Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Tale of Two Boats



A Tale of Two Boats
Parashat BaMidbar;
Tenth Grade Graduation
May 26, 2017

         We have fled from Pharoah, and we have fed the priests.  The sea split, the waves were walls, we crossed through the water.  Exodus is behind us, Leviticus is over.  Now we wander.  Bamidbar.  In the wilderness.  The Hebrew name comes from the first significant word of the book.  The English name, however, reflects the content.
         Numbers.  We open by taking stock.  By looking around.  With a census.  By drawing a border, with division and distinction, who counts -- and who does not.
         It is with numbers that I want to begin this night, numbers and anniversaries.  Looking backwards but with an eye to what is going on around us, this night I want to share with you… a tale of two boats.
         It was 1939, and the world was dark.  On the 13th of May, 937 men, women and children, refugees all, set sail from Germany, bound for Cuba.  They had paid, they had papers, the way was clear.  The SS St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana sometime between May 26 and May 27, exactly 78 years ago today.

         But by the time the boat arrived even the passengers could tell there was some kind of problem.  Resistance to refugees in Cuba, along with possible antisemitism, had flared, and forced authorities there to revoke their word, refuse entry to all save the 30 non-Jewish passengers, and attempt to return the boat to its port of origin.
         Calls were made, telegrams sent out.  The St. Louis approached the Florida coast, close enough to Miami, it is said, that the desperate souls could see the city lights from the deck of the ship.
         The frantic calls failed.   On June 6, 1939, the United States, knowing there were hundreds of children on board, fully aware of their likely fate, refused the pleas of the St. Louis and the appeals of Jewish agencies advocating on their behalf.  (This, by the way, despite a ready solution close at hand, an easy sail away.  Just a short while earlier, the legislature of a United States territory had passed, and the sitting governor had signed, a decree welcoming European refugees.  Using its statutory power, the State Department summarily overrode the bill passed by the parliament of the United States Virgin Islands.)
         In the wake of the American decision, but also acting independently, dozens -- dozens! -- of other nations followed suit.  Canada said no.  Canada!  As did... every single nation in Latin America.   Every one.
The St. Louis did indeed return to Germany.   One passenger slit his wrists and threw himself overboard as the ship turned around.  Some eventually escaped -- to France, or to Belgium, only to fall into the hands of the Nazis again.  To England, as did the one woman I know who, as a child, was on board that ship.  Some escaped but hundreds, including, of course, many of the children, hundreds died in concentration camps.
*    *      *
The war is over, and the world has changed.  But now in France, from whence the phrase "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."  Seventy years ago, in July of 2017, from a port in the south of France, another boat set sail.
It was an old packet steamer once known as the SS President Warfield.  It began its life currying cargo back and forth right near here, in between Baltimore and Norfolk.  It served both the US Navy and the Royal Navy during the war.  And now the cargo it carried was composed of what some would call illegal aliens, and others undocumented immigrants.
Leon Uris and Paul Newman made this boat famous, with a bit of embellishment and creative license, but the true tale is amazing enough.  The boat, renamed Exodus, left Europe with 4515 displaced persons, all Jews, including 655 children.  On July 18 it came tantalizingly close to port in British Mandate Palestine, only to be rammed by British patrol boats, boarded and, physical resistance overcome, with casualties and fatalities, towed into Haifa.  The would-be immigrants were forcibly removed, placed onto different boats and sent back to France – where they refused to disembark and held out for 24-days.  They were out of rations.  There was a heat wave.  There were less than 20 toilets for the close to 5000 human beings.  France finally refused the boats entry so the British, in their infinite wisdom and with no sense of irony, tugged the boats off to… Hamburg, in occupied-Germany, removed everyone by force, and consecrated them all… in camps.
But the press was present, and no one assaulted any of the reporters.  At least as far as I know.   Eyes were open, and the world was watching.  Pressure finally forced a change in policy.  Those who managed to escape from Europe but were caught en route to Palestine – at least they would now be held in a new Displaced Person camp in Cypress, rather than returned to the killing fields of their former homes.   Repatriated to countries which never viewed them as patriots in the first place.
Cypress was… horrible.  But it was closer to their destination.  And, eventually, even though hundreds had to wait until after May of 1948, most of those on board the Exodus and in Cypress found their way to a new home, in the land of Israel.

