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!
As the only Jewish kid in his middle school in suburban Mississippi, my youngest son Eric will be telling his friends why he won’t be at school Monday. He’ll say he won’t be there “because it’s Rosh Hashanah.”
And inevitably, the follow up question from his fellow 6th graders will be: “What’s that?”
I can just imagine the conversation continuing from there…
Well, it’s the Jewish New Year.
New Year? So does that mean it’s like New Year’s Eve, and you stay up late, and at midnight say ‘Happy New Year!’?
Well, no, not really.
Does it have anything to do with Chanukah? Oooh! Do you play the dreidel game? Do you eat those good chocolate coins?
No, it has nothing to do with that.
I thought about how to respond. The questions were about to hit hard and fast, and as his mom, it’s my job to coach Eric and make sure he knows what to say. I want him to be prepared. Which meant I needed to be prepared, and I am embarrassed to say… I had to look it up.
I mean, of course I know what Rosh Hashanah is. I certainly know how to prepare the holiday dinner. I know what to say and do during services. I know the prayers, I know about saying I’m sorry, I know about the reflection … but I guess I was looking for the Cliff notes (Sparknotes?) version for what Rosh Hashanah “is”.
So at first, I went to my go-to reference guide, Joseph Telushkin’s wonderful Jewish Literacy book, and discovered the following information: “On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are instructed to scrupulously examine their deeds and more significantly their misdeeds during the preceding year. During these days, Jewish tradition teaches, God decides who shall live and who shall die during the coming year. The prayers that we say attempt to influence God’s decisions.”
This is pretty heavy stuff. Who shall live and who shall die. I have said those words every year since I began attending the adult service (let’s just say it’s been more than 30 years) and I never internalized those words – who shall live and who shall die.
Hmmm. Meaningful, yes, but not necessarily what I would advise Eric to tell his peers. “What’s Rosh Hoshanah? Oh, okay. Well. It’s basically when God decides who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die.”
So I went to the next great resource I had on hand – the ISJL pre-K curriculum. And you know what? In this particular situation, I think I prefer the early-childhood explanation: “During Rosh Hashanah, we think about how we want the new year to be better. We reflect on the past year – at both the good things and the bad things. At the new year we get a chance to start over fresh and make every effort to be a better person.”
As Telushkin admits, the theme of life and death could easily have turned Rosh Hashanah into two days of utter morbidity. To prevent this, the rabbis encouraged Jews to observe Rosh Hashanah in a spirit of optimism, confident that God will accept their repentance and extend their lives. For example, they ordained that honey be served at all Rosh Hashanah meals and that slices of apple be dipped into it. A special prayer is then recited: May it be Thy will, O Lord, Our God, to grant us a year that is good and is sweet.
That’s more in line with what I hope Eric’s classmates will learn when they ask him about our holiday. It’s a day of fresh starts. A season when we ask for a good and sweet year to come. (And if you need more resources on what Rosh Hashanah is, there are plenty of great ones here, too!)