SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – The weather was changing, fall was in the air, and preparations for Rosh Hashanah were beginning in Jewish households everywhere, but especially in my world of Mattapan.
A lot of effort went into getting ready for the High Holidays. Our six-room apartment on the third floor of our triple decker on Leston Street was undergoing a fall cleaning as thorough as before Passover.
My mother took on this monumental makeover personally. Every piece of furniture, every shelf, every glass, every dish, and every window had to sparkle. My job was to help dust and polish furniture and to wipe each ivory piano key on my mother’s old upright with a clean cloth dipped in milk, guaranteed to keep the keys from discoloring. They never did.
In the living room, my father would cut the heavy string from the moth-proof wrapper around our rolled-up, all wool Oriental style rug. Its deep maroon pile made the living room holiday special. In addition, we had to navigate the hall carefully to avoid the wooden dryer racks with built-in pins where the lacy curtains were stretched to dry.
Rosh Hashanah also meant new clothes for my older brother and me and also new shoes. Shoe shopping was the best part, walking down Blue Hill Avenue to Murray’s Shoe Store, where I got to see my wiggling toes through the “Shoe-Fitting Fluoroscope.” Who knew its X-ray ability would be considered too dangerous and the machine was eventually discontinued?
Most of my mother’s shopping was conveniently done in our local stores while I was in school. There was Maxie’s fish store, where the burly owner, wearing a big black rubber apron, filleted the fish in front of the customer. There was Whitman’s delicatessen, two kosher meat markets near each other, and also Gorky’s Tailor Shop. Morton’s Bakery was just around the corner.
My brother was recently reminiscing that as an 8-year old, he worked at the bakery part time for 50 cents a week and all the half moons he could eat. Not like black and white cookies, these had a cake-like base with vanilla buttercream frosting on one half and rich chocolate frosting on the other. After the first week, he could never look at a half moon again.
Sometimes, my mother and I would walk down Blue Hill Avenue Saturday night after Shabbos ended. The Jewish stores that had been closed during the day were open for business. It was another world, where Yiddish was the language spoken. I had no idea what they were saying unless it was “shayna punim” addressed to me. Since I was a skinny little kid, I believe they were hoping to make a bigger sale.
Looking back, I marvel at how much my mother did to get ready for the High Holidays. When we got home from school, chicken was cooking in the soup and gribenes (rendered chicken fat, onion, and chicken skin cracklings) sat in a pot on the stove waiting for pieces of round holiday challah to be dipped in. Still warm from the oven might have been brownies and strudel, but there was also a bakery honey cake.
The dining room table was set with a sparkling white tablecloth and the best dishes. The candles were waiting in their candlesticks devoid of melted wax, ready for my mother to light them with her head covered, praying silently for her family and a peaceful world.
After services and lunch the next day, teenagers walked down to Franklin Field where Jewish kids sat on the stone wall, the boys trying to hide the knotted handkerchiefs they planned to use to snap against the ankles of the girls walking by. It was a weird rite of passage.
Yom Kippur was almost a repeat of Rosh Hashanah with a few differences. The day before the holiday, my mother had us “shlug kapores,” thankfully not with a live chicken but with money in multiples of 18 for chai.
We would take our fistful of change and circle our head three times while saying, “This is my exchange, this is my redemption, this money is going to charity so that I may enter on a good, long, and peaceful life.” The money, of course, went into the ubiquitous JNF blue pushke, the charity box.
We all had a “shabbos goy,” our accommodating mailman who was called into every apartment to turn our lights on and off during Yom Kippur. The poor guy went up and down all the apartments in all the three-decker houses and never complained.
Yom Kippur would find my mother in shul all day, drained from the Yizkor service followed by the annual donations where those with big bucks had a chance to show off their generosity or be talked about because they didn’t give enough. Some of us took a break only to return a few hours later so as not to miss the shofar blowing finale and a chance to wish everyone a very happy and healthy New Year.
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.