To our Tenth Graders I have said, and I will say again now in the last time you will hear it from me… I know… I know that you hear, or will hear, when you go off to college… I know that you will hear a great deal of criticism of Israel.  Some of that criticism I share; it is justified, it will be based on values we share, things we all care about.  But some of it comes from somewhere else, a place of hate, a distortion of history, a denial of Jewish rights and even an attempt to eradicate our existence.  In the midst of that cauldron I remind you, even now, even seven decades later, I remind you of the tale of two boats. 
And I share with you an image, a sign seen just after your arrival, when you get off the plane and board a bus and leave behind Ben Gurion International Airport.  The sign reads: “Ein Lanu Eretz Acheret.  We have no other land.”  Or, to put the matter even more bluntly: we have nowhere else to go.
We who are at home here in America, yes, this was and can be and still  is a great country, with lofty ideals and a human experiment in freedom and opportunity which is unfolding still.  But remember.  Remember the St. Louis, and remember the Exodus.  And know, as Jews, that there has to, there just has to be a place where our fate does not depend… on the good will of others.
But there are other lessons to be learned on this night.  We will remember, this Memorial Day Weekend, and later tonight, in the moments before Kaddish, we will remember the sacrifice of men and women who died in service of this country.  The "ultimate" sacrifice, it is called.  What, then, did they die to defend?  What are the values and visions, the things that make this country great that they were willing to offer themselves in its defense?  And what does this mean for us?

         My friends, in America, and in Israel, in headlines and in a hidden revolution taking place almost out of sight while we are distracted and watching out for other things, in policies and in attitudes we see hearts and minds and doors and gates closing before our eyes.  If there a lesson from history, if the past calls us and values bind, then we must link our history and memory with what is unfolding around us now.  We must join our dreams and journeys with those of others who are, figuratively and sometimes literally, in the same boat.
         “Great win,” is what the leader of our country just said, unprompted, about the victorious Congressional candidate in Montana.  Talk about an assault on the first amendment!  And, steps away from here, goons and thugs in the direct employ of the elected dictator in Turkey initiated a violent attack on peaceful protestors and then hid under the protective cloak of diplomatic immunity and a collegial sense of shared values and mutual appreciation between their leader and ours.  Violence in word spilling over to violence in deed.  The suppression of dissent, the quashing of questions, the closing of borders.  Where does it stop?  What will it take?  Who will step forward to draw a line, and somehow say in way which will work: Dayyeinu.  Enough is enough is enough.  As Israelis say: “ra’inu et a seret hazeh; we have seen this movie before.”
        
         On June 6, the exact anniversary of the United States’ refusal to admit the refugees on the St. Louis, HIAS – the organization once known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, will be holding vigils across the country as part of its Welcome Campaign, drawing attention to parallels between the refugee crises of yesterday and today.  Such vigils will take place at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, and outside of the Capital building.  Watch for more information in the week to come.
         And on June 7, in a follow up to questions asked by our own young people, including some of our Tenth Grade students, I have arranged for our congregation to host one of the area’s first ever Jewish-Muslim Teen Talks and Kosher-Halal Iftar Dinner Discussions, in which  8th- through 12th graders in our congregation and other synagogues can get to know Muslim peers, not just as classmates they come across in school, but in terms of sharing each other’s sense of their faith and identity, their hopes and dreams.  To our young people who are here tonight, I hope many of you can come to this really important evening we have planned.
         And for all of us: what are we going to do to make sure that this country, our home, and that Israel, our homeland, live up to the values and ideals we believe in?  How will you move from the sidelines and as spectators, to being the actors and shapers of the world we want, we know, we need it to be?
         In eerie and haunting imagery, in works which echo now anew, the late, great Israeli poet Yehuda Amicha writes:


בטרם השער יסגר
בטרם האמור יאמר
בטרם אהיה אחר...

Before the gate is locked and shuttered
Before every word is said and uttered
Before I have become something different --
Something other.
Before the mind has lost its way
Before the possessions are packed and put away
Before the pavement hardens --
Here to stay.
Before the apertures of flutes are sealed
Before the laws of nature are revealed
Before the vessels break --
and can’t be healed.
Before decrees and edicts are imposed
Before the hand of God is closed
Before we rise to leave this place –
and go.
        
