We’re now in the midst of the High Holiday season and this Shabbat we happen to have four recent alumni (all UAlbany Class of 2018) up in Albany for a visit. I thought of sharing a few lesser-known/observed holiday traditions from this time of year, and connecting one tradition to each of the alumni who are visiting with us today.
Tishrei is the month of holidays that begins with Rosh Hashanah and goes through Simchat Torah. Everyone has family over for the holidays but in Chabad, guests came from all over the world to converge on “770” the Rebbe’s synagogue in Brooklyn. People saved up money for this overseas travel. Some were regulars who came every year but many could only afford to come the distance perhaps several times at most. There were especially large groups from France and Israel, in later years from Russia as well, and people came from as far as South Africa, Argentina and Australia. Most of the guests were either Chabad Lubavitch Chassidim, or close connected friends, but because they came from so many different places with varying traditions, dialects, etc… it was a very diverse mix of people. Many of the French and Israeli visitors had Sephardic backgrounds, so it was my first brush with Sephardic tradition.
Adam S. began a nice Sephardic lineage here at UAlbany, as his brother Jack followed him up here, and now his cousin Daniel C. is doing a masters here in international tax.
There’s a nice tradition to ask someone for honeycake at the new year. The honeycake because it is sweet, and we’d like a sweet year. But the asking is important, too. In case we are destined to have to ask/beg/depend on someone for something, may it be this piece of honeycake. People do this custom with a grandmother or parents or local Rabbi. When Raizy and I were growing up, the Rebbe would stand at the door of his office (and later in the season at the door of his Sukkah as well) and give each person a piece of honeycake with wishes for a Shana Torah UMetukah, a good, sweet new year. This was a very memorable, sweet and pleasant memory with the Rebbe.
Rachel S. is a very sweet person, all of us know that. But she can also ask for what she needs and can speak up for what needs to get done.
This custom is least-understood and most-controversial of these traditions. Basically, the idea is to feel the fragility of life and atone for our sins by creating an exchange using a live chicken or fish for the ceremony. FYI – many Modern-Orthodox Jews do this with money (for charity) instead. The live chicken is lifted and circled over a person’s head (not swung around) while saying a prayer. Then the chicken is slaughtered in the ritual way (as all Kosher chicken would be) and then usually cleaned and prepared to give to the poor or a yeshiva or someplace. In big Jewish communities like Brooklyn or Monsey or Jerusalem this has become a big busy ritual, streets or parking lots are filled with this going on, it is a whole lively scene, and there are concerns and protests about various angles, from humane conditions or treatment, to the public setting, to the tradition in and of itself. In the local Albany Jewish community, the tradition is still observed by some, but in more minimalist way, as a joint “one chicken, one rooster” communal ceremony for all participants instead of one chicken per person which creates the whole dramatic scene in a place like Brooklyn. You can be for or against Kaporot, or have different ways of doing the same tradition, but the purpose of it for those who do observe it is to create some discomfort with the personal proximity to life and death, and the fragility of life, which our modern culture sanitizes, shields us from and inoculates us against.
Aliza B. isn’t the type to do chicken-Kaporot, but there’s a good connection. In ten days she’s going to travel across the world to serve in a country few people have heard of as part of the Peace Corps. She won’t be working in some front office or big city operation, rather living and working in a small, remote, what we’d call a primitive village. During these two years, she’s going to see strange and unusual rituals and behaviors that may not sit easily or well with her coming from progressive modern America in suburban NJ but are often meaningful or natural to those people in their hometown setting.
SIMCHAT BEIT HASHOEVA
Back in the days of the Jerusalem Temple, the intermediate days of Sukkot (not the holiday bookends but the “Chol HaMoed” days in middle) were a time of great rejoicing, dancing and celebration. In fact, the Talmud says that one who has not seen the Simchat Beit HaShoeva rejoicing in the Temple has never seen joy in their lives! This custom comes alive again on the streets of Crown Heights each night of Chol HaMoed Sukkot with whole streets blocked off for dancing with live bands going all night. Many homes in the surrounding streets open up their Sukkot with welcome signs and refreshments, and the whole area is buzzing with people from the neighborhood and beyond to dance and rejoice.
Elena P. loves to dance! All year ’round she has a cheerful disposition, and a warm bright smile and has brought much joy and positivity to our campus community. And being that she’s local and is local for grad school we look forward to enjoying more of her spill-over happiness in-person!