Throughout Brooklyn, the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) was blown during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year welcoming in the year 5774. The holiday was the beginning of a month of holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot) and a transformation of the borough, which has more Jewish people than anywhere else in the country.
The holidays came late this year, so early that many Jews remained in their summer homes for the holidays. The holiday preparations include the [preparation] cooking of many traditional foods, which are eaten as symbols of the holidays. Holiday challah is formed into a round shape to represent the circle of life. So that we may have a sweet New Year, it is filled with sweet raisins, and you can smell the challah baking, along with the traditional honey cake, as you ride down the avenues. At the holiday table, the challah is dipped in honey, along with the apples, the fall fruit, with a benediction. Symbolic foods like dates, the head of a fish (or animal), pomegranate seeds, gourds, and Swiss chard are traditionally eaten in different varieties, whether in Ashkenazi or Sephardi families.Synagogues across the borough are bursting at their seams. Every inch of space in the synagogue will be used for prayer: the classrooms, the social halls, the bet midrash, and spaces not usually occupied will be used for holiday services. It is an important time for fundraising as well, by the United Jewish Appeal, Israel Bonds, and the synagogue themselves. Rabbis will give their best speeches during the first day of Rosh Hashanah, knowing that the entire community will be there, and it is a time to have the most impact.
During the eight days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, kaparot markets will open in Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg and Flatbush (to name a few neighborhoods) for this annual ritual during the Days of Awe, a time when Jews ask for forgiveness for sins against God. During the Days of Awe, Jews will recite the tashlikh prayer by a running body of water, in the hopes they will be written in the Book of Life. Across Brooklyn, one will see Jews chanting the prayer on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah or throughout the week leading up to Yom Kipper fast, at the Gowanus Canal, the beaches in Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, at the pond at Brooklyn College, at the end of Bay Parkway by Caesar’s Bazaar, and of course, Prospect Park.
It is traditional to bring flowers to your hostess, so flower markets will do a brisk business, setting up on street corners throughout the borough. During the seven religious holidays where no driving is permitted according to Orthodox Judaism, traffic will be light. Synagogues will have both private security as well as uniformed police officers assigned for protection. Singles will stroll the boulevards in the hopes of meeting their intended soulmate (Bashert) or to continue a relationship begun during the summer months. The public parks will be filled with children and families dressed in their holiday finest, as the children need an outlet to play.
The first and last two days of Sukkot are yomtov, or the more stringent religious days in the celebration of the festival. During Sukkot, Jews must eat in a sukkah, or a temporary hut, with a small opening to see the stars, set up for the holiday. This is in remembrance of the huts dwelt in by ancient Israelites in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Seasonal stores will open to sell sukkahs, or the supplies to build them. Sukkahs can be made of many kinds of material, as long as the structures are temporary.
It is common to see people carrying the lulav (closed frond of the date palm) and etrog (citron) on this holiday, some in special cases to preserve them. The lulav is is bound together with myrtle and willow. When inside the sukkah, a prayer is said with the lulav and etrog. Special vendors will pop up in the streets to sell them.
Jews across the borough will build a sukkah in a backyard, driveway, or on the porch. Some apartment buildings will build a sukkah in the courtyard. Kosher restaurants and religious businesses will have a sukkah built on the premises to accommodate observant Jews. Sukkahs are usually decorated with fruits and children’s arts and crafts. A drive down Ocean Parkway or in any of the more religious neighborhoods will provide a treat as you observe sukkahs of all shapes and sizes.
On the last day of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, the celebration takes on an especially joyful atmosphere. The Torah cycle of readings ends and re-begins, so congregants dance embracing the Torah scroll in the synagogue, with the dancing spilling out into the streets. There is also an atmosphere of a child’s festival. Some synagogues will hand out backpacks full of goodies and toys for the children to take home and enjoy. Others will hand out flags and apples, the fall fruit. Jewish schools will teach the children songs for the holidays, and arts and crafts will come home for use on the holidays.
The month of holidays results in many days off from school and work. They are a time when families come together, and parents use the holidays to impart family and religious traditions passed down from generation to generation. These traditions are derived from the many cultures that make up Brooklyn’s Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish communities – Eastern European, Russian, Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Bukharian, Persian, and Turkish, to name a few.
Brooklyn is transformed, a reflection of the ethnic unity and differences among the borough’s diverse Jewish population.