         Bamidbar.  Numbers.  A census, and a taking stock.  Who is in, and who is out?  Who counts, and how?  And what will you do to welcome home those who wander in the wilderness?
         Shabbat Shalom.
                  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Torah of Traffic: Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Driving




          If God is One and everywhere at once, then surely there are spiritual lessons to be learned from the most ordinary and everyday acts in our lives.  Indeed, I believe, there is great Torah, great teaching to be found in the act of driving.
          This Torah of traffic comes to us in many forms.  Clearly there is a sense of the blessing we might say upon getting our license.  And then there is the very different blessing -- a prayer and a plea -- we would say on the occasion of... one of our children getting a license!  

          I am sure that all of you have your own insights on this topic. Here are a few of mine – along with one recent realization that I think is a great way to approach the coming High Holy Days.
          First: the great decision.  To stay, or to switch?  How we handle lanes and changing lanes is a significant act.  It tests loyalty, patience, a sense of playing the odds.  It balances being in the moment versus the goal of getting someplace a few seconds faster.  And, in fact, physics offers some assistance here.  I once heard that an extensive scientific study of traffic flow reveals an essential equality in outcome to which lane one is in.  And, actually, it may be that those who do crazy things or aggressively shift lanes or stay in the lane they know will disappear in 500 feet… actually help the flow of movement in the end.
          Second: state of mind, inner peace – and geography -- all affect our behavior on the road.   I cannot find the original study, but I remember a report which indicated that how long someone waits to honk their horn at a slow car in front of them varies a great deal by location.  And studies continue to prove that our environment affects our aggressiveness.  How we feel, who we are, and where we are… matters.  Place matters.  Maybe those who claim, for example, that there is something “different” about being in Israel… are on to something after all.  (Although driving, aggressive behavior on the road and the sound of horns are not the immediately obvious indicators of any usual sense of the sacred.)
          Third: driving is an entire social construct in which inner and outer worlds meet.  Soon I will write a separate column about a Stop sign, and what happened when a road was closed off in one direction, but the original stop sign remained in place – even though there was now no possible safety reason for the sign to be there.  What I mean, now, is this: think of all the things, the fixed and the moving parts, the whole view you have when you are driving down the road.  The thing is, though, that no one else has that same picture.  Because there is something missing from your picture, that everyone else can see.  And that something – is you.  We see everyone else’s behavior, and evaluate it.  But unless there are obvious reactions often involving hands and symbolic gestures, we often have no sense at all of how our own driving impacts those around us.  We see out more clearly than we see in.  Just as, in group relations, we often generalize from the very worst examples of the behavior of others, and consider typical only the very best about ourselves.
          Finally, though, what I want to focus on comes back to the act, and art, of changing lanes.  I was so frustrated the other day, in a place where I merged from the right but had to exit left very shortly after that… when no one would let me in.  Signal on, intent obvious, I almost caused an accident behind me because everyone else had to rush forward instead of simply letting me slide in front of them for a short while as I made my way across the lanes.  The words I kept thinking, with increasing intensity, were: “let me in!”

          Here, then, is a powerful lesson for the Days of Awe, and for any way in which we build a community.  We have to be there, and be aware… and we have to let each other in.
          Yes, where you are going is important.  But so, too, are the needs of others.  As Hillel put it centuries ago: 

אם אין אני לי, מי לי?
 וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני?

Im ein ani li, mi li?
U’ch’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
(Pirkei Avot 1:14)

          Driving, and the High Holy Days, and an ethical life, all require a balance, between assertiveness, and grace; between self and other; between yield, and go.  To get anywhere safely, to accomplish anything of value, we need to know where we are going.  And we need to let each other in.
          That is the Torah of traffic, the ethics of the everyday and a lesson for the modern world, from a very ancient tradition.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Both/And over Either/Or



Both/And over Either/Or
(undated older column, scanned and reposted here)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach

In the midst of a discussion about relations between Reform and Orthodox Jews, I recently came across the following self-description from one of the participants:  "As an atheist member of a Conservative synagogue who grew up in an Orthodox environment and belonged for a while to a Reform temple but wanted more ritual in my life..."

