jewish stories

Earliest High Holy Day Memories
Gene Ellis Sills, Ed.D.

The High Holy Days bring back long-ago, bittersweet memories for me, of childhood lost, days past, and friends and family now gone. Some of my earliest memories of this time are centered around the old Reform Temple in Waco. I would gaze up at the domed ceiling, over to the stained glass windows, and down at my little, white-gloved hands, willing the interminably long services to pass. The electric fans slowly moved the air in heat waves one could almost see. It was so odd to be excused from school, along with the other Jewish kids, so we could be with our families at Temple. That in itself, that interruption of routine, lent an air of unreality. Rarely we’d accompany my aunt and uncle to services at the Conservative Synagogue where things appeared very different and strange to me. Their prayer book read from right to left (just as ours does now. Funny how things can change).

The funniest memory I have is of Rabbi Wohl talking to the Sunday School in the old sanctuary, telling us a story about the shofar, something about blowing away all the evil spirits from the past year. He gave us a demonstration, and as he blew, a huge moth blasted dizzily from the shofar. The ram’s horn had been sitting somewhere for a year collecting dust, and the moth had taken up residence. But I was convinced (for about five seconds) that it was indeed an evil spirit. No one else seems to remember this. But I swear I’m not making it up.

Some of my strongest memories of this time were of food. Naturally. You know the old joke that three sentences can sum up most Jewish holidays; “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” After the Erev Rosh Hashona service, there were, among other refreshments, cubes of soft Challah bread. It had probably been bought at O&H Rare Foods in Waco, an institution that is sadly gone, but a wonderful memory for many, owned by survivors of the Holocaust, with tattooed numbers on their arms. O&H was full of European delights, palpable memories of “the old country” for immigrants who could afford a treat now and then. (We entered rarely and purchased carefully. Our Challah was homemade by my mother as mine is now homemade by me). O&H Rare Foods on 25th Street was an oasis in Waco, Texas.  It was dark chocolate in a sea of country gravy. But I digress. The cubes of soft Challah bread, available with other goodies after services, were to be dipped in honey, tasty wishes for a sweet year.

Holiday memories at our home or the homes of my aunts and uncles centered around tables beautifully set, laden with food, full of family and friends. I was almost always the only child present in a sea of loving middle age. Other than the sweets, I couldn’t have cared less about the food. I had as much patience for long meals as I did for long services.

There’s one other early memory that (pardon the pun) sticks with me. There was a traditional candy made for the holidays that my uncle loved. His mother (one of the grandmothers I never knew) had prepared it for him and his siblings. The recipe probably came with her from Russia in the 1800’s. This was tegleich. Each year, my mother made it especially for her brother, but we all ate it (or tried to). It wasn’t my favorite. For me, back then, candy meant Hershey bars. Tegleich is made, as best I can recall (without searching for the yellowed copy of Mother’s recipe), from three main ingredients; pecans, honey, and flour. Like matza balls (a traditional Passover food), the little clumps of candy yielded unpredictable outcomes. (It’s as if even our holiday food reminds us that life is often uncertain). Rarely the honey and pecan-covered dough was somewhat soft and chewy. Most often, it was sticky enough to pull fillings from teeth. I always considered it a strange delicacy.

I’ve thought lately of making some tegleich for old time’s sake. I did this once when my children were small. They didn’t appreciate it any more than I had at that age. So far I’ve resisted preparing it again. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that there are many “strange delicacies” in life. And they are certainly not all edible. As my uncle had his favorites, I now have mine. I’ve also come to believe that some things are best kept preserved in one’s heart, as sweet (if sticky) memories.

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