and am vigorously whispered at: “Shhhh! So rude!” Octavia Spencer has just won Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.
That moment was set in 2012. The Academy Awards are held in Los Angeles every year, and televised just as regularly at the end of each February. This year, in the month’s final weekend, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosts its 85th awards installment. Like clockwork, my parents asked which friend’s house party I will be attending in celebration. I will inevitably stress about the ever-increasing salad bar “market price” at the nearby grocery stores. It is likely that I will be asked what I thought of Argo. I found it tense but formulaic.
The dress code, the grouping of the community for a common event, the need for excessively nice foodstuffs — the Oscars have become one of the world’s most inclusive a-theistic holidays. Like any good holiday, there are always lots of flashing lights, family in-fighting, and poor driving on the way home. I myself deify my favorite actors as more than just particularly skilled artists or hard workers; would anyone deny that Daniel Day-Lewis is as much a demi-god as Hercules? Sometimes, we even provide one another with gifts, as if to say, “Sorry you didn’t like Les Miserables, but maybe these party hats and groggers will alleviate the stress of its multiple wins!”
I am reminded every February that just a few months later, I will be neglecting an actual holiday with real cultural and religious importance. The Hebrew calendar operates differently than the Gregorian one, and begins its New Year around late August. Google tells me that this year, what Western culture considers September 4 (a Wednesday) is actually the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Looking at my personal planner I can already tell you I’ll be busy that day. Who knows what with? I just know that celebrating the Jewish New Year properly is not in the cards for me.
Years ago, when I lived at my parents’ house, there was no secular excuse for missing even a single day of school. In seventh grade, I broke my right wrist, and was up all night in pain. When I asked if I could miss that day because I had not slept and my arm really hurt, my mother told me, “If you want, you can take a nap when you get home. As for your wrist, I’m sure the teacher will let you type your notes on a school computer.” Yet both parents insisted that, if Rosh Hashanah fell on a school day, I would miss school — our traditions required my attendance at holiday services. Each Rosh Hashanah included family gatherings, lots of cooking of soups and quiches, and especially, constant bickering. Typically, our arguments were about my dress code. I wanted to wear my striped purple Vans with some ripped jeans; my mom thought I should wear a beige three-piece suit with a matching yarmulke.
When I left Los Angeles County for San Francisco to attend university, I retreated from Rosh Hashanah celebrations. I was unwilling to search for a totally new synagogue, having spent my youth attending the requisite services and parties in the exact same building. I had heard that, in some cases, Conservative temples charged for non-member attendance; my student budget did not accommodate for religious New Year observation. And I had absolutely no intention of buying a new three-piece suit knowing I would not wear it again for a year. So Rosh Hashanah fell by the wayside (though the family bickering about it continued).
Early the next year, after missing services for the first time in 18 years, I celebrated my 19th Academy Awards viewing and felt great joy. I can’t remember how I was dressed, but since I’m the author of this article, I’ll say quite handsomely. I cheered and bowed my head when The Hurt Locker beat the insipid, melodramatic trash that was Avatar. I called my mother and we argued about Sandra Bullock’s talent level. I ate a delicious kale salad with garlic, sesame seeds, a light soy sauce, and some lemon juice. Holiday cheer was all around me.
As the media’s relationship to filmmakers and stars has grown — in my opinion, a natural result of any art form’s development, in the same way museums sprout up when art collections grow too large for someone’s house — my generation has become connected in a deep cultural way to cinema. So powerful is my interest in Philip Seymour Hoffman that crowds of my friends will get together, buy each other food, dress sharply, and cheer when he wins award after award. We celebrate the Academy Awards in the way that, in our childhoods, we may have gone to church or to synagogue or to the mosque. We feel festive and we think deeply about the year’s film-art.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, “Happy Holidays!” And sorry, but I can’t make it to your Rosh Hashanah picnic.
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Sean Malin is a film critic, travel junkie, and reviewer based in Los Angeles. His pieces have been published in L.A., San Francisco, and Sydney, Australia. He has recently been released from his stint as an inmate for public cinephilia.