Meaningful Yom Kippur in Washington Heights

Last Tuesday night I caught a glimpse of a moment a hundred years ago.

My husband, Aryeh, is of Yekkish (German-Jewish) descent and I am not. Despite a certain acknowledgment of Hungarian origins, I see myself simply as a Modern Orthodox American Jew. I never expected during my dating period that my spouse would have a vastly different cultural viewpoint. But many Yekkes strive to remain faithful to a tradition that they saw at home and whose luster has not been tarnished despite their forced exile from Germany. In fact, on one trip back to their ancestral village in the 80s – Neckarbischofsheim – while my in-laws were still alive, their relationship with many of the younger locals reminded me of our ease and commonality with our present-day American neighbors.

But flee they all did! And this has led to the recently recognized phenomenon of cultural genocide. With so much forewarning of serious trouble to come, most German-Jews managed to leave Germany before World War II began. Many of those did survive the war but the surviving religious segment invariably joined existing communities in their new-found homes and melted into those communities. With the exception of  Tel Aviv, Switzerland and Washington Heights in northern Manhattan and some scattered smaller communities, no other Yekkish communities managed to reconstitute themselves based on their received tradition.

Upon marriage, I was introduced to a whole new world with different minhagim – Jewish religious customs – music coupled with a strong desire to prevent the disappearance of a historically vibrant tradition. It was not alien world, just a palpably different one.

Yom Kippur is the highlight of Aryeh’s year. It brings back memories of the High Holidays of his youth in Tel Aviv. Depending on where we are during that season, Aryeh has attended the local Yekkish minyan. Since it is so vastly different from my own background, I usually prefer to attend a minyan that reflects my memories better.

This year though I decided to join him in attending the davening at Breuer’s, the nickname of the Washington Heights community, officially named K’hal Adas Yeshurun. While the shul was built years ago for a substantial community, Washington Heights is not the ideal location for a youthful crowd looking for a private home and some greenery, so the community has shrunk significantly. However, looking over the balcony from the Women’s Section, was a heart-stoppingly beautiful sight.

White is the color that predominates during the High Holy Days. It is a sign of penitence and purity as we examine our lives, our deed, our relationships and our hopes for a forthcoming year. White blazes at us from every corner of the synagogue. The men are all wearing kitlech( known in Germany as sargenes), a white ceremonial garment worn on occasions of great solemnity. While the everyday talis is white wool with black stripes, adult Yekkis  wear a pure white talis on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The regular array of kippot during the year (male head coverings) are all replaced with a special higher white version called a “Miztnefes”  referencing the special head covering of the Priests serving in the Bes HaMidkash(Holy Temple). Even the ties the men are wearing are white. While women do not wear a kittel, most tried to incorporate some white garments into their garb and there are many that are  dressed completely in white.  In addition, the siddur (prayer book) holder in front of each seat was covered with a white cloth saying “L’Shanah Tova” roughly translating to “Wishing (You) a Happy New Year” while the regular carpets was covered with spotless white carpeting.

But, it was the service itself that was powerfully unique. There is far less singing than in many other traditions, but the congregation is completely engaged with responsive readings as well as those melodies which are sung once yearly and signify a Yom Kippur service. Each of the five prayer services – Kol Nidre, Schachris, Musaf, Mincha and Ne’ilah – was led by a different chazzan and they were bravura moments. Breuer’s also has an outstanding male choir that sang at traditional moments.

The shul was completely silent during Kol Nidre as well as during the daytime services which ran without a break from 7:25AM  on Yom Kippur Day until the fast ended at 7:40PM. The children and teens who came comported themselves in the same manner as the adults. Although, it was twelve hours of continuous davening, the day passed meaningfully since the services flowed in a continuum.

Recognition of cultural genocide is a recent phenomenon although the practice itself is ancient. Today there is also a greater appreciation that people yearn for their roots. In the struggle to maintain Yekkish continuity, one name stands out. Rabbi Binyamin Hamburger of Bnei Brak, Israel has made it his life’s work to research and write about  his community of origin, particularly its religious tradition and its music. He has written extensively on these subjects and his works constitute a library for those interested in searching out more details of their roots and can be reached through Machon Moreshes Ashkenaz (www.moreshesashkenaz.org). Most of the work is in Hebrew but there is one book specifically written for an English-language audience.

The Jeselsohn family came from a village, Neckarbischofsheim, in southern Germany. The Forchheimers, the distaff side, came from Wuerzburg. Although we do not live in a Yekkish community, tales of the doings of long-gone family members and the traditions of the “alte heimat” are a constant at family gatherings and the Shabbos table.

Last fall three generations of the extended Jeselsohn-Forchheimer family made a pilgrimage to Germany. We started the trip with twenty-one participants which gradually dwindled down due to pressure of work and school. In addition to Neckarbischofsheim and Wuerzburg, we visited Aub, Mischelstadt, and spent Shabbos in Frankfurt. I grew up with the family dictum that we do not visit Germany but that was impossible given the Jeselsohn family ties.

In Neckarbischofsheim we were met by Walter Zeller a local man who became interested in the local Jewish community in a curious way. People in the village refer to houses by the names of occupants rather than by address and he realized early on that there were many houses called by family names of people who no longer resided there. When he tried to find out what had happened to these families, a curtain closed down and no one would talk. Eventually he was able to find out more than the Jeselsohns themselves remembered about village details and took us on an extended tour of the village. We also had a meeting with the mayor of the town who herself had been to Israel and attended an Ulpan there.

In Aub also, we were quickly put in touch with a local teacher who was also knowledgeable about that village’s Jewish community.

The most difficult  part of the trip for me, outside of realizing that the historical Jewish community in Germany has vanished, were the “stolpersteine”  (stumbling blocks) that we saw throughout Frankfurt. This is a memorial project begun by the German artist Gunter Demnig in 1992. They are 3.9” x3.9” brass plates  set into the sidewalks at the last known addresses of Nazi victims with a inscribed with the name and dates of those people and where they died or were deported to. My sister-in-law found the name of her grandmother on a stolperstein embedded in the wall of the old Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt..

The greatness of our Sages was to create a portable culture so that Judaism could live even if we were severed for long periods of time from our Homeland. The Diaspora has created many varied and vibrant national versions and they should be treasured.

About the Author
Sura Jeselsohn has a background in science and is an avid gardener. Her weekly column, Green Scene, is published in the Riverdale Press.
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