Rosh Hashanah: How the Jewish New Year in Jerusalem used to be

Today, Jerusalem is no longer the small city where everyone knew everyone. Its general atmosphere has changed in many ways. How was Rosh Hashanah like in the past?

 ROSH HASHANAH joy: Dipping the apple in the honey (Illustrative). (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
ROSH HASHANAH joy: Dipping the apple in the honey (Illustrative).
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

“As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”

Those were the words of Shmuel Yosef Agnon in his Nobel Banquet speech, which he delivered in Stockholm in 1966.

In his book Days of Awe, there are various descriptions of the special atmosphere of the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. In one volume, Agnon included texts from the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash and the Zohar, to deepen the reader’s spiritual experience of the holiest days of the Jewish year.

The special atmosphere of this period of the Jewish calendar was long associated with the city of Jerusalem, too.

Jerusalem is a changed city

Today, Jerusalem is no longer the small city where everyone knew everyone. Its general atmosphere has changed in many ways. The mixed neighborhoods, which were a prominent feature of the city before the Six Day War and for years after it, have disappeared.

 SHUKI BEN-AMI grew up in 'Little Jerusalem.' (credit: Oren BT) SHUKI BEN-AMI grew up in 'Little Jerusalem.' (credit: Oren BT)

Today, there are distances between different communities, neighborhoods are characterized more by their religious affiliation, something which was unknown to old Jerusalemites, but there are still many among us whose memories of their Jerusalem childhood create a mosaic of sounds and smells and sights that are pleasant to recall even today.

One such Jerusalemite is the journalist and writer Shuki Ben-Ami, who grew up in what he calls “Little Jerusalem,” in the neighborhoods north of Jaffa Road, neighborhoods that are now completely haredi, which once, in Ben-Ami’s memories, were small neighborhoods of people who belonged to different communities and different traditions and still lived together

“I grew up in Jerusalem, and I am still living in Jerusalem. In those years of my childhood, Jerusalem was quite similar as a whole. I mean, in Mea She’arim there was the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, but in Geula, for example, secular and religious lived together.

“In the neighborhood of Yegia Kapayim, a small neighborhood close to Geula, where we moved, we found also secular and religious people, and what I mostly remember was that there was harmony between the people. In all the synagogues, everyone woke up for the traditional prayers at dawn (slihot). We all heard the blowing of the shofar. It was a very different atmosphere than what we know today. 

“For example, how did you then define someone who is neither religious nor traditional? Would we call that person an infidel? Well, in those days, we didn’t, because someone who doesn’t go to the synagogue even on Rosh Hashanah and Kippur was simply someone – quite rare, I must admit – who does not go to the synagogue, nothing more. But the truth is that there was no such thing back then! The majority went to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, unless you were really ideologically and strongly secular, and these persons – well, they simply did not leave the house that day; they did not act in an angry, extroverted manner. Under no circumstances would you see them being defiant – like lighting a barbecue fire in the yard. 

“If you didn’t connect to the traditional atmosphere, you would sit at home and that’s it. Secular people, the few who did exist then, would also avoid driving in the neighborhood in those days.”

“If you didn’t connect to the traditional atmosphere, you would sit at home and that’s it. Secular people, the few who did exist then, would also avoid driving in the neighborhood in those days.”

Shuki Ben-Ami

Ben-Ami recalls a period in the city’s history that preceded the Six Day War, when Jerusalem was still a very small and heterogeneous place. “This was the ‘Little Jerusalem.’ I remember the period of forgiveness [the Days of Repentance] when I was a child, and when my father promised me that he would take me with him to slihot. For me, as a child, it was really something. Imagine, to get up early in the morning – it is still dark all around – to leave the house... there was maybe one street lamp here and there, and suddenly you saw people walking in the darkness of the night.

“In every neighborhood there were lots of small synagogues of all streams – it was synagogue opposite synagogue in every neighborhood – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, all of them. Each synagogue had a different version [of prayer], here they sang one way and there they sang another way, and this created a very special atmosphere.

“You felt something in the air that was different. It was a time of the year when our parents explained to us that even the fish in the water trembled for fear of those Days of Repentance, or they told us, ‘Look children, even the trees don’t move, for fear of these days.’”

FOR SAMMY ALKALAI, who was born in Jerusalem, the memories of those days are completely different.

Raised in a secular home, little Sammy had an outside view of all the preparations and happenings of the days before Rosh Hashanah and the day of Kippur, through his neighbors and friends in the neighborhood, but he was never part of it, although religious boys from the neighborhoods were among his friends.

“I was born and grew up in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, which was then a mixed neighborhood, where religious and secular people lived side by side, unlike today, when the neighborhood has become more religious and, perhaps, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood to a certain extent.

“I mostly remember from those days the stands of Shana Tova cards that used to be everywhere. These stalls would pop up in all kinds of corners of the city, mainly in the city center, and would sell the Shana Tova cards of that time, which were quite naive drawings, all of them with lots of glittering gold ornaments. We, the children, would go to these stalls and buy the greeting cards and send them to each other. We would also collect them. There were some with paintings of the Western Wall, greetings with a dove of peace.

“I also remember that in the early morning hours the synagogue gabbai would pass by and shout ‘slihot, slihot,’ and of course I remember all the preparations, buying new things for Rosh Hashanah.

