Every September, I was the envy of my Casimir Pulaski Elementary School classmates, many of whom had never known a Jew before. All the kids anticipated the December break, but, I, alone, was absent for Rosh Hashanah and again for Yom Kippur.
On arriving in America, my parents settled in an immigrant Polish neighborhood on the near north side of Chicago, where they could speak the language and earn a living for their four children. Thus, my mother and father’s America was the familiar accents of Milwaukee Avenue, a mini-Warsaw of kielbasa eating-blue-collared laborers and bundle-shlepping babushkad-women.
For me, America was Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best with the Nelsons and Andersons as my mentors. Attired in high heels and frilly aprons, perky Harriet and Margaret listened seriously to their children, never “pooh, poohed” against the evil eye, and served the cottony white bread I desired, not rye “mit” seeds. Plus, the church these families attended bore no resemblance to our chaotic synagogue.
The high holidays challenged me. While I was delighted that my friends languished in school when I was free, sitting interminably in synagogue was hardly freedom. Young Jewish families were moving northward, abandoning the bustling urban neighborhoods and by the 1950s, our dilapidated shul consisted of newly arrived immigrants like us and elderly stragglers.
Praying was a noisy affair as each man davened at his own pace, but when the Rabbi faltered, a chorus of corrections chimed in. The women were mostly reticent, and children’s participation in services was considered nahrishkeit, nonsense. We were expected to be still, and I sat, unaware of even the page number. This was my parents’ New Year.
My television New Year came with streamers, midnight revelry, and sequined dresses. To be fair, I noticed that both traditions involved countdowns. On television, the countdown to midnight was when champagne corks popped and people kissed as I twirled my Purim noise-maker.
The Jewish countdown’s enumeration of sins was less compelling. I didn’t understand Hebrew, so even vivid sins failed to stir me until I unearthed a prayer book with English translation: then my interest was piqued. Minor transgressions impressed me not, but I savored those I deemed most foul, even when I didn’t understand them. The Sarah Bernhardt in me wholeheartedly embraced the drama of breast-beating. While I waited impatiently for a breast to beat, I pummeled my scrawny chest and envisioned a buxom new year.
The anticipation of the Maskir Neshumas memorial service was especially poignant with my mother whisking us children outside as if pursued by demons. We were ordered to stay out until she returned for us. I imagined the souls of our relatives who died in the Holocaust taking shape in the sanctuary, floating aloft like figures in a Chagall painting. However, I stayed put outside, terrified lest the spirits snatch me away.
We kids passed the time venting energy and exchanging scary stories. When she reappeared, my mother was subdued. I knew she was sad that she wouldn’t see her family for an entire year, but I was grateful when this part was over.
Although our new year lacked the sartorial splendor I admired, food we did have. After services came the fruits of my mother’s days of labor. My father made Kiddush, the wine blessing, and we dipped apples into honey for a sweet year. We began with ovals of gefilte fish in aspic crowned by carrot rings, along with horseradish and mounds of challah. I skipped the horseradish after my brother warned that it would put hair on my chest.
Next we downed handmade egg noodles in dill-flecked golden chicken soup. Then, fork-tender brisket simmered with potatoes, carrots and onions. My mother bustled, constantly serving and clearing. Finally, with waistbands loosened, we sampled my mother’s sponge cake and fruit compote, as, she, herself, sat down to eat. Nothing could follow this meal but a nap.
On returning to school, my friends assumed I’d been sick and were perplexed by my family’s peculiar observance. I was twelve when we moved to a more Jewish area and was relieved not to explain myself every holiday.
Decades and countless jars of honey have passed since those years. I still appreciate both new years—the countdowns, the sequins and spangles, the rituals, the food. My holiday menu is much the same as my dear mother’s, and the traditions my parents learned from their parents have been shared with my children. I’d like to think that they will do the same with their families. Happy New Year, Shana Tova, and may we all be inscribed in the book of life.
Born in Kyrgystan to Jewish Polish refugees who fled the Nazis, Sara Nuss-Galles mines her roots for the telling details of daily life. A guest columnist on NPR’s Marketplace, her publications include The NYT, The LAT, Lilith, Catamaran, community media and anthologies. She lives with her husband, artist Arie Galles, in Southern California.