' Treasures of memory and observance


Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 1999 /30 Elul, 5759

Treasures of memory
and observance

By Dena Eben

From crushing wine grapes to whirling white chickens, elderly community members recall High Holy Day memories, filled with joyous emotion and jubilant tradition.

THE WHITE CHICKEN, Martin Schwartz recalled, symbolized purity. By twirling it over the heads of family members, their sins would be dissipated in preparation for the New Year.

Martin is one of a score of residents participating in a discussion group at Gidwitz Place, part of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Community for Senior Living in Deerfield, Illinois.


The elderly have a lot to teach about the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur of yesteryear. Some traditions have been ingrained in Jewish consciousness, like the practice of sending one's sins afloat through tashlich, which arose in the Middle Ages, based on a verse in the biblical book of Micah. Others, like the crushing of grapes, arose out of a necessity for kosher wine, which was especially scarce during the Prohibition years earlier in this century.

"There were no liquor stores," said Bert Balterman, an 82-year-old resident at the Lieberman Geriatric Health Centre in Skokie. "We all made our own wine. I remember my grandpa had a press in the basement. When we were kids, we would go and wind it down, and the juice ran out from the bottom."

Helen Dresser, 91, chuckled as she commented that her family obtained confiscated, bootlegged wine from the Chicago Police Department.

Overall meal preparation began weeks in advance, since delicacies like gefilte fish were made from market-fresh carp, not from bottles bought at the local store. In years of financial strain, families scrimped and saved, but they always managed to have enough for themselves and the welcome stranger at the holiday table.

"If I was making gefilte fish, they would invite themselves,"quipped Belle Rosenthal of her popular recipe. Belle, 78, resides at Lieberman. "There were a lot of hard times, but there were fun times. We had a good time when we got together."

Leiters Sukkah

High Holy Day experiences vary, from movement to movement and from European shtetl to early 20th-century Chicago. By speaking and writing about their memories, seniors instill a sense of reverence for tradition and convey a special value for our communal history.

"My grandmother used to bake all night challah and give it out to poor in a basket," said Dorothy Soiber, a 92-year-old Gidwitz resident.

Most senior community members miss the large family gatherings.

While some families manage to congregate during this season, grandchildren and great-grandchildren may be spread over large distances, unlike the close-knit families years ago who lived in multigenerational homes.

"My mother had two sisters and three brothers, and there were I don't know how many kids "about four million, it seemed," Bert said. "It was very important that we all met at my grandfather's house. My grandfather was a tailor, and they had a tailor shop on the ground floor and lived upstairs. They would put brown paper on the windows of the store and put planks on the sawhorses, and everybody would gather around the [makeshift table] for the dinner. Quite a thing*a big celebration, and we always looked forward to it."

Miriam Goldwyn, 79, was raised in an Orthodox home in Chicago. "We lived with my grandparents --- my mother and father, my little sister and I --- and I loved every minute of my life. And now I appreciate it even more because, truly, you lose a lot when you are not living in that kind of atmosphere."

For Bert and his fellow servicemen during World War II, the army provided unique and enlightening High Holy Day experience for enlisted Jews. "A very strange thing happened during the war," Bert recalled. "I was stationed outside of Honolulu, and we were taken into town to a college for services. Just before the services started, in walked a bunch of black Marines, and they were all Jews."

Special thanks to the Council for Jewish Elderly for providing the opportunity to learn from our elders. CJE is a subsidiary of Chicago's Jewish United Fund.

Dena Eben is a writer with the JUF News, a monthly published by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


©1999, JUF News