Bulchachras, Shnodering, and Snuff: How the High Holidays Were Observed in Homestead

The history of Homestead’s Jewish community begins and ends with the High Holidays.  Six months before the community formally organized, it was their first activity.

The beginning of the Homestead paper's 9/11/1893 article on the first Rosh Hashana celebrated there. Click here to read the whole article.

The beginning of the Homestead paper’s 9/11/1893 article on the first Rosh Hashana celebrated there. Click here to read the whole article.

By 1893 we had about twelve Jewish families permanently residing in Hstd.

When the High Holidays approached, the thoughts of these pioneers was (sic) directed to their religion, and to celebrate the holidays in the good old fashion, by conducting sacred services on R.H. and YK. Through the courtesy of the 2nd ward Volunteer Fire Co. they were permitted to hold services in the Club room of their Engine House on Dixon St.

The (sic) engaged Rev. Samuel Federman of McKeesport as their Cantor, who conducted their services according to the traditional custom of Orthodox Judaism.

50th Anniversary Banquet Speech, 1944

And a century later, the inability of the community to ensure a minyan of ten men for High Holiday services was the final nail in the coffin.

[The closing] could have gone through a long time ago. But there were a few of us who said as long as we can make a minyan we’re not closing this place up. We tried the best we could, until we couldn’t.  What really did it was — I guess it was the year of ’91 during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We asked for a show of hands, “How many people are going to make sure they are going to come to shul? Come to shul?” We couldn’t get a show of hands of more than 8 or 9. Can’t make a minyan with 9.

— Oral history of Allen Smooke, 1993

In between, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) were celebrated consistently by the Homestead Hebrew Congregation.  Much about their observance would seem familiar to Jewish people of any era.  Rosh Hashana was observed for two days, then a week later Yom Kippur brought one day of fasting.  On Rosh Hashana there were evening, morning, and afternoon services each day, with the same on Yom Kippur, plus the kol nidrei (“all vows”) prayer before the evening service and the ne’ilah (“locking”) service before sunset. (Jewish holidays run sundown-to-sundown.)  Morning services were divided into two parts, shacharit (morning prayers) and musaf (addition), which were separated by the reading of the Torah and Haftarah portions (taken from the Five Books of Moses and the Prophets), the rabbi’s sermon, and the shofar service (blowing of the ram’s horn).  Every year the synagogue officials had to expend a tremendous amount of effort to prepare for all these services.

Behind the scenes

The Bost building at the time of the strike.

In the years before the synagogue had its own building, they had to rent space in one of Homestead’s many public halls.  In 1894, their first holiday season as an organized congregation, they met in “Bost’s hall,” which two years prior had been the union’s headquarters during the famous 1892 strike!  No additional details about how the community observed the holidays emerge until 1900, when they rented Steenson’s Hall for services that “were made of more than usual interest as the Homestead congregation is growing and is in better shape to celebrate the day.” By that point the congregation was well into fund-raising to build its first synagogue building, whose construction began in the summer of 1901.  It would have 80 seats — 40 men’s on the main level and 40 women’s in the gallery above.  In the meantime, they had to rent Steenson’s Hall one last time. 1

At the end of that year, the congregation sold seats in the almost-completed building to those members who could afford them.  Each purchase was actually for a pair of seats, one men’s and one ladies’.  “Some handsome prices were paid for several of the seats,” noted the paper on 12/1/1901, and three days later the paper remained so fascinated by this occurrence that at the top-center of the front page of the paper, they named the thirty-two men who bought seats and even indicated which ones!

High Holiday ticket rules, 1902. (Box 3, Folder 9)

High Holiday ticket rules, 1902 (Box 3, Folder 9).  Click to enlarge to read about differing prices and policies.

At the time of the synagogue’s dedication a four months later, there were 42 (male) members. 2  With more members than seats and most of the seats already purchased — let alone the members’ children and visiting relatives, and not to mention the many non-members who attended regularly — you may have some concerns about this math.  You would not be alone!  After the shul was completed, the historian later admitted, “it took only a few months to realize what a grave error has been committed in building a house of worship hardly adequate for the accommodation and need of that time, especially so in a growing community.”

9/15/14 seat agreement with B.J. Schwartz

B.J. Schwartz’s 9/15/14 seat agreement (signed by my great-grandfather!). Note the terms regarding his former seat in the Ammon Street shul (Box 3, Folder 3). Click to enlarge.

Somehow they made the tiny Ammon Street shul work for 1902-1906 despite the increasing mismatch between numbers of seats and worshippers, but starting in 1907, the congregation had to rent a hall and run two sets of services to accommodate everyone.  After four years of this, the 1911 arson forced the issue.  “Some wanted to rebuild, but the late Mr. Henry Moskovitz strenuously objected, first on account of the location” in a poor, immigrant neighborhood next to an elementary school, “and second on account of the smallness of the lot to build for a growing community.  His wise counsel prevailed,” recalled the historian, and two weeks before Rosh Hashana 1914, a larger and much more impressive edifice was dedicated in the nicest section of town.  It had about 275 men’s seats and 174 women’s.  Thereafter the congregation observed the holidays together under one roof.

