Feasts, Festivals and Fasts (The “Real” Judaism)

There is an old joke told by Jews about Jews.

“We fought. We won. We were victorious. Let’s eat.”

From Pharoah of Egypt to Antiochus of Syria to Haman of Persia… it’s all about food.  Matza on Passover. Latkes or sufganiyot on Chanukah.  Hamantashen on Purim.  Starve on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av.

Chanukah is now over. Put the chanukiyah (menorah) away and dust off the haggadot.  Never mind about approaching Purim, feast of diabetes. That’s only worth  two days of “stuffing and suffering”. Start worrying about Passover, the eight day festival of unleavened constipation.

I once heard the world-famed violinist, Itzhak Perlman remark to the world-famed chazzan (cantor) Yitzchak Meir Helfgot that in America Jews choose which synagogue to join depending upon who is the cantor, not the rabbi.

But when a Jew from elsewhere visits a synagogue in somewhere on a Shabbat in America, he comments less on the rabbi’s sermon or the cantor’s voice. His rave is for the Kiddush feast which follows the service.

Not just sliced cake or cookies. No !  Platters of gefilte fish, herring, tuna salads, vegetable salads of 4 or 5 varieties, and on special Sabbaths platters and bowls of steaming cholent (meat, potatoes and kidney beans cooked over a 24 hour period) joined by potato or noodle kugels (baked puddings).

Only then comes the sliced cakes and cookies, sometimes even a fruit platter depending on what’s ripe for the season.  Cold beverages on one table. Alcoholic beverages on a separate table. And urns of hot coffee and tea standing alone on another table.

A neighbor told me the tale of one of her neighbors who once belonged to a large metropolitan synagogue of some seven hundred families. The weekly Sabbath services began at 9 o’clock on Saturday mornings and were usually concluded by 12 or 12:30- p.m. And then the mad dash to the banquet hall where the Kiddush platters were neatly laid out. But that neighbor never arrived at the synagogue before 12 noon….just in time to eat her Kiddush lunch. Forget the prayers.

While I do not personally know anyone who chooses this practice it is, nevertheless, not too hard to believe !

It may be that the Kiddush is one of the main attractions which bring hungry Jews into synagogues. In eastern Europe, it was the custom following a religious service, to eat a slice of challah bread with a few bites of pickled herring washed down with one or two shots of brandy. Those memorable days are gone forever.  This is the generation of the caterers !

My father attended services faithfully every Sabbath and holiday in order to pray, to learn and to weep.

It was his custom to offer his prayers to God from the siddur or machzor  (prayerbooks)  he held in his hand, to listen carefully to the wise words of his Orthodox rabbi, and to weep shamelessly when the chazzan chanted, in his magnificent tenor voice, urging God to forgive the sins of His people and to save them from despair.

It is the custom that I follow.  In the cantor’s voice I hear the voices of my father and my grandfather pleading for God’s mercy and blessings.  Their long-gone tears were passed along to me and will end with me. While my children regularly attend synagogue services they do not have the kavannah, the feelings, the emotions of their father. They were born in a different time with different experiences, never knowing hunger, pain, or persecution as my father did.

As my father might have said, “s’iz ein andere welt”…. It is a different world.

The first synagogues were born in Babylon where Jews prayed beside the rivers Tigris and Euphrates following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BCE. They were brought to the land of Israel by Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah the prophet some fifty years later when Cyrus of Persia freed them from Babylonian oppression.

Those first synagogues were very different.  In some, there were teachers (rabbis).  I doubt that cantors existed at that time.  And I am 100% certain that no Kiddush meal was served following the service.

My father was right. Today it is feast or fast and then a rush to the tables.

“I’m hungry. Let’s eat”.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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