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Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – March 2004

Leave a Legacy

A few months ago, I visited a member of the Jewish community to collect an object for the Jewish New Year exhibit in the display cabinets at the AHC. I was gathering anecdotes about Rosh Hashanah in an attempt to document the tradition of Rosh Hashanah from different perspectives, as practiced in countries such as Australia, America, Egypt, Russia, South Africa, Israel and Zimbabwe.

Fortunately I had my tape recorder and switched it on over tea; it is much easier than writing notes. I had only intended to record information about the object to be loaned, a round wooden dish used for bread, and it was during this conversation that an amazing story emerged, giving insight as to what it is like to be a Jew living in Russia. Irina Sverdlov enlightened me with an account of her “Russian experience”. In her hometown of Kharkov in the Ukraine with a population of 1.5 million, 30% are Jewish, yet there was not one synagogue. There was nowhere to buy challah. Probably 95% of the Jews didn’t even know about this bread made for Shabbat. If you are a Jew, there are no senior positions open to you. There are many Jews who would pay large sums of money to change their identity because it is so difficult to be a Jew in Russia. The captivating “full story” will soon be available on the website.

Everyone knows of apples dipped in honey. This seems to be a universal custom, but there are also some less popular food customs. Chani Engel tells of the custom in America of eating carrots, because they are round. Another reason is that the Yiddish word for carrot is merren, which is also the Yiddish word for many. Eating carrots symbolizes that you want more children, more knowledge and many good deeds.

It is Chabad custom is to eat pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah. One of the seven fruits that Israel is blessed with, it is said that a pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same as the number of mitzvot in the Torah. The seeds represent the aspect of many – our good deeds should be many. Chani notes that traditionally, they eat the head of a fish. Fish have special significance as they don’t close their eyes and are said to be like G-d, who never closes his eyes and is always watching over us.

The most common shape of bread for Rosh Hashanah is round; less common forms are bird or ladder shapes. For the display, Chani made challah in the shape of a ladder, symbolizing a reminder that G-d decides who will ascend and who will descend life’s ladder.

Chani notes that we don’t eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah because the Hebrew word for nuts is egoz, and the numerical value for this word is sin. Yet, on another continent, Roy Sugarman remembers eating nuts. His Grandfather in South Africa from cabinet making had very strong hands, and he can remember him at New Year crushing walnuts with his hands and giving the pieces to the kids.

Yvette Bolaffi also recalls restrictions as part of the festival: In Egypt, her Grandfather taught her that you are not allowed to go to sleep on the day of Rosh Hashanah. He used to call the children to come and play cards and games to keep them active; otherwise they would have an inactive year.

Barry Katzenberg’s anecdote is probably typical for colonial Zimbabwe: once a year the domestic staff would get new white tackies (tennis shoes) for Rosh Hashanah, and also a new white jacket with red sash for serving the guests.

Food is the universal for everyone. Wendy James’ Australian experience of Rosh Hashanah is not dissimilar to others across the globe. When she thinks about Rosh Hashanah as a child, she remembers a big meal, setting the table, everyone gathering together, getting presents, eating smoked salmon and smoked lamb.

Yossi Ben-David recalls some of the symbolism common in Israel. The fish is significant, especially its head, in the hope that in the coming year all will be the top rather than the bottom. In Israel, as with the Chabad tradition, pomegranate is always put on the table at Rosh Hashanah. The symbolism according to Yossi is that the Jewish nation will be many, but stuck together, like the seeds of the pomegranate.

The museum website, soon to be updated, gathers together such stories commemorating Jewish life, and can be viewed as a forum for storing Jewish social memory.

Stories such as Irina’s and the others above enable us to connect with the past and encounter inspiring examples of life experiences; it is also a way to further understand our heritage, increasing our vision of the broader picture of Jewish life.

It is with sadness that I write my last museum newsletter. It is true that the Adelaide Jewish community is a warm and welcoming one. Since our arrival here, we have made good friends, socially and professionally. I have not had the opportunity to personally say farewell to many of the people that I have met since starting up the Adelaide Jewish Museum. My husband has been offered a post at Liverpool Hospital, and we will be leaving for Sydney at the end of January.

By establishing a virtual Museum, it is hoped we have set up a meaningful and valuable way for the community to share their diversity of experiences and for commemorating the lives of individuals and families. This is what motivated Allen Bolaffi when he contracted me to establish a Jewish Museum for Adelaide. The Museum was an opportunity of a lifetime and I will cherish my three years of helping to get the museum off the ground and into cyberspace!

If there is anyone out there interested in pursuing a career in museum work and wishing to apply for the position of Curator please contact Allen’s Assistant, Anastasia Mallios, on 8110-0997. The essential requirements are a willingness to meet interesting people, to record stories and edit them for the museum website.

Roslyn Sugarman, Curator Adelaide Jewish Museum, December 2003.