With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just behind us, I thought I would share a little bit about the significance of these holidays from the perspective of historical research.
When I have only one day in a town to research the history of its Jewish community, I don’t have time to scroll through 100 years of daily newspapers on microfilm. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that help me to quickly find a needle (or mention of the local Jewish community) in the haystack of multiple microfilm reels. One useful shortcut is the “High Holiday Research Method.”
I have compiled a list with the dates of every Rosh Hashanah between 1880 and 1960 (thanks to Hebcal!). Usually, the local newspaper will have some mention of the Jewish holidays and often will describe the activities of local Jews. For example, in Lockhart, Texas, I found a mention of a short-lived Jewish congregation that met in a rented hall for the High Holidays in 1922, attracting Jews from several other small towns in the area. This Lockhart congregation did not last for long, and the tiny Jewish population left in town had no recollection of it. Were it not for my finding this Rosh Hashanah notice, this congregation may have been lost to history.
Newspapers from around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also contain ads run by local Jewish merchants informing their customers that they will be closed on the holidays. These ads are a great way of determining which stores are Jewish-owned, and offer insight about what we here at the ISJL call the “southern Jewish experience.”
One of my favorite of these ads comes from Meridian, Mississippi in 1942. Most of the town’s Jewish merchants banded together to take out one ad, announcing the closing of all of their stores for Rosh Hashanah. The sheer number of businesses, fourteen, attests to the important economic role played in Meridian. Also, notice that the ad declares that the stores would be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Clearly, these stores were usually open on Saturday, the best day of the week for business.
It was almost impossible for a Jewish merchant in Meridian to be shomer Shabbos and make a living. Thus, they had to adjust. In the early 20th century, Meridian’s small Orthodox shul held Saturday morning services at 6 a.m. so members could pray on the Sabbath and then get to their stores in time to open for business. And yet, as the 1942 ad attests, even as they adapted their religious practices, Jews were not willing to give up the high holidays. This was not easy. Indeed, several of these stores opened at 6 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah to try to recoup some of the losses they would incur.
Today, only a small number of southern Jews own retail stores and such ads are largely a thing of the past. Future historians will probably not find much value in the “High Holiday Research Method.” Yet as some aspects of the southern Jewish experience change, some stay the same, as many southern Jews still wrestle with the dilemma of how to maintain their traditions as a tiny minority living in the Christian Bible Belt.
In advance of Yom Kippur, the entire ISJL staff would like to wish all of our friends and readers a meaningful observance, and a happy and healthy new year. Personally, I would also like to offer the following reflection on my Rosh Hashanah in Greenwood, Mississippi with the family of ISJL board member Gail Goldberg.
“Did you ever think you’d be in Greenwood, Mississippi for Rosh Hashanah, listening to a man named Bubba Kornfeld play shofar?”
This question was posed to me on the way out of services last Monday. I have to admit, that this is not what most people expect. For those of us familiar with high holidays in the Mississippi (or Arkansas) Delta, though, nothing about Greenwood is a surprise, and nothing is better preparation for the holidays than driving down a flat road surrounded by blooming cotton.
This was my fourth Rosh Hashanah at Greenwood’s Ahavath Rayim, a tiny traditional congregation that manages to draw a minyan each year with the help of family and friends. Although she would never take credit for the role, Gail Goldberg is the leader of the congregation. The Goldberg family and their in-laws, Steve and Ellen Hirsch of Nashville, constitute the majority of the assembled worshipers. Steve davens the Hebrew portions of the service and reads Torah. Marilyn Gelman, a local congregant, leads the English portions. Gail’s husband Mike acts as gabai. Gail delivers a talk—modesty keeps her from calling it a sermon, but this year’s was as meaningful an “address” as you could ever hope to hear—while her grandchildren and a few other young boys play on the bima. Morris “Bubba” Kornfeld blows shofar. The service has everything I need: warm atmosphere, traditional style, casual attitude, great food afterward.