Whoops! "No seat was assigned to my wife...I absolutely refuse to pay for it." Click to enlarge. (Box 2, Ledgers of Individual Accounts 1934-1943)

Whoops! “No seat was assigned to my wife…I absolutely refuse to pay for it.” Click to enlarge. (Box 2, Ledgers of Individual Accounts 1934-1943)

Having their own building necessitated procedures for selling tickets, which were established in 1902 and remained remarkably consistent ’til the end.  Late summer, the synagogue’s officers would set ticket prices and appoint a Seat Committee to handle all the related financial transactions, which included collecting dues from members who who were not up-to-date.  These men were responsible for printing tickets and “sitting,” or making themselves available for people to come by and purchase tickets.  Typically they’d sit weekday evenings and Sunday afternoon.  They were given “full power to act” — i.e. to make adjustments to bring in new members or settle existing members’ debts.  The money they brought in carried the synagogue’s finances for the next twelve months, so they were entrusted with a significant responsibility.  Plus, of course, they had to put everybody in a seat!  People preferred to sit near their family (some of these families were quite large with many branches), or at least their countrymen (Russian/Hungarian tensions ran high in the early decades), so there were plenty of considerations to take into account.

Oh, my lord, it was full.  The synagogue was full.  Mr. Grossman was in charge of the seating, and he would stand upstairs, and have his plan, his map for the seating. And if you didn’t have a ticket, you just didn’t have a seat. That’s how crowded it was.

Belle Green

Part of the 1938 high holiday seating chart. Browse all the seating charts here!

Part of the 1938 high holiday seating chart.  Note that the congregation’s president and vice president had seats of honor on either side of the ark.  The rabbi and cantor sat next to them. Browse all the seating charts here!

As the 1902 rules established, people who did not own seats could rent “single” or “double” seats.  “Outsiders” (later called “non-members”) had to be approved by the Seat Committee and were charged more than members.  In 1902 the prices were $2 member single/$4 member double and at least $2.50 outsider single/$5.00 outsider double.  In 1946 the prices were $5 member single/$10 member double/$15 non-member double; in 1965 $12.50 member single/$15 non-member single.  In the 1980s seats were free.  In return they received admission tickets.

Close-up of 1915 High Holiday ticket (MSS #1083)

1915 High Holiday ticket (MSS #1083)

High Holiday Admission card from 1939 (Box 9, Folder 7)

High Holiday Admission card from 1939 (Box 9, Folder 7)

Undated high holiday ticket (Box 9, Folder 7)

Undated high holiday ticket (Box 9, Folder 7)

In addition to the seat committee, ushers were appointed annually, too — two for the men’s section and two for the women’s — to man the door and help people to their seats.  In 1936 they did not do a good job: “Bro Max Mermelstein reported that many members and non-members took seats without buying tickets. Br H M Jacobson moved M Fishman seconded that the Com. should not admit anyone to the synagogue on Yom Kippur without tickets.” Trustees, who served year round, were responsible for the general upkeep of the building.  They hustled every summer to get the shul in the best possible condition before the holidays, always a challenge since the timing of the holidays required the work to take place during August vacation season.   They were also responsible for keeping order during services.  Finally, there were gabbais (sextons), also a year-round position, who assisted in the running of the service.  This note from 1931 points to their own, ongoing challenge:  “Gabays: Holiday services well conducted. Weis complains about the old matter of jurisdiction at services and President informed him that on all matters of law and procedure the Rabbi has complete jurisdiction at services and he advises the Gabays to arrange those matters with the Rabbi.”  3

Of course, all of these people are nothing without the actual services, so the most important set of people who had to be assembled in advance were those who would conduct them.  The rabbi was responsible for many parts of the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services — musafkol nidrei, ne’ilah, sermon, and shofar — but not everything.

This is definitely not what Magram had in mind.

Definitely not what Magram had in mind.

The first meeting minutes I read that shed light on who assisted the rabbi were typed by Samuel Magram, the young, American-born lawyer who served as the synagogue’s secretary from 1938-1942.  He had a problem common to his generation:  he had no idea how to spell Hebrew terms he had only ever heard spoken.  It was one thing for me to interpret his notes about the “Essrich committee” and “Ossregem purchases” (esrog/esrogim) or the regularity of “minions.”  But his transcription of this motion bewildered me:

Motion was made, seconded and passed that M.D. Weiss be appointed to read the Bulchachras services at the High Holiday services for the coming year at the same salary as previously.

The strange word was typed clear as day.  What the heck was Bulchachras?! 4

It took two learned friends of mine to deduce that he meant ba’al shachris, or prayer leader for the morning service!  This part of the High Holiday services was never the rabbi’s responsibility, although it required someone with above average skills.  In the early years the congregation brought in people whose travel, room, and board they had to cover.  For a few decades they found competent people from within the community — Hyman Podolsky (’10s), Benjamin Krotin (’20s), and M.D. Weis (’30s and ’40s).  This period ended in March 1944, when after more than a decade as ba’al shachris, Weis —  whom Jacob Rader Marcus had singled out for his learning — wrote a letter to the congregation “censuring the Sec’y” (then the elderly Ignatz Grossman) “for not sending a letter of thanks for his services as Bal Shachris on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  A supplementary letter from M.D. Weis, was read in which he resigned from the Cong. as a member.”  5  After Weis’ retirement, most years they returned to bringing in outsiders for “Bulchachras.”

19120806 want ad

An 8/6/1912 want ad from the Homestead paper, dated a month before Rosh Hashana. The address is Rabbi Widom’s home.