What a statement! No wonder Judaism is confusing to others.  No wonder we are often at cross purposes (pun unintended) with our gentile neighbors when speaking about our identity.  It is because we often use the same words, such as "religion," and mean very different things by them,

To some, it seems very difficult to reconcile being an agnostic, not to mention an atheist, and nevertheless remaining an active, indeed, ritually involved member of a religious community, But Judaism allows for what to others appear anomalies and incongruities. Not only because Judaism (to use a common oversimplification) is a religion of deed, not of creed, but also because of the nature of Jewish identity,

I am reminded of the old joke about two Jews, Steinberg and Bergstein, Steinberg he goes to shul to talk to God.  But Bergstein…  Bergstein goes to shul… to talk to Steinberg.  And in Judaism, both of these are valid religious reasons to be part of a synagogue.

To put the matter another way: those of you who have studied with me know that I am fond of the axis/spectrum description of Jewish identity, Judaism is the intersection of an individual 's relationship with God, commonly called "spirituality " or "faith,'' and of the individual 's relationship with the community, called "culture " or "folk."  [More recently my own children have reminded me that a spectrum is an inadequate tool of description here, for it implies that if you are high in one area, you are low in another.  I should, they told me, obviously, use a Cartesian diagram instead, where one could be high-high, low-low, or any other combination.  Granting their point, for simplicity and for now, I will keep what I had originally written, below.]

To many people, the word ''religion" invokes only the vertical axis of faith. But in Judaism religious values include the horizontal connection with the folk, And the actual identity of every individual Jew falls somewhere on a spectrum, where, at the folk end, you have people who are passionate Zionists and love bagels and are actors in the Yiddish theater but who eat out on Yorn Kippur and would never set foot in a synagogue, while at the extreme other end you have people who attend every service a synagogue offers, who speak with God - in English - on a daily basis, who are deeply spiritual but who can 't stand gefilta fish, And Judaism includes, indeed, embraces, both,

To add to the confusion: different aspects of Jewish identity are stressed at different times, and in different places. In this country, we are used to thinking of a "religion " model, and so we speak more commonly of faith, Our New Americans will tell you, on the other hand, that in the Former Soviet Union their internal passports where stamped "Ivri" under the line marked not "religion " but "nationality. " And Israelis refer to themselves more commonly as an "am," a "people," than as a religion.

But it is all part of the mix.  “We” include each other. 

Problems arise mainly when one end of the spectrum starts getting exclusive, when one group says that, well, faith is really the only important thing (thus losing our connection with Jews all over the world), or, on the other hand, belief matters not at all, and that only the folk count (thus cutting ourselves off from the source of the spirit that bound us together in the first place - and the demanding voice that moves us still to a commitment to something beyond ourselves).  Although it may be for some individual Jews, for Judaism as a whole, and for the fullest expression of Jewish life it is not a matter of either/or, It is both/and. Spirit and community. Religion and culture. Faith and folk.

Which is why, in the end, it could make any sense to have an active atheist member of a synagogue.  We can, and we do. For which I say both "Oy "...and "thank God."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Why Are the Holidays Never on Time? (And Other Quirks of the Jewish Calendar)



