High Holiday Stories from Near and Far

Recollections of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from the Wexler Oral History Project

We've selected some of our favorite High Holiday stories from our collection to share with you—stories that showcase the many different meanings that these holidays have for people near and far. The excerpts featured below range in locale from Warsaw to Detroit to Cape Town and include recollections of time spent at the synagogue and secular holiday traditions, as well as fond descriptions of music, food, and drink. 

Going to Warsaw’s Great Synagogue for the High Holidays

Teaser text: Prior to their destruction during World War II, many magnificent synagogues could be found in European cities and towns. In this video, Henryk Robak recalls the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, where he would go with his father on Rosh Hashanah. (in Yiddish with English subtitles)

A Guggle Muggle Before Kol Nidre

The High Holidays are a peak performance opportunity for cantors. Many a synagogue invests in hiring a special khazn (cantor) for the services. In particular, a khazn is often evaluated by their rendition of the emotional “Kol Nidre” sung on erev (eve of) Yom Kippur. So it’s no surprise that cantors, such as Al Rosen’s father, would prepare with special rituals—or beverages.

Yontef Treats in Cape Town

When Yiddish translator Naomi Bloch remembers the High Holidays during her childhood in Cape Town, South Africa, she can almost taste the myriad delicious foods associated with them. Here, she recalls in mouthwatering detail a few of the foods that came with her family from Lithuania to South Africa.

Becoming Aware of Socioeconomic Class During the High Holidays

Since many more people attend services for the High Holidays, it’s common for a synagogue to sell tickets to reserve seats and raise money for the community. In this clip, former history teacher Mark Gerstein, z”l, recalls becoming aware of social class distinctions for the first time as a child based on the seating at his family’s synagogue during the High Holidays.

A “Stall Song” for Yom Kippur

Many who observe the fast on Yom Kippur know those last few minutes can be especially trying. Rabbis come up with various techniques to get through those final moments before breaking the fast. Violinist and klezmer revivalist pioneer Yale Strom shares the nign (wordless melody) that his father learned as a boy at the Stoliner Shul in Detroit, which was used by the rabbi to stall until the first three stars could be seen in the sky.

Secular Adaptations of the High Holidays

Of course, not all Jews want to go to synagogue during the High Holidays. Some secular Jews, such as Yiddish cultural activist Linda Gritz, have found different ways to observe that feel meaningful and aligned with their beliefs. In this video, Linda talks about the ways in which some members of the Boston Workmen’s Circle: Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice adapted High Holiday services.

To explore the full collection of oral history interviews, visit the Wexler Oral History Project on our website.

Sign up to get content like this from the Wexler Oral History Project delivered directly to your email inbox.