The other part of services that required lining up personnel in advance was the meshorerim, or boy’s choir.  I was surprised to find that there had been a choir, having considered it a Reform innovation and not an Orthodox tradition, but there’s evidence of meshorerim dating to at least 1905. 6  It was the rabbi’s responsibility to find and train 5-10 boys, who stayed up on the bima the whole time.  Allen recalled, “You vied for that job.”  They were always paid, usually $5 a piece.  In his oral history Harry Mervis recalled, “We had the most beautiful choir you could ever hear.  [Rabbi Pinkas] was really fabulous. He had the kids singing just like he did.  It was really good.”  Harold Newman agreed, “We had the best choir I think that I’ve ever heard.”  He recalled that his brother, Wilbert Newman, was the “star singer.”

The High Holiday choir c. 1926. L-R: Hymie Forkosh, Abe Valinsky, Joe Kramer, Meyer Fox, Mr. Danzig, Ben Mermelstein, Rabbi Goldberg, Mr. Krotin, Mr. Jackson, Joe Averbach, Ed Mermelstein, Ertzy Cohen, Lou Weinberger, Dave Weinberger. More about this picture here.

The High Holiday choir c. 1926. L-R: Hymie Forkosh, Abe Valinsky, Joe Kramer, Meyer Fox, Mr. Danzig, Ben Mermelstein, Rabbi Goldberg, Mr. Krotin, Mr. Jackson, Joe Averbach, Ed Mermelstein, Ertzy Cohen, Lou Weinberger, Dave Weinberger. More about this picture here.

Every year many men in the congregation worked together to set price, sell tickets, prepare the building, and appoint prayer leaders.  Crucial as this behind-the-scenes work was, none of it is what people remember.

In shul

One of the most common memories I’ve heard about High Holidays at the synagogue was how crowded it was.  “Extremely busy,” “crowded with people,” “overflowing,” “filled to capacity” with “standing room” only, “packed, absolutely packed” — almost everyone in the oral histories emphasized this point.  7

Seats were not purchased for the children.  There wasn’t enough room for them in the main sanctuary.  Starting in 1921 the problem was partially alleviated by having a children’s service in the basement, though it seems this didn’t happen consistently even during the peak years.

When it came holiday time you couldn’t — you could walk in and say hello to your parents, but you couldn’t necessarily go in and sit at services. They would have special services for children downstairs there, but there wasn’t room in the synagogue for them. — Clarice Katz

We used to sit on the steps upstairs, the children would sit on the steps because it was so full…Sometimes there was room, people would come and go, but a lot of the times we sat on the steps. — Helen Kline

The children had to sit down[stairs]–we would be at the children’s services. So, we had to go to a different [floor]–or we could sit in the back [of the women’s balcony].  If there were seats in the back, we used to go in the back. — Mildred Ziskind

We just either squeezed in or moved to a different row or whatever, talk with our friends, but we were there. You had to be there, there was no question, you were there. — Ruth Stein Halle

Of course, not all children stayed in either of the services.  What Harold Newman recalled about himself as a child in the ’30s and ’40s probably applied to many: “I was the average kid — in and out, you know, and walked around the thing.”  Jeanette Egerman, who was born in 1915, remembered, “Most of the time, we young people would go to the services, sit for five minutes, then come downstairs and stand outside and talk.”  Ruth, who is thirty-five years younger, had the same memories about her generation.  “We stayed, we took breaks, just like any other kid, and you went downstairs to the reception area and fooled around, horsed around, whatever, and went back upstairs for services.”

None of these recollections are at all surprising, but the children were not just quietly wandering in and out.  Harold Hiedovitz recalls kids “running around, all over the place.  All over the place.”  Charles Coffey adds about the late 30s and 40s, “I can remember distinctly the rabbi stopping the services several times, trying to get the kids from running up and down the aisles.”  Iris shared a similar memory from the ’60s or ’70s: “Jerry Schwartz was the president at that point, and if the kids got too noisy, Jerry took a book and went” — here she knocked on the table —  “and, you know, everything kept on. So, more regular than anything else, you heard this” — knocking — “during services.”  My Keizler and Mandell cousins told me that their father/uncle E.A. Keizler, who was president 1938-1940, did the same thing.  (And the chief culprit, they admitted, was often his own son!)

The kids weren’t the only ones contributing to the ruckus.  Jeanette related, “I recall the high holidays with the women sitting up in the balcony. And a lot of them couldn’t read Hebrew. And they would sit up there and chatter, and I can remember the gentlemen (in quotes) on the first floor looking up at the women, and banging on the little desks that they had saying, ‘Zol zein sha!’ [Be quiet!]  I will never forget that.”  (Although, Charles remembered that during his childhood women “sat in the balcony and cried the entire service.”)

For all the complaints raised during board meetings, these decorum issues never appear in any ledgers.  For as unfamiliar as this style of service may seem to many of us today, for our parents or grandparents it was the way things had always been.  As Harold Newman summed up,

HN: It was a typical Orthodox shul — utter chaos.

Ann Powell: Did you like the chaos?

HN: Have you heard the song “Tradition”? That’s what it is. That’s what it was. You know, like I have a sister-in-law that belongs to Temple. Rise, you sit down — you know, I can’t get used to that. Our shul isn’t like that.  We have chaos.

