Tailoring tradition: Rosh Hashana in US cultural history

Among other things, American High Holy Day folk art gave birth to the popular New Year greeting card.

September 28, 2008 15:55
Tailoring tradition: Rosh Hashana in US cultural history

shana tova 88. (photo credit: )


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From beaver hats to baseball, American Jews throughout their 354-year history have tailored High Holy Day observances to fit their new surroundings far from Europe's shores. Initially the changes were minor, and the traditional observances of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were fairly widespread in America. In 1768, in Newport Rhode Island, Aaron Lopez, a new American Jewish business magnate, announced he would close his businesses for four days. These included Saturday and Sunday for Shabbat, and Monday and Tuesday for Rosh Hashana. When it came time to dress for the New Year in 1765, Joseph Simon, a noted merchant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sought to purchase not just breeches, but beaver fur for a new hat. Already by 1761, 107 years after Jews first arrived in the colonies, they had veered from the ancient Hebrew verses and could pray from an abridged, English text, locally printed for the first time by American Jewish patriots in New York. This pamphlet "Evening Services of Roshashanah and Kippur or the Beginning of the Year and the Day of Atonement" appeared without an author listed. The late Prof. Abraham Karp, an American Jewish historian, felt the author was Isaac Pinto, the most knowledgeable Jew in New York at the time. However, Pinto, in fear of the hierarchy in London, didn't claim authorship. Five years later, when a translation into English of the services for the other holidays appeared, Pinto took credit. A more traditional item to help American Jews keep track of the religious calendar was created more than a decade later by Abraham Eleazar Cohen, a Philadelphia resident who was a schoolmaster and an attendant at the Mikveh Israel synagogue. In the midst of the American revolution, Cohen wrote by hand, in Hebrew, a luach-calendar for 5539 (1778-1779). One fascinating aspect of the luach is the unusual dedication to "Rachel, wife of Jacob Cohen." The Rachel may be Rachel Jacobs Pollack. Such a dedication could have indicated that she needed the calendar to observe the laws of nidda - menstrual purity - more closely. The first printed Jewish luach in the US appeared in 1806. Authored by Moses Lopez of Newport Rhode Island, it covered 1805 through 1859. From that time until the present, the luach has been published time and again for business needs, fundraising, advertising and decoration. In Atlanta Georgia, the M.L. Lichtenstein Insurance Company had the Hebrew Publishing Company prepare a luach in Yiddish for 5694/1933. Lichtenstein made use of the High Holy Days as a sales gimmick to sell insurance with lines like "making your life, or your death, pay off is essential in this country at this time." For their non-Jewish neighbors, the High Holy Day observances were a curiosity that attracted Christian observers. From the descriptions left, it is possible to learn how the services were conducted. What follows are excerpts from a letter of Lydia Maria Child of Boston, who attended Rosh Hashanatefillot at the Shearith Israel synagogue in New York in the fall of 1841/5602. Shortly after entering, she and her female companion were "gruffly" moved from the front seats to the women's section "in the upper part of the house." Child then recorded her feelings of being in a Jewish house of worship. "The effect produced on my mind by witnessing the ceremonies of the Jewish synagogue was strange and bewildering; spectral and flitting; with a sort of vanishing resemblance to reality; the magic lantern of the past." As she underwent this religious experience, she was "solemnly impressed with recollections of those ancient times when the Divine was heard amid the thunders of Sinai, and the Holy Presence (Shekinah) shook the mercy seat between the cherubim." Carefully, she looked at the ark containing the "Sacred Law written on scrolls of vellum and rolled as in the time of Moses." However, she was dismayed when she realized that instead of a "brazen laver" for washing there was only "a common bowl and ewer of English delf." All male members of the congregation, even little boys, wore "fringed silk mantles bordered with blue stripes." What she found incongruous were "these mantles worn over modern broadcloth coats and fashionable pantaloons with straps." Even the dress of the "priest" as she labeled the chacham, was problematic for her. "His large white silk shawl, which shaded his forehead and fell over his shoulders, was drawn over a common black hat!" She did see this official at times "cover his face completely, as in the time of Moses, stoop and lay his forehead on the book before him." Apparently, Child had made this visit thinking the Jews of her day were representatives of biblical times. Since this was not the case for her, she wrote. "But through the whole, priest and people kept on their hats. My spirit was vexed with this. I had turned away from the turmoil of the Present, to gaze quietly for a while on the grandeur of the Past; and the representatives of the Past walked before me, not in the graceful oriental turban, but the useful European hat!" She was also critical of the shofar blowing, even as she compared it to the instrument that sounded on Sinai. "The trumpet," she wrote, "which was blown by a Rabbi with a shawl drawn over his hat and face, was of the ancient shape, somewhat resembling a cow's horn. It did not send forth a spirit-stirring peal; but the sound groaned and struggled through it." American newspapers were most anxious, as early as the 19th century, to write about the observance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In a Wilmington Delaware newspaper of 1879, Rosh Hashana services were described as "the time of blowing the antelope horn and praying for a return to God's sacred ways." An editorial in the Atlanta Constitution in the fall of 1880 remarked that "Jews seemed to enjoy Rosh Hashana as much as the Gentiles did Christmas" but then added, "none of them [Jews] have been seen reeling with intoxication on Atlanta streets." Eli Evans, a pioneer Southern Jewish historian, found an article in the Memphis Tennessee Avalanche, also 1880, which focused on a different aspect of the holiday. A notice in the paper pointed out that "Jewish ladies like Hattie Schwarzenberg, Birdie Hesse and Mattie Goldsmith will tomorrow receive at their home the country boys who came to the city for the high holy days." Matchmaking was not off limits on this sacred occasion. The noted American poet Emma Lazarus, author of the sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty, began to enrich herself Jewishly in the late 1870s by composing poems relating to her faith. Many of these were published in the Hebrew weekly newspaper in New York. One poem selected by Dr. Philip Goodman for his New Year Anthology was appropriately entitled "Rosh Hashana 1882." One of the concluding stanzas contained a statement by Lazarus focusing on the return to Eretz Yisrael. "When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold/The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn a sea of beauty and abundance lies/Then the new year is born./Blow, Israel, the sacred coronet! Call back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb with thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all/The red dark year is dead, the year just born .... "In two divided streams the exiles part/One rolling homeward to its ancient source/One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart/By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled/Each separate soul contains the nation's force/And both embrace the world." Almost at the same time Emma Lazarus was writing, American High Holy Day folk art was born in the form of a greeting card which has been continually reworked until the present time. Prof. Jenna Joselit discussed the origins of this phenomenon in her book The Wonders of America. Initially American Jewish communities were small, so "personal greetings could be transmitted by word of mouth." With the mass immigration from 1881 through 1924, "American Jews came increasingly to rely on the mails to convey the appropriate seasonal sentiments." As this custom increased in popularity, High Holy Day cards could range from "tawdry to subdued, restrained, in a variety of motifs: handshakes, floral garlands, evocation of the Old Country...scenes of smiling multi-generational families gathered round the holiday table." Professor Joselit stressed that "the Jewish greeting card at its peak bound together the family, memory and Jewish tradition even as it popularized the connection between them." One of the pioneering Judaica stores in the US where such cards were sold for over a century was the Rabbi Sky Hebrew Bookstore in Maplewood New Jersey. Established in Newark in 1904, the store was moved to Maplewood in 1970 by Sky's son David, who had worked in the business from the age of 12. David died in 2005, and earlier this year his widow, Feige, decided to close the well-known outlet on Sprinfield Avenue. At the store, the third-oldest of its type in the US, thousands of "shana tovas" from the 1950s and 1960s survived in its basement, attic and cupboards. Feige donated them to museums, institutions and synagogues in the US and Israel. New Year cards were not the only examples of High Holy Day folk art in America. One of the early American yeshivot, Torah VeDaas in Brooklyn, made use of challah covers to impress upon its supporters how important it was to contribute during the High Holy Day season. My bubbie, Frieda Birshtein of blessed memory, lived in Norfolk Virginia. She was noted for filling pushkes for institutions in the US, Europe and Eretz Yisrael. Her rabbi particularly encouraged her to assist Yeshiva Torah VeDaas. She had actively contributed for about a decade when in 1926 she received a surprise in the mail. It was a Rosh Hashana challah cover from the Yeshiva. She had the pleasure of using this "Challah Deckel" until her death in 1963. Jewish High Holy Day culture entered the baseball lexicon in the 20th century, when Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur coincided with the most hallowed games of this favorite American pastime. The first star to struggle with a dual loyalty to Jewish tradition and American baseball was Hank Greenberg, the slugger of the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s, and the first Jew elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. In the fall of 1934 the Tigers appeared headed for the American League pennant. Even though Greenberg, the team's star, was not observant, various Jewish religious figures offered opinions. One Detroit rabbi said Jewish law did not forbid the slugger from fulfilling his contractual obligations and playing on the Holy Day. In material collected by Professor Stephen Whitfield relating to Greenberg at this time, it is clear what the fans wanted to occur. "The Detroit News announced in a headline 'Talmud clears Greenberg for Holiday Play.' Greenberg did play on Rosh Hashana even though he said 'I'll probably get my brains knocked out by a fly ball.' The star had quite a day, and a Detroit paper wished him LeShana Tova in Hebrew. A Cleveland paper characterized Greenberg's two home runs as 'blowing the shofar twice' thus 'making the ears of the Boston Red Sox ring'." With the pennant race decided, Greenberg went to daven at the Sharey Tzedek synagogue in Detroit for Yom Kippur. There he was praised for his "dignity and self-respect." Whitfield, in his study of this event, quotes Edgar Guest's poem written for a Detroit paper. "Come Yom Kippur - holy fast day world wide over to the Jew/And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true/Spent the day among his people and he didn't come to play/Said Murphy to Mulrooney: 'We shall lose the game today!/We shall miss him in the infield and shall miss him at the bat/But he's true to his religion - and I honor him for that'." The second incident of this type occurred in 1965. Sandy Koufax, pitching star of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was with his team in Minneapolis for the opening game of the World Series. The game fell on Yom Kippur, so manager Walter Alston used his other ace, Don Drysdale, to open the series. Thus on Yom Kippur, Koufax attended services at a synagogue in Minneapolis while the Dodgers were losing the game in dramatic fashion. Whitfield found this quote from Drysdale to his manager when he was being taken out. "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish too." At a sports show I once heard Koufax comment: "There was no question in my mind about playing on Yom Kippur. Judaism that day was more important than the Dodgers."

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