Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel WeinCourtesy

For me, the holiday season that we are now in, is a time of mixed emotions. They engender within all of us the understanding that circumstances change in the progress of life and its events. Therefore, I am taking the liberty of sharing some of my holiday memories with you. Nostalgia can be very alluring, but there is also always a modicum of hard-headed realism that memories of the past always evoke. In short, memories are always bittersweet, because the past can never be brought to life again. In fact, an overabundance of effort on memory can be counterproductive to accomplishment and emotional balance in circumstances of personal and national events.

Our memories oftentimes play tricks on the mind. With the recollection of events, false memories can foster illusions, unwarranted criticism, and depressing thoughts about our present situation. Yet, it is impossible to face the present coherently and in a productive fashion regarding our present challenges, without relying on our memories and past experiences. This is especially true during this season of the high holy days when so much emotion is present within our families and our communities.

We all feel that it is not only those who are present that are commemorating the holiday, but also those who are no longer with us, who are also present in a very tangible manner in all our holiday activities and prayers. The events of past holidays weigh heavily upon the convictions of the commemoration and the celebration of the high holy days of this year as well.

When I was a child growing up in Chicago, I remember vividly that on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, my mother and I sat on the front porch of my grandfather's house. In front of me passed a sea of people walking to the Douglas Park lagoon in the neighboring park for the Tashlich service. Newspapers in Chicago estimated the crowds to number at least 40,000. Every Jew in the Lawndale area where I lived walked to the lagoon. There was no vehicular traffic on the street. People walked on the sidewalk, in the middle of the street, in the middle of the grassy Boulevard and all over the byway that led to the park.

It was the religious and social event of the year that united the entire Jewish community living in the area’s densely packed apartments and row houses. This was an opportunity to show their solidarity and connection the Jewish tradition and values. That memory, which was fixed into my young mind, has never departed or been diminished since. I don't know if there is any other such mass demonstration anywhere in the Jewish world outside of Israel today. It certainly is no longer present in Chicago.

I often think about the descendants of those 40,000 Jews that at one time walked to that lagoon to observe the custom of Tashlich. Tragically, I am certain that many of their descendants may no longer be Jewish, and, certainly, are not aware of this tradition. The ravages of assimilation over my lifetime destroyed much of the Jewish community, not only of Chicago, but also of America in general. But my memory of that Tashlich event still nurtures me until this very day.

The synagogues in Chicago engaged the services of the most famous legendary cantors of the time. Many of the synagogues had very large buildings that could accommodate thousands of worshipers at one time. The synagogue where my father was the rabbi, was perhaps the smallest of the large synagogues in the area. It contained about 1500 seats in the main sanctuary and in the women's gallery. On the high holy days, every seat was occupied and at certain points during the services, people stood in the aisles.

It was a generation mainly of Eastern European Jews, who brought that fervor and flavor to the high holy day services. When everyone stood to recite the prayer, there was a roar of sound and a sea of tears that I have never again seen equaled at any prayer service. These were plain simple Jews, struggling to make a living in an alien environment, and attempting, at the same time, to hold onto their faith. Most failed to accomplish this, but there was a minority who succeeded, and we are grateful to that minority for the restoration of traditional Jewish life throughout the world.

Rabbi Berel Wein is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator, admired the world over for his audio tapes/CDs, videos and books, particularly on Jewish history. After many years serving as a community rabbi in Monsey, NY, he made aliya and is rabbi of Beit Knesset Hanassi in Jerusalem.