I did mention the food, right? After each service, the entire group is invited to Gail and Mike’s “holy garage,” the three-car-wide room that converts to a lovely dining area with the simple addition of a carpet and a table for Kiddush. There, we enjoy stuffed cabbage and brisket (or blintzes and bagels for the dairy meals) and friendly conversation. In four years, I have come to know Gail’s immediate family, her mother-in-law Ilse, and the Hirsch family. Steve and Ellen’s son Michael and his wife, Shanna, have also become regulars in Greenwood for Rosh Hashanah. This year, like years past, it was an absolute privilege to celebrate the holiday with all of them.
As Gail pointed out from the bima, those of us in Greenwood go because of dreams and faith, defying the basic fact of the congregation’s decline. Rosh Hashanah is the high point of the small congregation’s year, a celebration of family that sustains them during the smaller services and text studies held monthly throughout the year. Gail’s dream is simple: to continue with this annual event for as long as possible.
With recent repairs to the building and the support of everyone who has experienced the pleasure of the holiday in Greenwood, I have faith in her dream. May Ahavath Rayim’s congregants and guests have a blessed new year, and may they enjoy Rosh Hashanah in Greenwood for years to come!
The following thoughts come to us from Education Fellow Erin Kahal.
A few weeks ago, another Education Fellow, Sam Kahan, and I were at the end of several back-to-back summer visits that took us on a whirlwind six day trip through Virginia and Arkansas.
We had a blast with each of our congregations, but we were exhausted since this was also the last round of a month of non-stop travel. We were standing in the Atlanta airport when Sam looked at me and asked, “Where are we? What state are we in right now?!”
I looked back at her, unsure, and we both started giggling hysterically. Our laughter continued for several minutes, even as strangers gave us awkward glances. I enjoyed the fact that this moment was a typical event in the life of an ISJL Education Fellow. The embarrassing scene provided me with great relief, but it also reflects my journey toward discovering my own joy working for the ISJL. The fellowship is challenging at times, but I have learned to harness a sense of happiness through laughter.
As soon as I heard of the fellowship, I knew the job was the perfect for me. I did not realize, though, how challenging it would be to jump straight out of school and into the working world. At first, I felt homesick and unsure of my exact role as a part of an amazing staff comprised of outstanding individuals from all over the country. However, as soon as I started going on my visits, I overcame my fears. I discovered just how much I love department brainstorming, leading and writing programs, and interacting with the wonderful people in all of my communities. In turn, my newfound confidence allowed me to discover my own sense of joy in the job.
We take our roles very seriously at the ISJL, but we also laugh together as a way to bond as a team and cope with everyday demands. My supervisor, Education Director Rachel Stern, guided me in this process by helping me to remain positive in the work I was doing. One way that she did that was by encouraging me to create a “Blue Folder” that contains all of my saved emails from communities that reflect my achievements; that way, I have something to cheer me up whenever I needed encouragement. As I began to feel more at ease in my job, I learned that my own happiness has a direct impact on my performance and on my community members. Enthusiasm is contagious, and being around so many different people throughout the South has allowed me to discover the ripple effects of positive thinking.
Earlier this year, Rachel proposed that we create a program dedicated to the joy of teaching, and her thoughts eventually turned into a session for one of the keynotes at our 2012 Education Conference. Afterward, I reformatted the talk as a program that we can take it on the road for summer visits. The lesson provides a serious analysis on joy, but it ends on a comical note, which you can watch below.
Leading this session, I have witnessed firsthand how simple laughter can transform the energy of a room. In Atlanta, it transformed my experience of the airport. Education fellows, like so many people, keep hectic schedules. Airports, roads, and rest stops often blur together, but it helps tremendously to hold fast to our enthusiasm. At times, I may forget my location, but when I stop to laugh and smile, I remember my place: serving the people of our congregations.
As Reb Nahman of Bratslav said: “Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimchah tamid! (It’s a great mitzvah to be happy always!)”
So, how do you find joy in your daily life?