"YK Schnuder," 1968 (Box 6, Folder 3)

“YK Schnuder” list from 1968.  Click to enlarge. (Box 6, Folder 3)

The difference in decorum wasn’t the only unfamiliar element I discovered about services at the Homestead synagogue.  Over many months of research I kept running across a strange word that clearly referred to something that took place during the holidays:  shnodering.  I paged through many lists entitled schnoder + name of holiday in the synagogue’s records; the contents of these lists were always names of congregants and dollar amounts.  I read in the meeting minutes such perplexing statements as:  “All Shnodering to be charged according to what they may offer,” “The member to have the right to Shnoder 5.00 on Saturday before the wedding, to be deducted from the 5.00 fee which a member has to pay,” and “Gabays report: $18 schnoderred.”  Lest I thought I was repeatedly misreading the handwriting, I saw it typed plain as day in the congregation’s 1934 by-laws.

Members making satisfactory arrangements with the Finance Committee regarding their dues shall be entitled to…free donations (Schnuder) at all times except on Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur and such special occasions as wedding, Bar Mitsvahs, Briths and so forth.

— Article XVI, Section 5, Homestead Hebrew Congregation Rodef Shalom By-Laws

Schnoder — schnorrer? — whatever this was, it didn’t sound very good to me, and it was maddening to be so repeatedly befuddled by something that had made perfect sense back in the day.  8

Summary of 1923 holiday income. Click to enlarge. (Box 5, Cash Book 1916-1931, p. 62)

Summary of 1923 holiday income.  Note the second-to-last line. Click to enlarge. (Box 5, Cash Book 1916-1931, p. 62)

Separately, another unfamiliar High Holiday custom kept coming to my attention — this time called by a familiar word used in a perplexing way.  Financial reports after High Holiday services included a line item called “spending” alongside more familiar items like tickets and dues. Individual members’ financial records shed light on what this “spending” was.  On page after page the word “spend” appeared frequently, often followed by the name of a part of the service in Hebrew, whether the name of an aliyah (section of the Torah reading), hagbah (lifting the Torah), g’lilah (wrapping the Torah), or p’sicha (opening the ark).

Joseph Freed's spending in early 1909. (Box 1, Ledgers of Individual Accounts 1909-1914, p. 32)

Joseph Freed’s spending in early 1909.  Note the second-to-last line, which seems to list his spend in shillings.  In this early ledger, I found a number of spends listed in shillings.  I have no idea what this was about — do you?! (Box 1, Ledgers of Individual Accounts 1909-1914, p. 32)

I recognized that these were all parts of the service that congregants perform.  In any synagogue I’ve ever attended, a gabbai comes around and asks individual congregants if they wish to perform particular honors, but I had heard that synagogues once auctioned off these honors to the highest bidder.  And indeed!

Marshall Gordon: The other thing [Harry (Heschel) Seiavitch, the longtime shammes] did — you may have heard this one — on the High Holidays, he used to auction off the aliyahs.

AP: I remember that, but I haven’t heard it.

MG: Oh, OK. Well, Heschel was the auctioneer, who auctioned off the honor of opening the ark.  And there are certain parts of the book where…which are more desirable than others.  And those are the parts when more people are there. [Laughs] I found that out. I used to ask my dad, I said, “Well, why is that one more expensive than this one?” The answer was, “Well, people walk out, people come back, but for that one everybody is in.” I guess it’s the first one or something. There were bidding wars, and the status thing was to bid, buy it, and give it to somebody. So, sometimes you would buy a series of aliyahs, which may mean three or four of them. And you would bid, and Heschel would auction in Yiddish. He would say…

AP: Di ershter mol

MG: Di ershter mol, di ershter mol, di tsveyter mol. Fuftsik toler, tsvantsik toler [“Going once, going once, going twice. Fifty dollars, twenty dollars”], whatever it was, and he would sing it out like a real auctioneer. He was great. And then the bidding wars between the wealthier in the synagogue, and then, usually the one that you bid against had won and would give it to you. So, it was kind of a game.

My cousin recalled a bit more about how this “game” was played within our family:

Bernard Keisler: Well, [wealthier families] usually were the ones that put up the money — along with my grandfather, because he fought ’em pretty good at the services to buy the aliyahs relative to opening and closing of the ark or taking out the Torahs — and so they did that more often. And my grandfather usually did them, too, because he liked to– because having five sons and innumerable grandchildren, to make sure his sons stayed on the holidays, that they stayed in shul all day, if he bought the aliyahs they had better be there because grandpa was going to call them to come do it.

AP: And he would notice that you weren’t there.

BK: Well yeah, mostly his sons. I mean, he didn’t send up the grandsons too much because there wasn’t that many aliyahs, and he had too many sons, and so you had to follow the pecking order.

It took me a while to figure out that shnodering and spending and these auctions were one and the same!   (The etymology of the word schnoder, which my friend Aaron Housman explained to me, is delightful.  It isn’t Yiddish!  It comes from a word in the mishebeirach prayer recited over the honoree, which beseeches Gd to bless him ba’avur she’nodar tsedakah, “because he vows to give charity.”  She’nodar => schnoder!)

There were many honors in a service, each selling for a different amount to a different person.  In a traditional synagogue where they would have abided by the prohibition against writing on holidays, how in the world could they produce accurate financial records like the ones I had been reviewing?  The answer:  schnodering cards!

