by Gwynne Robins
What do the High Holy Days mean to most of us? The 2019 Kaplan Centre Survey on the Jews in South Africa found that 72% attended the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Not this year. COVID-19 has changed our lives immeasurably, but there are other changes the years have brought.
Apart from attendance at synagogue, what do these holidays mean to us? The religious experience of repentance and prayer? New clothes? A warm family meal? Today’s children seem to associate the holiday with apples and honey, new clothes, late nights, and good food.
Thirty years ago, I asked several seniors to tell me what they remembered about earlier Rosh Hashanah celebrations. I expected stories with a strong religious overtone, of a generation steeped in Yiddishkeit. To my surprise, the image I had of our seniors as a shtetl generation was a myth — most had grown up in our country communities, with Lithuanian parents unable to pass on to them these holidays as an important religious —as opposed to social— occasion. To many, the High Holy Days had been of little significance, and Peisach held clearer memories.
The most common recollection was of new clothes and good food.
“We all got two new dresses, one hat and one pair of shoes.”
“Everyone used to wait to see what we would wear for Yom Tov — my mother would sew beautifully with embroidery on our clothes.”
“I had an auntie who did smocking — I had smocked dresses that everyone envied.”
“A new suit for Dad with a hat, a real Yomtovdicke hat for my Mum with feathers and a little eye veil and a lovely velvet suit for my little brother.”
One woman would go to the Chassidische Shul the first day, the Gardens Shul the second. She recalled: “When you came to the Gardens Shul, they looked you up and down — even if you were a 5-year-old — to see what kind of dress you were wearing and if there were shoes to match… But at the Chassidische Shul, nobody cared what I wore, how I wore it. They were mostly immigrants. They were very fortunate if they had nice dresses to go to shul in, even if they were hand-me-downs from older sisters or cousins.”
The food was remembered warmly — listening to the recollected meals you could almost smell it. The milchikes, pletzlach, ingbelach, cakes: “Everything made by themselves and it wasn’t easy because of coal stoves.”
“My Mother busy in the kitchen baking her famous milchiky cakes, strudel, coconut biscuits, almond biscuits. I had the pleasure of putting an almond on top of each biscuit. Plucking the chickens, tsimmes with prunes and carrots and the potatoes with the juice basted over them. The smell of the heeneshy schmaltz preggling with the onions, tsibelle mit schmaltz. My mother used to boil a couple of dozen eggs to put inside, but we children stood around the big basin even though the tsibelle made our eyes water. We knew father would keep giving us pieces of egg each instead of into the basin. The lockshen kugel —plenty of sugar!— and rosenkies, and we used to chop a besel to taste if the kugel was sweet enough. The sack of mead and the home-made wine made with dried cherries. We had a coal fire and the heat of the fire warmed up the oven at the side of it. No temperature, no recipe books, a bissel flour, a bissel dos, and yet the baking came up perfectly.”
But what about the shul service? Few thought even to mention it — maybe their brothers might have had clearer memories. One recalled having a brochah at home after shul, another remembered sitting beside her mother in shul and finding the place for her because her mother would gossip and lose it, and walking back from shul window-shopping down the high street, noses pressed to the glass “looking at all the goodies not seen in our part of the city (Glasgow), which was more or less a Yiddische Ghetto.”
Another, from Bronkhorstspruit, remembered that one of the 15 Jewish families there would clear out the hay from their barn, seats would be brought in, a Rabbi would be imported from Pretoria and they would hold a service. The girls there learnt no Hebrew, but once a month the boys would have a lesson for their barmitzvah from a travelling teacher.
Perhaps it is just as well that these small country communities have disappeared, leaving warm memories behind, but enabling the children of these settlers to be brought up in the less personal cities where Jewish day schools and adequate exposure to a larger and more stimulating Jewish environment is possible.
Only one senior, who had grown up in District Six, recalled details of a traditional and religious Yomim Noraim. She was a product of a “mixed marriage,” her maternal grandfather attended the Chassidic Shul in Buitenkant Street, her father sang in the Gardens Shul choir, and the children would participate in both worlds. She remembered Shlichot. Her grandfather, a man of clockwork habits, suddenly disappearing. “Where did he go? What happened? They told us Slichos. The lights weren’t extinguished in the house and we used to wait. My grandmother was downstairs in the house davening and we used to wait and it was such a scary, scary time. Where was Zeideh? Zeideh was gone, and Bobbe was sitting downstairs by herself. It was a frightening experience, and then in the early hours of the morning, Zeideh would arrive, and then we would fall asleep and he would try to explain that Slichos was the beginning of the days of Awe — so as we grew older, we began to understand more.”
Her mother would start preparations two weeks before Rosh Hashanah — “the sponge cake, the teiglach, the ingberlach, the plezlach — the smell pervaded the house, but not only for the family.” Some teiglach she would take to the Old Aged Home in Hope Street next to the Zionist Hall.
“The second day, we went visiting and everybody had to have their parcels to give to somebody — one was a newly-arrived immigrant, one had just had a baby, someone else could not afford to have the things in the home.”
“Then came the slaughtering of the poultry. My grandparents had very big grounds and their chickens and turkeys, and I remember we used to stuff the turkeys — give them food down their necks to get them fat. Then the Schochet used to come around to slaughter the chickens and we used to turn our heads away and waited for everything to be over and plucked the feathers — we loved holding the chickens over the flame to sear the feathers off. Our best meal was the gribbenes on bread —it was a marvellous taste— but nowadays, we do not have it. It is too fattening and no good for you, but those days you had it.”
“The first night, we would sit down 40 people to a meal. Many immigrant men were lonely (their wives were overseas and they had not brought them down, yet). We used to daven and sing the zmirot, like Friday night, but more so. On Friday, it was jolly — they used to bang the tables and sing even if we did not know the words to negunim, which went faster and slower. Rosh Hashanah we sang psalms — quite different.”
The second day, they would go to the Gardens Shul.
“There, there was dignity. You could not say a word — at least at the Chassidic Shul, you could run in and out —children were children— they thought if you heard two holy words, it was wonderful. My grandfather would say ‘Each Hebrew letter is a song in itself. Every time you say one letter you are praising the Lord in the Eiberster.’ You ran about, you grew up in that atmosphere, it became part of you. The Gardens Shul was different. You had to sit down from the beginning of the service to the end. You could not run around. You could not go out.”
One common theme expressed by everyone was the enjoyment of the chag as a warm family experience, either positively as “it was a loving and friendly time and a remembrance to me until I die” and “I’ll never forget those days and wish we could relive them” and “these were such happy days,” or with regret at the enjoyment lost because of bereavement and shrinking families.
“Today, Yom Tov is quite different. To me, it has lost some special meaning. I am on my own, I go to a sister, but it is not the same as being with your family as a child, and eventually one feels as though ‘What is there to celebrate?’ Something has been lost.”
Or, with a determination to preserve it, “what is mostly in my mind at Rosh Hashanah is to keep the family together.”
“It is not a question of going to shul. It is not a question of davening, it is a question of getting the family together and keeping them together, including in-laws who must become part of the family.”
We take with us into the strange, masked and challenging world of 5781 the same desires to maintain our Jewish identity, traditions and family ties that our ancestors brought with them to this new land. May we too pass on to our children the same warm memories of the High Holy Days so that they in their turn will regard them as something precious to be passed on.