September is the beginning of the fall season. When I lived in the Midwest and the calendar turned the page to September, I looked forward to the beautiful fall colors, cool breezes and a return to pursuits I had left behind in June. For all of my life and for Jews around the world, September also means the High Holy Days are approaching.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is first. Jewish families attend services and listen to the blowing of the shofar. We spend time with family and friends, getting together to enjoy traditional foods such as chicken soup, brisket and honey cake. We wish each other L’shana Tova, a good year. Ten days later, we meet at the synagogue for Yom Kippur, a time for fasting, introspection and forgiveness, both for our own misdeeds and those of others. We pray for a good year for ourselves, family and friends.
Although my husband and I both grew up in more conservative homes, we have been Reform Jews for most of our married life. We have grown used to services that are primarily in English and usually not more than two hours long. This year, our synagogue is searching for a new rabbi and an interim rabbi presided. It quickly became obvious that he must be conservative. The service included more Hebrew and didn’t skip a page! It was three hours before we heard the Shofar blown and finally arrived at the last page in the prayer book. On the way home, my husband and I compared this service to the ones of our childhood and we reminisced about the High Holidays in our small towns.
B’nai Abraham, the synagogue of my childhood, was located in Virginia, Minnesota, a small iron ore mining city 200 miles from Minneapolis. Over the years, the congregation ranged from 50 to 70 Jewish families. In our home, preparation for the High Holidays began a month before when my mother would (literally) haul me to Duluth, the nearest big city, to shop both for school clothes and a few special outfits for the High Holidays. Our first stop after the 60 mile drive was usually a visit with Cousin Minnie who lived on one of the impossibly hilly streets in the city. She always served us drinks and sweets and I would sit quietly, wondering if the house was going to slip its moorings and we would go tumbling down the hill to the bottom of the street.
Our next stop was Oreck’s, the department store in downtown Duluth which was, thankfully, on a level street nearer to Lake Superior. My mother would deposit me in a dressing room while she roamed the store, looking for appropriate clothing for me to wear to synagogue. Sulking, I would try them on, rejecting every outfit until she finally made the decision for me and we could move on to the hat department. In those days, hats were fashionable and a head-covering was imperative at the synagogue so I usually ended up with a small pillbox hat that languished on the shelf in my closet for the rest of the year – until another one joined it the following September.
Once the clothes were hung safely in our closets, the kitchen became the hub of activity. My mother worked hard to produce traditional meals for her family, not an easy job since she had been raised in an orphanage and had learned to cook as a new bride. The recipes for all the traditional dishes had been passed down with love from my aunts and cousins who had probably inherited them from the previous generation.
Chicken soup simmered, honey cake sweetened the air, potato kugel baked until it was covered with a crisp, crunchy top layer. My mother made her own noodles for the chicken soup, kneading the dough, rolling it out into impossibly thin layers before cutting it into long skinny strips. The strips were laid out to dry on a floured sheet that covered our dining room table for several days. We lived in an apartment above our grocery store and to this day, I wonder if the enticing smells that drifted down the steps increased sales during the Jewish holidays.
On Rosh Hashanah eve, my father and brother went to services and the women (my mother and I) waited at home, setting the table and getting the meal ready for their return. The next morning, we were all expected to attend services, but once I was in my teens, I procrastinated as long as possible. Finally I would give up and put on the new wool plaid skirt, cashmere sweater, nylons, patent leather black shoes, and pill box hat and go out the door into a 75 degree September day. We lived two blocks away so I could walk by myself, leaving as late into the morning as possible.
Built like a traditional European synagogue, the building had a balcony which was originally where the women sat. By the time I came along, the balcony was only used by children looking for a place to giggle, whisper and escape the service below them. But downstairs, many families still used the traditional seating. My father, brother, uncles and male cousins sat in the first two or three rows to the left of the bema. The men of other families who had been in Virginia since the synagogue was built in the early 1900’s, had inherited other front row seats. The women, children (and a few younger men) sat in the middle and back rows. I always sat in the back and as close to the door as possible for a quick escape route.
Sometimes during the High Holidays, our small congregation would hire a student rabbi from another city to lead the service. But most of the time, services were led by Sam Jaffe, an older member of the congregation who had the most knowledge of Hebrew and of the service itself. The men stood on the small bema, dovening and praying, all on a different page. I never understood Hebrew and had no idea what the service was about so my main preoccupation was usually how long it would be before I could leave. I would give my mother hopeful looks every ten minutes, waiting for that moment when she would give up, take an exasperated breath and favor me with a nod of her head. And I was off, down the street and running for home, anxious to take off the new clothes that were sticking to my back and scratching my legs.
One year, when I opened the large double doors of the synagogue to go outside, I was surprised to find many of the men of the congregation standing on the steps, huddled around a transistor radio broadcasting one of the games of the World Series. Prayer had been superseded by a baseball game.
On Rosh Hashanah afternoons, we usually went to Aunt Bess and Uncle Carl’s home, located in the second story of a large house just far enough away for us to take the car. The living room was usually crowded, every chair taken by my aunts, uncles and cousins. The children sat on the floor, leaning against their elders’ legs. I always gravitated to the dining room table, groaning with home baked Rosh Hashanah goodies. A core of women (my mother included) stayed close to the kitchen, making coffee, cutting cakes and washing dishes as they appeared. My most indelible memory of those Rosh Hashanah afternoons is the pungent smell of my Uncle Carl’s cigar which, to my memory, was always in his mouth. To this day, I love the smell of cigars.
Yom Kippur came ten days later. In our home, we ate a traditional meal before the Kol Nidre service, but when we finished, we were expected to fast until dinner the next evening. As usual, my family would leave for services by nine the next morning and I would follow several hours later. At services, I kept my eyes on my father and when he got up to leave around noon, I would follow him. At home, I usually found him in front of the refrigerator, door open – my signal that it was okay to eat. My mother would yell at both of us but Dad would wink at me and I knew it was okay.
When I left home and went to college in Minneapolis, a friend invited me to attend a Reform Sabbath service with him. I was surprised to find that most of it was in English. I could read the words and understand what was happening. But even then, my friend had to explain much of it and tell me when to stand. Understanding the service made it much more meaningful and I realized that, even though I had grown up in a unique Jewish environment that I would always treasure, I felt more at home in a Reform synagogue where the prayer books and rituals were also in English. I finally could comprehend the services and the underlying meaning of our holidays. I already knew what it meant to be Jewish from a cultural perspective and now I was learning what it meant to be Jewish from an educational perspective. I believe my grandparents, parents and aunts and uncles would approve.
“With loving remembrance to my grandparents, Charles and Jenny; my parents, Paul and Sophie; Uncle Carl and Auntie Bessie; Uncle Fred and Auntie Ann; Uncle Chaim and Auntie Pia.”