The sun did not quite cooperate, hiding behind a screen of low clouds and spatters of rain. But a crowd that was alternately enthusiastic, happy and contemplative still greeted the dawn at Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park Wednesday, April 8, with sing-ing, prayer and introspection in the local incarnation of Birkat HaChammah, the Blessing of the Sun ceremony that comes every 28 years in Jewish tradition.
The event was one of many such gatherings held around the world, from Israel to New York to the shores of Lake Michigan to Berkeley.
Perhaps 200 people gathered locally, led by Rabbi David Cooper of Oakland’s Kehilla Community Synagogue, in a ceremony that alternated ancient blessings and songs in Hebrew, Psalms, and more contemporary material including group renditions of “Here Comes the Sun,” “Morning Has Broken,” and a spirited chorus of “Happy Birthday, Dear Sun!”
“I lift my gaze toward the mountains; from where will come my help? It comes from the Eternal Source, creator of heavens and earth,” participants re-cited from Psalm 121.
“Believe it or not, the sun has just come over the hills,” Cooper said around 7:00 p.m. as the crowd looked to the east where the thin spire of the Campanile rose below the scudding overcast. Bits of pink cloud briefly gleamed high over
the Bay to the west,
as the morning light increased.
“The Jewish practices are to remind us of the deepest things,” said Rabbi Daniel
Lev who helped lead the ceremony and
also participated in a Berkeley Birkat Ha-Chammah gathering 28 years ago. “That sun is coming and dispelling the darkness all of us feel.”
As a bit of rain fell across the hilltop, Cooper said, “Let’s take the day and the night, the dry and the wet, and be really appreciative of the fact we’re here at all.”
Meanwhile, across town, a cherished local secular ritual was coincidentally resuming the same morning.
After several weeks of closure for remodeling, the original branch of Peet’s Coffee and Tea at Walnut and Vine streets reopened at 6 a.m. in a renovated and expanded facility.
Within a few minutes of opening, still in the predawn darkness, two elderly regulars were deep in coffee and conversation, a customer quietly worked on his laptop computer at a corner table, two mournful looking dogs stood outside awaiting the return of their human companions, and a steady trickle of people dropped in to get their take-out morning coffee. A celebratory gathering for the reopening took place at 7 a.m.
The facility includes a deep side room set up as something of a shrine to deceased founder Alfred Peet, with photographs, framed newspaper articles, testimonials, a poem, a world map of coffee-growing regions, an an-tique coffee roaster and, at the far end, a secondary shrine consisting of two clean, elegant, new restrooms for customers.
An oval plaque low on the outside wall by the entrance outlines the history of the business and its place in local history.
Steven Finacom wrote about the background of the Blessing of the Sun tradition in the April 2 edition of the Daily Planet. He helped write the new historical plaque at Peet’s, though he’s not a regular coffee drinker.