Schnodering card from Beth Jacob of Pittsburgh (now part of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob). Note the names of the various honors along the right side. Click to enlarge. (Source: MSS #438, Box 2, Folder 3)

Schnodering card from Beth Jacob of Pittsburgh (now part of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob). Note the names of the various honors along the right side.  The other sections are different categories of tsedakah for the shul itself and the community at large.  Click to enlarge. (Source: MSS #438, Box 2, Folder 3)

Allen Smooke explained to me that before the holidays the secretary would prepare a card for every congregant and put them in a box.  When a man won an honor, the secretary would fold down the appropriate tab to record the amount.  He would have to remember the honors to which each amount pertained, and after the holiday, he would go through the cards and transcribe the information into the financial ledgers.  Only a very few instances in these ledgers are marked that a person later refused to accept a spend, so the system worked.  Recalling who did this work, Allen declared to me, “Ignatz Grossman was the best!He was the best.”

Pledge card (Box 9, Folder 7)

Pledge card.  Click to enlarge. (Box 9, Folder 7)

Yizkor pledge card (Box 9, Folder 7)

Yizkor pledge card.  Click to enlarge. (Box 9, Folder 7)

To be clear, schnodering is a different custom from the pledges solicited after kol nidrei and before the yizkor memorial service, both of which used a similar style of card.  From what I can tell, both were introduced well after schnodering — perhaps the 20s?  For the Yom Kippur appeal, outside organizations like Keren Hayesod (then the United Palestine Appeal; today, United Israel Appeal) and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) sometimes asked to take part.  Other times the funds were allocated for internal projects like education or synagogue repairs.  Apparently this was a public appeal in which congregants called out their donations.  Allen remembered that one year someone called out, “I give $100 — anonymously!” Even well into the synagogue’s decline significant sums were raised on Yom Kippur. 9

Decorum, schnodering — I delight in discovering all these differences between shul then and now.  The more unfamiliar, the better!  So, along these lines, here’s one more anecdote Allen shared with me about how the women and men revived themselves during services, practices never mentioned in any synagogue records or oral histories. “On the High Holidays, especially Yom Kippur, the ladies…all brought in smelling salts of some sort.”  He also recalled that they put some kind of liquid on their handkerchiefs, which they held onto through services.  “I don’t know how they did it, but you’d always see them smelling it.”

And the men, they would have snuff…So nobody knew it, they would sprinkle some into certain parts of the machzors [holiday prayer books]And, if you happened to open it up years later, the pages were all brown!  So we — couple of us kids — we wanted to know what it was. And we smelled it.  Oooh! One kid got sick. I couldn’t stand it! And I think the shammes caught us — Mr. Harry Seiavitch — he says, “Just close the book up. It’s OK. It’s OK. It’s old, the books are old.” That’s what we were told. But, the men sniffed snuff.

Apparently, he also said, there were also spittoons in shul, since chewing tobacco was common.  Only in the men’s section, mind you!  But still!

At the end of Yom Kippur, sometimes there was a “Yom Kippur party.”  Yup, that’s how they referred to it.  “A party will be held at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services as per custom,” elaborated the minutes in 1946, clarifying it was a break-fast meal, although when they planned a “reception…following Yom Kippur services at which the wives of the Board members will prepare a lunch,” I was vexed (italics mine).  When this custom started and when it faded I could not say. 10

The synagogue remained Orthodox, but changes crept in.  In the old days, everyone walked to shul.  On Yom Kippur people who lived further away would stay with friends or even in nearby hotels.

We always — that was glorious — we always walked to shul. And other families walked to shul. It was such an in-gathering, just as it [the sun?] faded right before the holiday, and then you saw all families walking together. It was just a wonderful, wonderful feeling. — Florence Hiedovitz

In later years people began to drive or take the streetcar, thought they always parked or disembarked a discreet distance away.  “The rabbis would scold the people for driving to the synagogue in those days,” Charles remembered, but by the 1950s, almost all the young families were living in Homestead Park, too far to walk.  Iris noted that the police covered the parking meters on the street outside the shul during the holiday (at least the drivers shouldn’t have to violate the prohibitions against spending money, too?).  During WWII, a busload of Jewish soldiers stationed at the county airport were driven in for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, since Homestead was the closest shul to their base.  That must have been quite a sight!  Around the same time, Florence recalled, some progressive women began to come down from the balcony and sit in the back behind a mechitzah (curtain).

Some of these same women, through the B’nai B’rith Women, distributed calendars to all the Homestead and Munhall teachers so they would understand when their Jewish students would miss school… apparently to run around like vildechayas in synagogue.  The Jewish students were always a minority, though, so even with their mothers’ efforts their teachers didn’t always understand or excuse their absences.  But in one area of Homestead the Jewish presence was significant enough that understanding was a requirement.

What Homestead saw

10/4/1910: "In every orthodox Jewish synagogue this morning scenes strange and weird to the Gentile had their setting..."

10/4/1910: “In every orthodox Jewish synagogue this morning scenes strange and weird to the Gentile had their setting…”

While all of these preparations and observances were internal to the Jewish community, the High Holidays were actually quite visible to the rest of Homestead for one reason:  Jewish stores.  Even in the 1890s there were enough prominent Jewish stores in town that the newspaper needed to explain to its readers why they would find them unexpectedly closed on otherwise unremarkable days of the year.  Only one year did the paper directly quote an anonymous “well-known local Hebrew,” but I suspect all of these columns must have been helped along by the Jewish merchants themselves.

