Memories of Rosh Hashanah Past

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was celebrated last week. And while many Jews engage in the traditional eating of apples and honey and repenting of past misdeeds in synagogue, the holiday also offers an object lesson in the varieties of Jewish religious celebration.

For some, Rosh Hashanah is a travel opportunity. Perhaps the most popular is Uman, the Ukrainian city where the late hasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, is buried. Around 25,000 devotees flock to the celebrations. In 2003, JTA reported on the motley crew attending Rosh Hashanah services in Nairobi, Kenya, including Israeli diplomats, expatriate Israeli and American businessmen, Americans working for nonprofit organizations, white Kenyan Jews and black Kenyan followers of Judaism.  In 2007, Madonna, Donna Karan, Ashton Kutcher and his then wife, Demi Moore, traveled to Israel to mark the new year.
But despite the widespread observance of a holiday so popular even non-Jews want in on the action, some Jews have worked to end the marking of Rosh Hashanah. In 1931, the Jewish contingent of the League of the Godless ran a campaign urging Jewish workers to abandon the High Holidays. “Jewish workers, stay away from the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah,” read a Yiddish pamphlet. “Remain at work in field and factory on Yom Kippur in order to help carry out the Five Year Plan.” Ironically, the League of the Godless undermined their own effort because many Jewish peasants hadn’t even known the date of the holidays. Thanks to the pamphlet, they knew when services would be held.
Jewish holidays have also historically been occasions for attacks on Jews. In 1931, an organized pogrom in Berlin attacked Jews leaving synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. In 1942, the Nazis threw a gala party to mark the opening of a pool in what was once a synagogue in Poznan. In 1974, Israelis in Safed were urged to carry weapons to services under fear of terrorist attacks.

But the history of High Holidays observances also has its proud moments. Many artists and athletes have chosen not to work on the holiday. Perhaps the most famous example is Sandy Koufax’s decision not to pitch the opening game of the World Series on Yom Kippur. More recently, Leonard Cohen announced he would not perform on the High Holidays. In 1960, New York City elected to close its public schools for Rosh Hashanah. But fifteen years later, in 1975, the US Open tennis tournament played on Rosh Hashanah, drawing the ire of then New York City mayor Ed Koch.

Joe Winkler is the online coordinator for JTA.