          One of the most perplexing, and vexing, aspects of Jewish life, to newcomers and “natives” alike, is the question of the Jewish calendar.  Indeed, a standard joke in some circles, after hearing so many comments that “the holidays are late this year,” or the “holidays are early,” is that the holidays are never on time!  Of course they are; they are on the same date every year.  But in a system that is very hard to understand.
          The first thing to know, of course, is that the Jewish calendar wants to be a lunar calendar.  It follows the months set by the moon: 12 months of either 29 or 30 days (depending on when the sliver of the new moon appears the following cycle), for a lunar year of 354 days.
          Now, those words that the calendar “wants to be” lunar are important.  The Muslim calendar, as an example, is, in fact, a pure lunar calendar.  It is 354 days long.  That means that it is 11 (or 12, in a leap year) days shorter than a solar calendar.
          Let’s look at what this means in practical terms.  The best known Muslim holiday is Ramadan.  The holiday last for a month (and is the name of that month), but for now I am only interested in the date that it starts, in order to illustrate how this works.  If Ramadan beings on January 1 on the solar calendar one year, it will begin on December 21 the following (Muslim) year.  And then on December 10 the next year.  And so on.  It “floats” through the solar year.  Given the fact that Ramadan is observed by not eating when the sun is up, and that amount of time varies depending on both geography and chronology, if I were a Muslim I would, perhaps, prefer to observe Ramadan when it fell in Reykjavík, in January, than, say, when it falls in Riyadh, in July.  It’s just… a much shorter day!
          But there is an immediate problem, here, from a Jewish point of view.  A purely lunar calendar has the holidays float through the solar year, getting “earlier” each year.  Which is fine, except for the fact that three of the Jewish holidays have agricultural roots!  Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot may have become Pilgrimage Festivals, focusing on a journey to Jerusalem, with sacrifices and celebration there.  But what is being celebrated are the crops; these are harvest holidays.  The harvest depends, of course, on the season.  And the season is defined… by the sun.  We simply can’t have the Fall Harvest float into the Summer, and then the Spring, and so on.  That won’t work at all!
          And that is where things get so confusing.  We have a lunar calendar, which needs solar adjustments.  And so, very regularly, seven out of every 19 years, after the holidays have crept “too” early, we add an entire extra month!  A leap year, for Jews, is not an extra day, but a 13-month year.  And then, of course, the holidays feel “late” once again.  On average, over time, I suppose they are… right on time.
          So, then, that is why the holidays are when they are.  But what about the also confusing question of how long they last?  Why do some Jews, in some places, observe the major holidays (except Yom Kippur) for a day longer than do other Jews?  To answer that, we move into the realms of eye-witness testimony, mathematics and astronomy, technology and communications, and the role of strained relations with our neighbors.  (With Jews, very little is ever simple!)
          Remember that I said that the lunar months were either 29 or 30 days long?  Well, in the ancient world, at first, they didn’t know how long a month was going to be.  They waited to see, and if, on the evening after the 29th day, a sliver of the moon was visible in the sky, they knew they had on their hands, last month, a “short” month.  If not, then it was a “full” month of 30 days, and the “new” month would begin a day later.
 
