Illustration from a 1917 issue of this newspaper, showing Rosh Hashanah "Jewish New Year's Customs Observed in Ancient Times."
Illustration from a 1917 issue of this newspaper, showing Rosh Hashanah "Jewish New Year's Customs Observed in Ancient Times."

From Rosh Hashanah columns of yore, hopes for the future

Since its founding, this publication has celebrated the upcoming new year with an issue that speaks to the meaning of the holiday. In early special Rosh Hashanah editions of The Emanu-El, the editor invited luminaries from across the country to contribute their thoughts on questions facing the Jews of the day and to reflect on the solemn yet joyous nature of the holiday.

Usually serious and reflective, some contributions were on the drier end, it’s true — hence this rather facetious 1922 take:

“I am invited to make my contribution to the Rosh Hashanah Emanu-El. What is it to be? A quasi sermon? Certainly not. A few reflections on the eternal theme of persecution and race hatred? Not unless I should want to take the joy out of the festal mood of your readers.”

But not all contributions were so predictable.

The first half of the 20th century was marked by modernity, and the questions asked around the new year were modern questions — some perhaps even more daring than the ones asked today.

Is the celebration of Rosh Ha-Shanah not an anachronism?” That question was put forward in the 1905 holiday edition of the paper.

While the writer, the prominent Reform thinker and co-founder of the NAACP Emil G. Hirsch, eventually concluded that it was not an anachronism, he justified the right to continually question elements of Judaism traditionally held sacrosanct.

“[M]any there are among us that will not repress the incisive inquiry concerning source and history and meaning, no matter how solemn and sublime the rite,” he wrote.

The 1906 new year’s edition, though, contained a piece that struck a different and ominous tone:

“The increasing number in our midst of the so-called free-thinkers and religiously apathetic, psychologically accounts for the growing army of the religious nihilists, out of which are recruited the numerous suicides of whom we hear and read in these days.” (The article also includes somber reflections on the 1906 earthquake and its aftermath.)

The importance of outreach, the plight of the youth — these were some of the recurring themes of Rosh Hashanah editions, revisited from all denominations and philosophies. And then there was the question of technology.

It may seem like too much tech is a plague of 21st-century life. From Reboot’s “National Day of Unplugging” campaign with its cellphone sleeping bag to mindfulness and meditation programs at synagogues, we are constantly reminded that in this first quarter of the 21st century, we’re spending too much time going and doing and not enough time just “being.”

Now comes the quiet hour — the pause from labor. We enter again the house of worship … We open once more the prayer-book.

It sounds like a modern problem, but in 1917 it was also on the mind of Abram S. Isaacs, a prominent East Coast rabbi, editor and professor, and he wrote about it in his piece for the Rosh Hashanah edition:

“These are days of ceaseless activity. Life is so insistent that the only pause most of us experience is the pause of illness or death. In the conflict to attain wealth or ease or preferment, we court no idle moments. It is a drive, a rush, each day. The tendency has so increased with the modern equipment and aids to comfort that we regard the hour a waste which is not employed in some active pursuit.”

“Life has been automobilized,” he concluded.

The cure? Rosh Hashanah, of course: “Now comes the quiet hour — the pause from labor. We enter again the house of worship with wife and children. We open once more the prayer-book.”

The holiday editions weren’t restricted to sermons and thought pieces, however. They were full of advertisements, best wishes from businesses and reminders to buy seats for services.

The 1933 holiday edition carried a short piece (something that these days would probably be called an advertorial) on the usefulness and ubiquity of sending Rosh Hashanah greetings — by telegraph.

“‘May the sound of the Shofar be a response to your prayers for a happy and prosperous New Year.’ This, and a dozen other suggested forms for Jewish New Year greetings by telegraph, radiating the spirit and cheer of immediate personal contact, have been prepared by a leading rabbi and are available at any Western Union office for transmission over telegraph wires in celebration of Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year, which starts at sundown September 20.”

Western Union was ready and willing to assist Jews, who seem to have been fond of the medium:

“It is an interesting fact, according to the Telegraph Company, that an intensive study of non-business telegrams indicates that Jewish people send telegrams of congratulation and well-wishing much more frequently than members of any other group.” (Although in an unfortunate lapse, one of the occasions they refer to is “christenings.”)

So fond were Jews of sending telegrams at Rosh Hashanah that Western Union promised extra facilities to accommodate demand, no matter the destination:

“Additional operators and messengers will be assigned to offices in Jewish sections. New Year’s greetings to Great Britain and continental Europe are reasonably priced. Delivery of such messages in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, French, German, Polish, Lithuanian and Flemish has been arranged.”

A few years earlier, in the 1924 holiday edition, The Emanu-El asked the head of Hebrew Union College to take on an even more significant topic, one that readers of today might have some thoughts on.

What will American Judaism be in 2000 A.D. To many the question may seem daring; to some perhaps preposterous; to not a few even absurd and presumptuous,” Julian Morgenstern wrote.

He managed to make a few predictions, though. He assumed that by 2000 there would be around 8 million Jews (fairly on the nose), the majority born here — a huge change from the statistics of his day, in which a massive wave of immigration from Russian territories was reshaping Jewish American life. But would that change mean assimilation and the end of Judaism? No, he concluded.

“[A]ll the various Jewish groups and elements here in America will make their valued contributions, each in the measure of its spiritual strength and wealth. Reform and Orthodoxy alike, Portuguese, German and Russian Jew; perhaps, for all we can tell, even the atheist Jew,” he surmised.

It would be different, but it would still be Judaism:

“In 2000, and in 3000 and in 4000, and so long as America continues to be a free, enlightened, liberal, progressive nation. American Judaism will live and grow and lead and inspire and bless.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.