Emigres recall vivid sights and smells of New Years past

TEL AVIV — Leah Kisselgoff, now living in Jerusalem, remembers her first Rosh Hashanah in Moscow as her introduction to Judaism.

Avraham Frank remembers Rosh Hashanah in Germany in 1933 when, for the first time, local non-Jews were afraid to be guests at the High Holy Days services.

For Rabbi Yosef Hadane, Rosh Hashanah in Ethiopia was memorable for its somber atmosphere of cheshbon nefesh (personal accounting). Shalom Ratsabi recalls that Rosh Hashanah was one of the few times the Jews in Yemen neither dressed nor ate like the poor people they were. And Yehuda Zafrani remembers the spicy meats, salads, stuffed artichoke and rice with saffron his family ate on Rosh Hashanah in Morocco.

Around the world, there were always similarities in the way Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Yet local customs, economic conditions and the prevailing political situation in a given place have also made its celebration a radically different experience for Jews of different lands.

Kisselgoff's family in Moscow was thoroughly secular. But before Rosh Hashanah in 1978, when she was still a teenager, her father informed her that traditional Jews attached great importance to the Jewish New Year.

Out of curiosity, she went to Rosh Hashanah services at Moscow's main synagogue.

"I saw mainly old people there, and I felt out of place, like I didn't know anything," she says. "The people were praying in a language I'd never heard, the men looked so strange in their payot [sidecurls] and black caps. It was all very unconventional."

And, for a teenage girl, irresistible. There were a few young people at the synagogue who were doing something nearly unheard of then in Moscow, something that was also quite risky: studying Hebrew. A few were talking about moving to Israel, "which, to me, was as if they'd said they were planning to fly to the moon."

She fell in with the group and began studying Hebrew and Judaism. "If I'd been found out I could have gotten kicked out of high school, and later from university. There was a feeling of danger and adventure about it," she recalls. Clandestinely she and her friends translated Leon Uris' "Exodus" into Russian. In 1987, Kisselgoff immigrated to Israel.

Growing up in the southern German village of Flacht and later in Stuttgart, Frank remembers that Rosh Hashanah was a holiday dominated by the color white. Men and women attended synagogue in white robes, men wore white kippot and the pews were covered in white cloth — all for the purification of the soul that comes through atonement.

Non-Jews would visit Jewish neighbors on the High Holy Days and wish them a good year.

"They would come, mostly the young people, to watch the services," Frank says. "They would sit in the back rows, watching the Jews praying in their white clothing and blowing the shofar."

But after the Nazis ordered the boycott of Jewish stores on April 1, 1933, he says, "No gentile would dare visit a synagogue." In the subsequent years, a few brave ones would visit Jewish homes to wish them a happy New Year, but only after dark. Rabbis told their congregations to go straight home after services, and not to attract attention by lingering and talking outside the synagogue. The fear increased each year. In 1936, Frank left for Israel.

In the Gondar province of Ethiopia, Jewish activity was centered in the village of Ambober, says Hadane, who immigrated to Israel in 1972 and became the first Ethiopian rabbi ordained here.

Thousands of Jews would gather for the Rosh Hashanah services, and for the cooking of a huge, traditional communal cake called ingwaguba. However, the cake wasn't sweet; there was no Ethiopian equivalent of apples and honey. Rosh Hashanah was "a day of cheshbon nefesh. Everyone dressed in white and prayed fervently, asking forgiveness, making vows," Hadane says.

The prayers were intoned in Ge'ez, an ancient language that is a cross between Amharic and Aramaic. Ethiopian kessim (religious leaders) would lead the prayers, and those in the congregation who knew the prayers recited them by heart; prayer books in Ge'ez were extremely rare.

No non-Jews lived in Ambober. "The Jews felt free there," Hadane says.

In the Yemenite village of Sa'awan, the local Muslims would visit the Jews every Rosh Hashanah and give them seasonal fruits as gifts, recalls Ratsabi, who came to Israel in 1924 at age 9.

Muslims would enter the Jewish ghetto before nightfall; after dark the huge door to the ghetto was locked. Jews were dhimmis (second-class citizens) and were not allowed to build a house higher than one story, lest it tower over a Muslim house.

"They didn't bother our religious observance, but to let us become equal citizens? Never," says Ratsabi.

Before Rosh Hashanah, cows and sheep were butchered and divided between the four or five Jewish clans that populated Sa'awan. If a family did not get the head of the cow or sheep, they would eat the head of a chicken or fish, "in keeping with the talmudic saying that the Jews will be at the head, not the tail," Ratsabi says.

There were no decent apples in Yemen, so they ate dates and especially pomegranates, according to the teachings of Kabbalah, "which says the Jews should gain blessings as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate." The rest of the year, he adds, the Jews ate leben, beans and bread.

Zafrani, who came to Israel in 1949, recalls growing up in Casablanca, Morocco. "We were poor, we had nothing. Most of the Jews lived in the mellah — in Hebrew, you call it a ghetto," he says, adding that they weren't forced to live there.

But Rosh Hashanah in Casablanca was a happy time. All the Jews ate meat, and dressed in fine white jelabiahs (long white robes) and red tarbooshes (fez-like hats). "For once we felt we weren't on the bottom."

The elder of the family would host the holiday gathering. Following afternoon services, everybody would sit down to eat and keep going through the night. Among the dishes consumed were quiches; spicy carrot and cabbage salads; and the head, legs and organs of beef served with onions, all fiery with spices.

They ate apples and honey, "but none of this hummus and tehina," says Zafrani. "It was a very religious atmosphere. There a holiday was a holiday, not like here."