          Why on earth does the moon matter?  Because knowing when the first of the month is… determines when the holidays occur!  You can’t really plan your Rosh Hashanah dinner in advance, if it could be one of two possible days. (Actually, the seder would be a better example.  Rosh HaShanah is extra complicated, as we will see in a moment.)
          According to our tradition, then, the judges and sages of the Sanhedrin would wait in the courtyard of the Temple, until someone came in – two someones, actually, as it had to be a “confirmed” sighting – to report whether they had seen the sliver the night before.  If it was a short month, word was sent forth, and the holidays could be set for the correct day.  Plenty of time to get ready for Sukkot or Passover – they fall on the 14th days of the month.  Cutting it a little close for Shavuot – it is on the 6th of Sivan.
          But a problem arose here, too.   There was no Internet.  No texting.  No IM.  As Jewish communities sprang up, further from the “official” policy-setting center of Jewish life, in Jerusalem, it took more and more time to get the word out, that it had been a short month the month before, that this was, in fact, already the new month.
          How to spread the word more quickly?  Here, technology came to the rescue – until tension with our neighbors and general nastiness interfered.  We would send a signal, visible from far away.  We would light fires on the tops of designated hills.
          Ah, but there were other groups who lived among us, and with whom our relations were not always so wonderful.  The Samaritans were (and are) an offshoot of Judaism, composed of a mixture of the population left behind in the north after the exile of the ten tribes by the Assyrians, with those captured populations imported by the same enemies.  They practiced a religion similar to ours – the Samaritans to this day have a version of the Torah and the book of Joshua but not the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  Small in number though they may have been, they were rivals, and we did not get along well.  The New Testament may have referred to a “Good” Samaritan, but to the Jewish reader and in our cultural context that would actually have been an exception, or a surprise!
          So what role do they play here?  It seems that, to throw off our ingenious new notification system, those pesky Samaritans would light fires on hilltops… whether the sliver of the moon had been seen early or not.  Such pranksters!  But it would mean your Aunt and Uncle would show up for seder on the wrong night!  Intolerable!
          We needed a system that did not depend on notification.   We needed a reliable calendar.  This is what I was taught: that this is the reason why we have the custom of communities inside of Israel, who could somehow get word quickly about when the first of the month really was, celebrating the holidays on the day it was supposed to be – and communities further away, outside the land, adding an “extra” day, to “cover” both possible days on which the holiday might fall.  Thus, Sukkot is seven days in Israel (as the Torah commands), but eight in the Diaspora.  Passover is seven days in Israel, and eight outside.    Shavuot is one day in Israel, and two in Brooklyn.  At least, that is what I was taught.  There is a logical problem, that being one day off would add up over time and lead to an accrued error ratio, but never mind that.
          Eventually, of course, mathematics and astronomy intervened – or at least, they should have.  We learned that we did not actually need the eye-witnesses at all, that we could figure out the calendar (the fancy word for this is called “intercalating” the calendar) years in advance, that, in fact, it worked in 19-year cycles, and thus, in theory, there was no need, at all, for a runners and messages, testimony and a differential observance based on distance.  But, tradition is tradition, and sometimes customs speak more loudly than logic.  Observance of the “extra” day in the Diaspora continued and continues.
          At least, that is, until the beginning of the Reform movement of Judaism, in the mid-19th century.  The leaders of this new, “rational” approach to Jewish life asserted early on the Torah was clear on the length of the holidays, the calendar was now properly calculated, and thus we should return to their Biblically-mandated length of observance.  Which led, of course, to the situation we have today: of Jews outside of Israel observing these days for different lengths of time, depending on what movement they belong to (or forgetting to observe them at all, in other cases).
          Just two more wrinkles in this twisted tale.  Both have to do with Rosh HaShanah.  
Do you remember that we said that there was time to get the word out about most of the holidays, even Shavuot, because of when they fell during the month?  There was one exception to that, of course.  The holiday of Rosh HaShanah begins… on the first day of the month.  So let’s imagine the picture.  One witness arrives in the courtyard of the ancient Temple, let’s say around 10 AM, asserting that he had seen the new moon the previous night.  Everyone gets anxious.  They look around.  They wait.  Finally, huffing and puffing, at 11:50 AM, comes… a second witness, confirming the account.  And then everyone looks at their watches, as it were, and realizes they have a problem.  Because that means this day is the first of the month.  And so it is Rosh HaShamah already.  And they have all just missed services.
Thus, because it is the first day of the month, and only for that reason, Rosh HaShanah came to be observed for an extra day, to cover all bases, even in Israel itself.  It is the only “extra” day observed in Israel.
And, as a result, for that reason (as well as the new presence in Reform congregations of so very many Jews who grew up in more traditional settings), many – not all, but many – Reform synagogues have added a Second Day of Rosh HaShanah as well.  Don’t expect eight-days of Passover in Reform settings (although some Reform congregants observe that holiday for eight days, not seven).  But a Second Day of Rosh HaShanah?  That is becoming more common.  In congregations where there are sequential services for the large attendance at High Holy Days, there is even a nice feeling of coming together, of intimacy, of being there by choice that lends a special flavor to the service on the Second Day.
A quick, funny/sad anecdote about Second Day of Rosh HaShanah.  In one of the congregations where I introduced the observance of this extra day, I faced an angry protest from a “classical” Reform Jew.  “Second Day of Rosh HaShamah?  That’s Orthodox!!  What’s next, rabbi? Separate seating for men and women?”  I patiently tried to calm the woman down.  “Look,” I said, “it’s optional, for those who want it.  You don’t have to come.”  “Rabbi,” the woman said, without missing a beat, “I don’t have to come First Day of Rosh HaShanah, either!”  Well, unpacking that remark is a task for a different time!
For now, finally…
Those with a careful eye will notice a very strange public pronouncement that is made on the Evening of Rosh HaShanah.  On this, the dawn of the New Year, we say, quoting the Torah: “U’va’chodsh HaShivi, b’echad la’chodesh…  On the seventh month, on the first day of the month….”
What?  What is going on?  What kind of a new year begins on the first day of the seventh month of the year?
What we have here is a relic, a remnant, a memory of two different calendar systems, layered on top of one another.  While the details matter, and are interesting, for now it is enough to say that there was an Egyptian calendar cycle, which began in the Spring (see Exodus 12:1 – “this month [in March or April] shall be for you the first of the months.”).  And there was a Babylonian calendar, whose New Year fell in the early Fall.  The Egyptian calendar gave us the numbers of the months.  Many of the names of the months, and, more specifically, the observance of a new year, come from Babylonia/Mesopotamia.  Which is why we begin our new year in such an odd way.
Hopefully, this long excursion has made clear some of the how, when, why and what behind the Jewish calendar.  If you are still confused, you are not alone.  But at least it makes more sense than it may seem, on first encounter.  And some day, then, the holidays may feel “on time” to everyone.