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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
They stood by the water's edge and prayed.
"Cast all our sins into the depths of the sea," they said.
Then, one by one Thursday afternoon, more than two dozen members of Temple Beth El lifted their hands and tossed bread crumbs into Mill Creek as it flowed through downtown Bakersfield.
According to the traditions of the centuries-old ritual of Tashlich, they also cast away their transgressions, sloughed off the weight of sins committed over the past year.
"It's definitely a folk custom," said Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein of Temple Beth El. "I don't think the sages approved of it for a time."
But Jews continued to perform the ritual -- as with Thursday's gathering, on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year -- until it became a traditional part of the holiday.
Temple Beth El member Peggie Soltis walked a few yards away from the main group and paused for a few minutes at creekside before throwing small clumps of bread into the lazy current.
"I think of times during the past year when I missed the mark, when I fell short in my actions," she said. "Each year we have a chance to start over."
Judging by the congregants gathered at Mill Creek, Tashlich can be both a private moment of reflection and a social occasion where friends can greet friends and families can build memories.
One mom noted that her kids couldn't think of anything sinful they had done over the past year. She laughed, saying she had little difficulty providing them with a few suggestions.
Connie Wellman, who said she comes every year to Tashlich, smiled as she explained why it's better to throw bread crumbs toward the fishes rather than the birds.
"Because the fishes won't tell your secrets," she said, laughing. "Birds can talk."
But as anyone who has been to Mill Creek knows, the ducks appear to outnumber the fish and few bread crumbs escape their notice.
Still, for the children at Thursday's gathering, the squabbling ducks were pure entertainment. At the same time, the concept of physically tossing away one's sins may have been harder to grasp for the youngest among them.
But for longtime congregant Marsha Parr, the ritual is one her favorite parts of the new year's observance.
"It's very evocative," she said. "You have something in your hand and you see it as you cast it onto the water."
Water plays a meaningful role in the traditions of Judaism, Rosenstein said, from the narrative of the great flood to the story of the Nile River bearing the infant Moses toward the greatness that awaited him.
By casting our sins into the depths, she told those gathered at the downtown park, we state our intention to return to our true selves.
"For many Jews, Rosh Hashana is a time for reciting many words," she said. "Through Tashlich, we use our bodies and actions to do the work of return."
Ultimately, Rosh Hashana leads to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. It begins next Friday at sundown.
"Atonement for us is a process," Rosenstein said.
It is not complete until they have made amends with one another.