Naturally, we Jews made it even more complicated by not all observing the holidays the same way.  Even the paper’s very first mention of the holiday store closings had to explain, “Among the Orthodox Hebrew the New Year is celebrated for two days, while the Reform church only celebrates one…Many Hebrew stores will be closed on both or a portion of each day” (9/29/1894).  When the Half brothers, German Jews from Pittsburgh who belonged to the other Rodef Shalom, opened their store in Homestead in June 1899, they had to amend the newspaper’s original explanation that “To-morrow [Tuesday] is the Jewish New Year, and all the Jewish people of this place will observe the event by closing up their places of business until Wednesday evening,” by having a notice published the next day that “Half Bros.’ furniture store is closed to-day on account of the Jewish New Year, but will be open to-morrow for business” (9/4-5/1899, emphasis mine).  The newspaper’s notices tended to favor Orthodox practice since the vast majority of actual residents were Orthodox.

9/19/1903: Top section of a Half Bros. ad announcing one day of closing for Rosh Hashana.

9/19/1903: Top section of a Half Bros. ad announcing one day of closing for Rosh Hashana.  Their similar ad in 1902 was first of decades of such newspaper advertisements.

9/21/1903: Advertisement regarding Lasdusky's store on Rosh Hashana.

9/21/1903: Advertisement of the two-day closing for the synagogue treasurer’s store.  Merchants also hung signs in their stores about their holiday closings.

Jacob Rader Marcus, who was a child during this period, contrasted the community’s inability to observe Shabbat with their strict observance of the High Holidays:

Nobody was closed on Saturday, nobody. We were all merchants; we were all open on Saturday. That was a big day: [every other Saturday] the workmen got paid from the mills, and they came in and patronized the Jews. I’m pretty sure at Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur they were all closed. There was a lot of social control, and nobody would dare be open as far as I know. 11

While I don’t know how the Homestead community exercised its “social control,” this provision in the bylaws of the synagogue in Donora, a nearby mill town with a similar Jewish community, gives a sense of the importance the community placed on strict holiday observance:

Each and every member of the Congregation, physicians and druggists excepted, is compelled to observe the High Holydays (Rosh Hashonnah and YOM KIPPUR) by closing their place of business and by ceasing his work that he is engaged in.

The penalty for violating the above section is a fine of Fifty ($50.00) Dollars. Failure on the part of the guilty member to pay the fine in thirty days subjects him to be expelled from membership of the Congregation. 12

Sometimes Yom Kippur fell on a problematic date.  In 1909, one of the years when this happened, the paper explained, “The worst feature of the holiday is that the Day of Atonement–the most solemn of all Jewish occasions–comes on a pay day.” Their article from 1902, another such year, elaborated, “The Hebrews will this year lose quite a large amount of money in Homestead but there is not one of them but whom will close their stores.”  In 1909 that Saturday was also the all-important opening of the fall millinery season; the ladies’ stores run by Joseph Lasdusky and Benjamin Friedlander had to delay their fall opening events, which was a double loss for them.

9/23/1909: Lasdusky attempted an "informal millinery opening" on Thursday. As for Saturday, he promised customers that "it will pay you to wait with your purchases until Saturday evening."

9/23/1909: Lasdusky attempted an “informal millinery opening” on Thursday, two days early.

10/9: Although their store had to be closed during the day, the Half Brothers store was determined to get at least some of the payday business in the evening.

10/9/1913: After Yom Kippur ended, Half Brothers was determined to cram in as much payday business as possible Saturday evening.

With such a sacrifice, no one in the town could fail to recognize, even admire, just how much their Jewish neighbors valued their faith.  “The Homestead Hebrews are among our most desirable class of citizens,” wrote the paper before Rosh Hashana 1907, “and they not only observe their religious customs consistently and faithfully, but they also observe our holidays and obey the laws of the country better than any other class.” 13

Just what were these customs was the second goal of all these newspaper articles.  Considering that many of the newspaper’s readers knew little-to-nothing about Judaism, the paper had a large task ahead of it, starting with the important clarification that the “Jewish New Year,” despite the familiar-sounding name, “radically differs from our civil New Year it is a day set apart for for introspection and self examination” (10/1/1913).

Long faces, many prayers and much fasting on one occasion and great feasting and much gaiety on another occasion will shortly be the order of things with the orthodox Hebrew of Homestead. (8/31/1901)

Although their phrasing is often quirky, not only were their write-ups largely accurate (unlike with Passover), but they were also surprisingly comprehensive.   Going far beyond “Rash Hashna” and “Yon Kepper”/”You Keffer” (a.ka. the “Great White Fast”), over the years their discussions touched upon the month of Tishrei and all its observances — Shabbat Shuva, the Ten Days of Repentance, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah, even the Fast of Gedaliah — once continuing all the way to Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, the first day of the next Jewish month!  They included and translated all the alternate names of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  They went to great lengths to explain the vagaries of the Jewish calendar and why the new “ecclesiastical year” is number 56xx, not 19xx.  They were fascinated by how many hours their Jewish neighbors spent in synagogue and how serious were the prayers of the day, cataloguing all the different services (often naming them in Hebrew) and the Bible readings and sermons interspersed amongst them.  They examined key prayers and individual lines, from the “famous Kol Nidre,” “the most awe-inspiring of all religious rituals,” to the “glorious outburst…of Israel’s great watchword” at the end of the “sublime Neilah prayers.”  Sometimes they mentioned when prayers were added for contemporary events like the Dreyfus affair in 1899 and Presidents Roosevelt and McKinley and Roumanian Jewry in 1902.  14

The holiday is as old as the Jewish people.  There will be the usual evening prayers, and in addition the holiday’s prayers, which, in the quaint melodies they have been set to by the cantors of the mediaeval ages, are a source of inspiration and the cause of the shedding of many tears.  Every Jew must pray for himself at this time. He cannot delegate some one else to do it for him. (10/2/1910)

