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The Jewish New Year

Detail of display featuring apple and honey containers painted by Hillary Brenner and loans from members of the community.

In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year”. It commemorates the anniversary of creation. On this day G-d opens the Book of Life and observes his creatures, deciding their fate for the coming year. It is therefore a time for introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the New Year.

With thanks to Allen Bolaffi for the idea, the Rosh Hashanah anecdotes for this display were gathered in September 2003. It is an attempt to document the tradition of Rosh Hashanah as practised in countries such as Australia, America, Egypt, Russia, South Africa, Israel and Zimbabwe.

Roslyn Sugarman, Curator Adelaide Jewish Museum

Chani Engel: United States

“Everyone knows apples dipped in honey. This seems to be a universal custom, but there are also some less popular food customs. We have the custom in America to eat 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. It is one of the seven fruits that Israel is blessed with. It is said that a pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same number of mitzvot in the Torah. The seeds represent the aspect of many ? our good deeds should be many. By eating pomegranate we figuratively show our desire to fulfil all the commandments”.

“Traditionally, we eat the head of a fish. In some Sephardi communities, they eat the head of a ram or 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. I remember a friend’s mother who 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”.

“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. Another custom, but not a prohibition, is that we don’t eat horseradish, vinegar or food that has a sharp, sour or bitter taste. The symbolism is that during this time when the Book is open and your fate is being sealed, you want to eat only sweet food”.

Yvette Bolaffi: Egypt

“My Grandfather taught us that you are not allowed to go to sleep on the day of Rosh Hashanah. He used to call us to come and play cards and games to keep us active; otherwise we would have an inactive year”.

Rosquettes “In Egypt, traditionally for Rosh Hashanah, Mum used to bake round savoury sesame rings (Rosquettes), little cheese pastries, and small sweet bread with sultana (brioche). She also used to make fig and date jam”.

“We never used candles. I remember that we made our own candles, with – water and – oil in a small glass, and a wick for lighting”.

“I remember in our home a plate with wheat seeds spread on a base of cotton; we would water the seeds and the shoots would grow. I’m sure this was symbolic – the new shoots representing the New Year”.

Wendy James: Australia

“I remember mum taking us five girls shopping for new clothes for the High Holidays. When I think about Rosh Hashanah as a child, I remember a big meal, setting the table, everyone gathering together, getting presents, eating smoked salmon and smoked lamb”.

Barry Katzenberg: Zimbabwe

“I remember we used to buy all the domestic staff new white tackies (sand shoes) for Rosh Hashanah, and also a new white jacket with red sash for serving the guests”.

Roy Sugarman: South Africa

“Rosh Hashanah reminds me of my Grandfather. From cabinet making he had very strong hands, and I remember him crushing walnuts with his hands and giving the pieces to the kids”.

Roslyn Sugarman: South Africa

“I remember my sister and I always saying “Mom stop, you have enough food”, but she couldn’t stop making more, just in case there wasn’t enough – chopped herring, pickled herring, Danish herring, Gefilte fish, fish balls, fried fish, mock crayfish, salads, then soup and kneidlach, that was for starters. Then there was a main course and desserts. I remember my teeth getting stuck in the taiglach”.

Yossi Ben-David: Israel

“The symbolism of the fish is significant, especially the head of the fish. It is hoped that in the coming year will be the head and not the tail; that we will be at the top rather than the bottom”.

“Pomegranate is always put on the table at Rosh Hashanah, some to decorate, some cut open to eat. The taste is sweet and sour. The symbolism is that the Jewish nation will be many, but stuck together, like the seeds of the pomegranate”.

“The Israeli’s turn the house upside down for Rosh Hashanah – you clean the whole house and wash everything. Traditionally in our family we are buying new clothes, especially for the kids, and if there is enough money, for the whole family”.

Irina Sverdlov: Ukraine

“In Kharkov in the Ukraine where I grew up, you could not buy any challah (bread). If you want it, you must bake it yourself”.

“Rosh Hashanah was a big family festival, we all got together, we had a fantastic dinner, we talked about family history, and about relatives we haven’t seen. We ate Jewish Russian style food, lot of salads, including beetroot; we ate a lot of chicken liver, and chopped herring. It was our favourite food. A lot of egg salad. Usually a lot of sweets on the table, and cakes and biscuits which grandma baked; it was more a sweet party than anything else. Honey, jams, cakes with plum and sultanas. Everything sweet”.