Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

As Tight-Knit Jewish Communities Splinter, Shofar Takes Synagogue To The People

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown tomorrow, the Jewish New Year. For more than 2,000 years, a hallmark of Rosh Hashanah has been the blowing of the shofar, a ram's horn. It's piercing call, so reminiscent of the work of BJ Leiderman who writes our theme music, called people together in ancient times. Now, as Judith Kogan reports, the shofar makes house calls.

JUDITH KOGAN, BYLINE: The sound of the shofar is meant to be jarring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR SOUNDING)

KOGAN: Rabbi Leanna Moritt of New York's Roosevelt Island Jewish Congregation explains.

LEANNA MORITT: We're asked to take stock of our life, to compare our is and our ought. And in that way, the shofar works as a tool - it's like a wake-up call.

KOGAN: This shofar is also said to express the cry for which there are no words. As Rabbi Chaim Prus of Beth Menachem Chabad in Newton, Mass., reflects...

CHAIM PRUS: It's not a beautiful instrument. It's not a beautiful, musical sound. But it really comes from the depth of the heart and the soul.

KOGAN: Jews who attend synagogue services will hear several distinct calls - the single moan of Tekiah...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR SOUNDING TEKIAH)

KOGAN: ...The three shorter blasts of Shevarim, the sound of sighing or trembling...

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR SOUNDING SHEVARIM)

KOGAN: ...And the nine staccato blasts of Teruah, the uncontrollable sob.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR SOUNDING TERUAH)

KOGAN: Not everyone goes to synagogue, though. Formerly tight-knit Jewish communities have splintered, and many Jews are less religious than their parents and grandparents were. So the shofar, which used to call people to it, is now being taken to them says Rabbi Mark Sokoll, president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston.

MARK SOKOLL: It's a central theme of our time, meeting people where they are at. Synagogues, Jewish community centers have had to become much more nimble and flexible in our thinking.

KOGAN: So during the month before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Leanna Moritt travels New Jersey and blew a shofar for those too elderly or infirm to attend synagogue. She says that sound is meant to help them take stock of their entire lives.

MORITT: The shofar can help them connect the dots of different experiences or remind them of things that have been meaningful in their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR KNOCKER)

MORITT: Hello.

KOGAN: Brooklyn-born-and-bred Florence Holtzman is 92 and living in a one-room apartment in Hoboken. I brought my shofar.

FLORENCE HOLTZMAN: Oh.

MORITT: Yeah.

HOLTZMAN: Are you going to blow it?

MORITT: You bet you.

KOGAN: An only child of refugees from Austria, she never married. She can hardly walk now, but hearing Moritt's shofar reminds her of her childhood during the Great Depression.

HOLTZMAN: It used to be if you were Jewish, you didn't say you were - kept it quiet - but not now, not here. You have to be proud of what you are, and I certainly am proud.

KOGAN: But in the Ukraine, Boris and Ina Sultanovich had to hide who they were.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL)

BORIS SULTANOVICH: Oh, hi.

MORITT: Hi.

B. SULTANOVICH: How are you?

KOGAN: Boris remembers that when his father died, he had to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, at 5 a.m., under the cover of darkness. The Sultanoviches emigrated in 1982, and Boris describes the first time he heard shofar in the United States.

B. SULTANOVICH: Oh, it was such a experience. We had such feelings that finally we don't have to hide our Jewishness because over there in Soviet Union, people suffered a lot.

KOGAN: Boris's wife, Ina, is hunched over in a wheelchair. She can't really get to synagogue. When Moritt pulls out her shofar, Ina's twinkling blue eyes convey a longing.

INA SULTANOVICH: Can you blow?

MORITT: Yeah (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOFAR SOUNDING TEKIAH)

I. SULTANOVICH: I like it. I like it. I like it.

(LAUGHTER)

KOGAN: And with that, Moritt packs away her shofar and wishes them Shana Tova, Hebrew for good year.

MORITT: That sound can help them to find more peace because, really, at a certain point in your life, that's often what it is that people are searching most for - a sense that their lives haven't been in vain, that they've made a difference, that they're still vital.

KOGAN: For NPR News, I'm Judith Kogan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.