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Singular First Person – Memories of the Jewish High Holy Days

Singular First Person – Memories of the Jewish High Holy Days
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By Susan Rettig ~

Many of my special childhood memories relate to observing the holiest days in the Jewish faith. These days are Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, known as the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah will begin on the eve of September 9 and ends the next day. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. This year it begins on Tuesday, September 18, and ends on Wednesday, September 19. 

When my family moved from an apartment in Brooklyn to a house in Bayside, Queens, New York, in the summer of 1953, my parents joined the Jewish Center of Bayside Hills. For the first year, we met and prayed in a storefront until our building was completed.  

Because the High Holy Days are very sacred, we children would have to miss three days of school: two days for Rosh Hashanah and one day for Yom Kippur. In those days, the schools remained open. For at least the past 50 years, however, schools in New York City and the surrounding areas have closed for the High Holy Days. 

For the holiday services, the rabbi and cantor were dressed in white robes to signify purity, and they wore canvas sneakers, because leather is forbidden. It is interesting to note that people in the Charlotte community are now encouraged to wear Crocs to services. They, of course, are not made of leather. 

The rabbi conducted the services and delivered the sermons. The cantor was the one who sang the prayers and blew the shofar, which is made from a ram’s horn. I liked to arrive at the synagogue before the shofar was blown. The sound signified the beginning of the new year, and that was the highlight of my day. 

Our synagogue was always crowded for the High Holy Days but was even more so because Cantor Max Leibowitz’s famous son was Steve Lawrence, and Eydie Gorme was his daughter-in-law. Sometimes they would attend services. Members of the congregation dressed in their finery, and despite September’s warmth, most of the women wore mink stoles for the occasion. 

As everyone knows, food is an important part of every Jewish holiday. My mother would prepare chicken soup with matzo balls, chopped liver, and brisket. There were always many relatives visiting for the holidays, including my Bubbe (grandma) and Zayde (grandpa). 

On the eve of Yom Kippur, we always ate a large meal, as we would be fasting until sundown the next day. We lit memorial candles for each parent who had passed away, and the candles burned as a reminder of them until the next day. Also, on the eve of Yom Kippur, we recited Kol Nidre, a moving prayer. 

The next day of Yom Kippur, we prayed to be forgiven our sins and cleansed our bodies by fasting for the day. After the last prayer was recited, the shofar was blown once more. We then left the temple to return home and celebrate by breaking the fast. That meant we could eat again. Usually the fast was broken with a dairy meal such as bagels with cream cheese and lox (smoked salmon) and other fish, but not meat or poultry. However, each family had its own traditions for breaking the fast. 

As for now, “L’shanah Tovah,” which means have a healthy and happy New Year. 

About the author: Susan Rettig is a resident of Sun City Carolina Lakes and a frequent contributor to Living @ SCCL magazine, where this article was originally published. Thank you, Susan, for sharing these memories with our readers.