A historical American tour of Rosh Hashana

The Jewish celebration of the new year has deep roots in the US.

A 1926 Halla cover 390 (photo credit: Courtesy David Geffen)
A 1926 Halla cover 390
(photo credit: Courtesy David Geffen)
While Rosh Hashana is described in America during the colonial period, the Revolutionary War period and the War of 1812, The New York Times selected the year 1859 as the first time to focus on the holiday. Here are a few selections from that article.
“The services commenced at 6 a.m. and continued until noon.” The Bnai Jeshurun synagogue was the locale for the holiday worship. “The services consisted of readings from the Jewish prayer book, blowing the ram’s horn and chanting many Biblical verses.”
The drama of the service was felt in this fashion. “Four priests in white robes officiated at the altars upon which the tapers were burning and the body of the church was filled with people. Dr. Raphall preached the sermon.”
When the Oklahoma land rush occurred in 1889, there were at least two Jews who participated, Morris Simpson and his brother. They brought with them a Torah in their covered wagon.
When they arrived at their selected plot in Lawton, next to Fort Sill, they set up a dry goods store. After a week or so they put together a synagogue in a tent near the store. Ten Jews plus some Comanche native Americans, including Chief Quanah Parker attended. Two weeks later Simpson gave the sermon for the Rosh Hashana service.
“We are thankful to thee, O God, for allowing us to be residents of this new territory in Oklahoma. Rosh Hashana is a time when we try to be a new person.
We must live in this new land with significant conviction. We blow the shofar to awaken us. How proud we are to offer our joyest feelings to God for our many blessings.”
In 1899 The New York Times described one of a multitude of synagogues, one of the “mushroom synagogues” (termed that because they were popping up for the enormous immigration to the US, New York in particular).
“Tammany Hall was one of the locales turned into an impromptu synagogue for Rosh Hashana. Last night more than 2000 of the faithful gathered there to take part in the elaborate ceremonies of song and prayer.”
It was the first time that the noted political headquarters was used for such a purposes and it was handsomely decorated with palms and evergreens.
Rabbi G. Weingert conducted the services.
He was assisted by a choir of 20 voices.
Although an admission of $1 was charged, hundreds were turned away.
The excitement in St. Louis just before Rosh Hashana in 1904 was linked with the World’s Fair there and a specific Jewish symbol. In the midwest the Magen David flag was flown for the first time publicly in the US.
“Alongside the banner of Zion the flags of other nations were more brilliant,” the Yiddishe Tagenblatt wrote. “It is a modest blue and white with a six pointed star in the center.” Then the real emphasis. “The flag means more to civilization, much more to humanity than many another of the flaunting banners which have been crowded a bit to make room for the strange newcomer.”
A major St Louis Jewish leader, Michael Stiffleman, a board member of the World’s Fair, spoke for the community on the eve of Rosh Hashana expressing the deep feelings on this day as the Jewish banner captured the attention of so many.
“There she flutters as if Zion was already the home of the persecuted and not the dream of the forsaken people. It hangs simply beside the flag pole. Now a light breeze stirs it from its moorings – now a gust of wind sends the blue and white, waving in the breezes.” Stiffleman captured the feelings of all American Jews when he concluded: “My heart with rapture thrills, beating faster, my eyes moisten and frame quivers with emotion at the thought of the success, of the assurance of Herzl’s state.”
The challenge by women in the US to gain the vote began in 1913. Some of the suffragettes were Jews, and I had the privilege to know one of them – Sally Topkis Ginns, who lived in Wilmington, Delaware. The Topkis family was a noted Jewish family in the state. They were community leaders and Zionist leaders as well.
Sally was an outstanding personage in Delaware, but in one area she shone. She was a suffragette demonstrating with all her enthusiasm to win the vote.
Her husband James Ginns was much more conservative. When he heard that she had picketed the Congress building in Washington, he forbade her to do so. So she told me with a twinkle in her eye, “David, I did not disobey my husband’s orders – I just went back and picketed at the White House.”
Sally selected the few days in 1919 just before the High Holy Days to organize a public service for Rosh Hashana.
“I chose that occasion to make my point with the suffragettes and the American legislators. As a Reform Jew, I surprised everyone when I called on a young boy to sound the shofar and arouse the spirit of all those who were acting passively. That ram’s horn made its point and none who were present ever forgot it. The renewal of the American leadership gave women the vote.”
One of the earliest prayers for the High Holy Days by a president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, was published in Anglo-Jewish newspapers in 1923. This version is from The Pittsburgh Jewish Criterion.
“The recurrence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which this year falls on September 11, is always a reminder of the debt which the modern world owes to the Jewish people and their wonderful national culture.
The occasion is one of significance not merely to the people of the Jewish faith and race but to all who have been the inheritors of some part in the splendid estate of leadership spirituality, and the service which they have given to the world for the common advantage.”
In her fascinating work, Prof. Jenna Weisman Joselit of George Washington University has captured the meaning of High Holy Day cards from the 1880s through the last two centuries. In my case she has offered me insights into a halla cover from Yeshiva Torah VeDaat which my grandmother Frieda Birshtein of Norfolk, Virginia received as a gift for Rosh Hashana in 1926. I have been trying to research the background of this holiday halla cover. So far my investigation has produced only minimal results so I am hopeful that readers will pass on information which they may have.
Torah VeDaat was founded in 1917 on the lower East Side in New York. It was known for its outstanding level of learning and was seen as a real bastion of tzedaka. On the halla cover the featured object is a “tree of life,” with leaves offering “years” as blessings. The “year of light,” a “year when we will upright go to Eretz Yisrael,” is shown.
Joselit has found High Holy Day cards with the tree of light, which could be the source of the halla cover.
My suggestion for the meaning of this holiday memorabilia is that Torah VeDaat believed that since hallot would be eaten – a halla cover would be used as well. My grandmother had it on her Rosh Hashana table for 40 years; my mother, who inherited it, used it for 20 years. As this halla cover continued to be a celebratory item for the High Holy Days, Torah VeDaat grew from 1926 on to this very year.
The writer has been a resident of Jerusalem for 35 years and has published numerous articles on contemporary and American Jewish history.
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