“I grew up in a completely secular home, but I had religious friends in the neighborhood, and it was in the air throughout these days.

“It was customary for secular people to also go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As a child I remember going to hear the Rosh Hashanah prayers, and on the eve of Yom Kippur I went to hear the Kol Nidre prayers. We, too, as a secular family, used to go, and I also remember that during the Yom Kippur prayers, the adults in the synagogue would give us something to sniff, like a tobacco powder.

“Although we were completely secular, my father sometimes erected a sukkah on our small balcony. But that’s all. There was a very tolerant atmosphere. There was an atmosphere that those who were careful about all these things were fine, but also those who were not careful and did not do all these things – prayers, forgiveness – it was also fine.

“I think the change came about when the Rabbi Kook institutions and the yeshiva started to be built in the neighborhood and more religious people came. It started after the Yom Kippur War. So it changed. Until then, it was a very mixed neighborhood – Ashkenazim, Sephardim, secular and traditional religious.”

SHIMON FUTERMAN was born in the city to a very religious family, in the area next to Mahaneh Yehuda in the religious neighborhoods.

For years, he ran facilities for at-risk children. At the same time, he was intensively involved in miniature electric trains. Today he is retired and manages the “Train World” exhibition at the capital’s First Station complex. 

“I mostly remember that it started with the need to buy something new for each child in the family. It could be clothes, shoes – something. This was the first sign that the holidays were approaching. It was something quite serious, something for each one of the children in the family. It was something very festive.

“Then there was this whole matter of slihot, the special prayers of this period of the year, held early in the morning. The neighborhood was mixed – Sephardim, Urfalim, Ashkenazim... everything was there. The Sephardim start with these prayers from the first of the month of Elul, and for us Ashkenazim it starts later.

“And, of course, there weren’t all the sophisticated applications and watches or mobile phones back then, so you had to rely on the guy from the synagogue whose job it was to knock on each window or door and wake up the people, every morning, when it was still dark outside.

“The next step was the preparations at home. They shopped a lot. True, there weren’t sophisticated supermarkets then like there are today, but my family shopped mainly at the Mahaneh Yehuda market. They would buy live poultry, chickens and also carp fish and a lot of other ingredients for the holiday meals. 

“I grew up with chickens still alive in the bathtub, and carp, and then for Yom Kippur, poultry again. And we would also go to slaughter the chickens and go through the whole process.

“It didn’t bother me. In those days it was customary to bathe once a week, before Shabbat. So, during the week before the holiday, the bath belonged to the chickens and carp.” ❖

 THE WRITER, at age 10, arriving in Israel. (credit: PEGGY CIDOR) THE WRITER, at age 10, arriving in Israel. (credit: PEGGY CIDOR)
Days of Awe of my childhood

I grew up in Ashdod after we made aliyah in the early ’60s. My first encounter with Jerusalem was almost five years later, when we spent the Tishrei holidays with family in Jerusalem.

From the moment we arrived at the city entrance, a new, intriguing and exciting world was revealed to my eyes. The appearance of the stone buildings, the streets congested with traffic and the people (especially compared to Ashdod, where there was still not a single street paved with asphalt), the shops – everything seemed different, mysterious and attractive to me.

The relatives’ home was in the Mekor Baruch neighborhood, an old stone house, with a wide staircase made of marble, and in the apartment, a painted and colorful tiled floor.

The adults were busy with the final preparations for the holiday, and I went out with the cousins to see the city. The sight of people whose clothing indicated their belonging to different groups was the first thing that stood out to me, as we met Christian nuns, Arabs and haredi Jews.

We went down from Tahkemoni Street to Jaffa Road, and from there we continued to Shabbat Square and entered Mea She’arim. The famous street, which was then very narrow, was a kind of shock for me. The men in hassidic clothing and the women with wigs – I had never before seen their like. At Shabbat Square, people, mainly beggars, were standing, and there were also some with carts of goods.

We turned right and arrived at Nevi’im Street, and the cousins asked whether my parents allow me to enter the Old City. Without hesitation, I answered that of course, no problem, and we headed down toward Jaffa Gate. And again a shock – the colors, the smells, the noise and the crowds that came to the city for these special days and rushed to the Kotel for another prayer of supplication before the holidays.

I don’t remember if we reached the Wall, but I remember that upon our return to the relatives’ house, the first thing I said to my mother was that I had decided that when I grew up, I would come to live in Jerusalem.

The next day, even before dawn, I woke up to the call of the synagogue man calling for the slihot, the prayers of forgiveness. I saw my father, my brother and my uncle quickly get dressed, sip glasses of black coffee, whose aroma filled the house, and rush down the stairs to the synagogue in the neighborhood.

My aunt announced in a solemn voice that this morning they were going to finish shopping at the Mahaneh Yehuda market. We took baskets and walked to the market.

The abundance that poured from every stall made me dizzy, and I was surprised to see many Arabs, some in traditional clothing with trousers, carrying goods and even offering their goods in loud voices. Something about this sight reminded me of the central market in the city of Tunis where I was born and from where we immigrated to Israel.

At the end of the market, there were stalls selling Shana Tova cards, and near what is today the entrance from Agrippas Street, there were on the sidewalk temporary stalls selling children’s holiday clothes.