The men and women sit apart, the gallery always being reserved for the women. The men wear their hats and the rabbi or lecturer, as the case may be, invariably wears a high hat. Tonight simply a prayer service will be held, and after the rabbi reads a verse, the congregation will repeat it in chorus after him. No verse is read a second time. (9/13/1901)

The rules of the synagogue require that over 130 beautiful musical compositions be rendered by the cantor, choirs and congregations. Two hundred and fifty pages of prayer are also read. (10/14/1910)

They expounded at length about how atonement works in Judaism, from the need to seek forgiveness from both Gd and man, to the Book of Life and the Book of Death (which they took literally).  They even explained the ancient sacrifices and how the destruction of the Temple led to the current system of prayer.  To make it all seem more familiar to their readers, they regularly cited Bible verses to explain “the antique features of the ritual” (9/8/1915), but perhaps they got a little carried away when they wrote things like,

Thousands of years will roll back from the vision of the faithful.  The call for the ram’s horn, blown at the height of the ritual by the talis-harnessed, white-cloaked cantor and rabbi, will sound to them as did the ancient call to the tribes of Israel when the Hebrews were a nation strong…

Every synagogue today will be a bit of the Mosaic age resurrected. Practically the same forms of the worship of Jehovah will be gone through as in the days of Moses and the prophets. (10/4/1910)

A Rosh Hashana card c. 1909. The banner carried by the American bald eagle translates to, "Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings" (Psalms 17:8). Click to enlarge.

A Rosh Hashana card c. 1909. The banner carried by the American bald eagle translates to, “Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings” (Psalms 17:8). Click to enlarge.

They considered the rituals that happened outside the synagogue walls, not just formal ceremonies like tashlich and kapparot, but also household customs like family dinners reuniting “Jews who through business duties are kept from their families during the greater part of the year,” dipping bread in “the Jewish honick,” eating fruit, and refraining from sour food (!), as well as personal observances like fasting, refraining from tobacco, giving charity, visiting the cemetery, lighting memorial candles, wearing white, and refraining from bathing, anointing, and, well, “the wearing of sandals and shoes” (close enough?).  One year they were particularly interested in the ways holidays greetings were exchanged amongst friends:

“La Shono Tovo Tiksavo.”

From the far North to the extreme south from East to West, this greeting will be employed by more than 11,000,000 Jews for the next two days.  The above is the Hibrais (sic) for the Jewish New Year greeting.  Should one be accosted on the street with this greeting he should make reply, “The same to you.”

…The exchange of New Year’s greetings through the mails has reached such proportions as to exhaust the supply of stamps in many cities.  The greatest number of pieces of mail goes from this country to Russia, where more than one-half of the world’s Jewish population is settled.   (9/11/1912)

10/16/1903 High Holy Lawsuit!

10/16/1903 High Holy Lawsuit!

Most of all, the newspaper was enamored of the shofar, the “trumpet par excellence,” which was likened to the “bugle of today.”  They went into great, almost poetical detail about when and why it was sounded.  But all of that soaring rhetoric fell away in this amazing article from when the small Jewish community of East Pittsburgh hired a Homesteader, Samuel Pearlstein, to lead their High Holiday services in 1903. They felt he did a poor job, so they found a second man to take his place. How this did or did not alter the original agreement turned into a lawsuit, which you can read about here, but the hilarious part is excerpted below:

In one part of the services a trumpet was to be blown.  When they came to this part the second man who was hired could not blow the horn and at the same time speak to the audience and Frish [a representative of East Pittsburgh] requested Pearlstein to blow the trumpet.  Pearlstein, it is said, refused unless they paid him $5 extra for the work.  They agreed to this proposition and Frish says when Pearlstein tried to blow the horn he could not make a sound.  All this time, it is said, the whole congregation was laughing at the efforts of the man in trying to blow the horn.  Finally they say they told Pearlstein that he never know (sic) how to blow the horn and that his attempt released them from paying the $5.

Have you ever tried to blow a shofar?  It is not easy!

Silliness aside, this corpus of articles hearkens back to a time when the effect of the High Holidays on the town was the clearest way to see the outsized contribution of Homestead’s small Jewish community to the life of the place.  The energy in the Eighth Avenue business district and the vibrancy of the Jewish community were tightly connected, and perhaps it took the holidays, when the community stepped away from the Avenue, to make that impact clearest.  Florence remembers,

I do really recall at a very early age being on Eighth Avenue. I remember there were many, many Jewish families that had merchants that had their stores on Eighth Avenue, and they lived upstairs or behind the store, as well as moving up on the hill. And so, when one went for a walk, at every turn there was a friend, and there was a Jewish family.And really, when we had the holidays, most of Eighth Avenue was shut down, because most Jewish people observed the holidays.

Arnold Zukerman‘s recollections continue where Florence’s left off.

AZ:  The whole town was closed.

AP: So you would go down Eighth Avenue and…

AZ: You could see, you could see, you could tell by the amount of cars on the street.

Both the quiet on Eighth Avenue and the chaos inside shul reflected the scope of the community as it once was.  Now our community is dispersed, Eighth Avenue is always quiet, and the shul is no longer a shul — but for me, reflecting on how the holidays were observed in days gone by isn’t an occasion for sadness, because almost every religious tradition described in this post still happens.  The tickets, the services, the prayers, the cards, the shofar, and so much more remain part of the Jewish community today, as they have been for generations.

