The Jewish High Holidays are based on the Hebrew calendar. So you never know from one year to the next just when the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) will arrive. This year, the Hebrew New Year 5780 began at sundown on September 29. Ten days later, beginning at sundown on October 8, Jews observed Yom Kippur and atoned for their transgressions during the past year.
Starting in 1948 when I was nine, I attended Hebrew School at Temple Myer-David, which – like the State of Israel – was born that year. I wasn’t very happy cooped up in a basement classroom instead of playing ball, learning how to pronounce Hebrew words and read from right to left, but it wasn’t optional. I had to get ready for my bar-mitzvah, a Jewish boy’s coming of age, four years later. My 10 year-old grandson is now in the same situation and actually likes it, at least so long as it doesn’t interfere with playing soccer.
My family wasn’t especially religious, and we were not weekly temple-goers by any means. But on the High Holidays we always went to shul, which is how my grandparents referred to the temple. The word means “school” in Yiddish.
One of my clear memories from those days is hearing the shofar, which is the Hebrew word for a ram’s horn used as a musical instrument, a trumpet of sorts. It is an important Jewish symbol, calling up the Biblical story of how Abraham found a ram stuck in a bush, which he sacrificed instead of his son, Jacob.
I tried my luck at blowing the shofar when I was a boy, but with limited success. When the Pianist and I were in Safed, Israel, many years ago, we came upon a street vendor selling shofars – small, medium, and large. When I declined his offer to “try it,” the Pianist immediately accepted, picked up the small one, and out came a full blast, which became even fuller when she picked up the larger ones. “She’s a musician,” the vendor said.
I recently read an article about a man named Chaskel Tydor, a prisoner at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The Nazis assigned him to dispatch work details, and on Rosh Hashanah 1944 he came up with a plan to send fellow prisoners far enough away from the camp so they could observe the holiday and pray. What he didn’t know was that one of them took a hidden shofar with him. Imagine the risk of having such a possession in a concentration camp, not to mention blowing it. If you have ever heard the sound of the shofar, you know that it can’t be blown softly.
When the camps were liberated in 1945, and Mr. Tydor survived, he was given the shofar for safekeeping. He held onto it as he made his way to a displaced persons camp and then to Montana, South Dakota, Manhattan, and finally Israel. It has survived to this day, and this year, 75 years (by both calendars) after that work detail, his daughter added it to a traveling exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, which looks out directly at the Statue of Liberty. The president of that museum says, “If there’s an artifact that symbolizes the Jewish soul, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more indicative than a shofar.”
Other faiths have their own important symbols, not to mention stories of survival in difficult times. The story of this particular symbol should encourage all of us, whether Jewish or not. It is about more than a ceremonial 10-inch horn. It is a testament to the survival of a people and, more broadly, to the survival of faith itself.