Well — I guess we lost the spittoons.  I have made my peace with that.  I hope you can, too.

Shana tovah u’metekah!  Wishing you & your family a sweet new year!

But before you go:  Please share your memories of the High Holidays in Homestead in the comments!


  1. The Homestead News, 9/28/1894Homestead News-Messenger, 9/15/1899; The News-Messenger, 9/24/19001/5, 1/9, and 2/14/1900; 7/26/19019/6/1901  

  2. It’s hard to estimate numbers of members in these early years.  At the time of the 3/30/1902 dedication, there were 42 members (source).  Two years later on March 13, 1904, there were 60 (MSS #107, Box 7, Folder 4, “Financial Extract of the Homestead Hebrew Congregation from March 13, 1904 till August 28, 1904 Inclusive).  So, I’m guessing 45-50 members in September 1902.  

  3. Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1931-1940, p. 218, 40  

  4. Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1931-1940, p. 317, 327, 385; Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1940-1951, p. 9  

  5. It seems the resignation may have also been related to his recent move to Pittsburgh.  They made him a “life member” of the congregation, and he is buried in the cemetery.  Source: Box 8, Meeting Minutes 1940-1951, p. 276, 278.   

  6. Box 4, Cash book 1902-Oct. 1916.  10/2/1905: ” D. Rosenberg Chasen fur singen” (corroborated by the 9/28/1905 paper, “Rev. D. Roseberg (sic), of Camel (sic?), N.J., with a drilled choir will chant the hymns and prayers.” 10/7/1906:  “für den Chor. f. Rev. Widom,” 11/3/1907: “Rev Widom meshorerim,” &c.  

  7. It’s hard to get a handle on who owned seats in the new synagogue, as the only specific records cover the period of the Ammon shul, 1901-1914.   In the 1928-1934 time period, of the 183 men who were members for some portion of that period, at least 66 owned seats (pairs of seats and probably more in many cases).  In 1963, 120 seats were owned (though by how many people is unclear).  It’s equally difficult to track the number of members — I would guess it peaked around 150 in the late ’40s — or the number of Jews in Homestead and the vicinity — the American Jewish Yearbook says 1,100 in 1920.  Anyway, the consensus of memory makes the math irrelevant.   

  8. Box 7, 1920-1931 Meeting Minutes, p. 252, 93;  Box 8, 1931-1940 Meeting Minutes, p. 399; Box 3, Folder 7, p. 19  

  9. Box 7, 1920-1931 Meeting Minutes, pp. 125, 172; Box 8, 1931-1940 Meeting Minutes, p. 215; Oral history of Iris Stein Nahemow; personal conversation with Allen Smooke, 4/25/2016; 1947-1969 ledger book and Box 6, Folders 1-4   

  10. 1930-1940 Meeting minutes, pp. 36, 218; 1940-1950 Minutes, p. 340-1; 1960-1970 Minutes, p. 126  

  11.  Oral history of Jacob Rader Marcus, 1994  

  12. Constitution and By-Laws of the Congregation Ohav Sholom, Donora, PA, as amended July 5th, 1922.  The congregation was organized in 1903; this provision might date back to that time.  MSS #16, Box 1, Folder 1, pp. 8-9  

  13. Well, I must hedge slightly.  First, this sacrifice only happened during the High Holidays.  So far as I can tell, stores were open on all other holidays (and Shabbat, as related earlier).  There were years when the spring millinery opening took place on Passover, but the Jewish merchants participated as though it were any day of the year.  Additionally, it’s worth noting that 6 PM, the time they all re-opened in the evening, was always 1.5-2 hours before the holiday actually ended.  I don’t know how much in advance of the opening people had to report to the store to prepare, but either way, they were definitely clipping off a good chunk the end of the day — especially notable on Yom Kippur, when neilah, the most important service of the whole day, runs right up to sunset.

    And to be fair, in 1909 not all the stores sacrificed for the pay day-Yom Kippur: “All but two of the principal stores, of which Hebrews are proprietors, excepting the shoe stores, will be closed.  These will be kept open for the accommodation of their gentile patrons of whom they have a large number.”   

  14.  9/15/189910/1/1902  

  2 comments for “Bulchachras, Shnodering, and Snuff: How the High Holidays Were Observed in Homestead

  1. Benjie Simon
    October 2, 2016 at 10:01 am

    I can remember as a young boy during Yizkor on Yom Kippur we had to leave the synangogue because our parents were still living, which in later years I found to be Bubba Meiz. A group of us under would go down to the H&H Restaurant and get something to eat since we were under the age of 13 and not Bar or Bat Mitzvahed. We would come back to Schul and usually around 2-3 P.M is when there was a break until Minchah was Davened. I can remember my Grandfather< Harry Seiavitch, auctioning off Honors during the High Holidays. One of the Highest Honors or the one the was the most money was to open the Oren Kadash for Neilah and stand on the Bimah for the entire Neilah Service until the Ark was closed. L'Shanah Tovah to all.

  2. R Brewer
    November 12, 2017 at 7:13 am

    Myer Grinberg (sp.), the name on the High Holiday ticket, was a clothier who I remember as having a store on 8th Ave. in Homestead for years. The young man second from the right in the synagogue choir photo, Lou Weinberg, became a druggist and had a neighborhood pharmacy in Whitaker (not far from Homestead). My sister worked for him after school as a counter-clerk.

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