Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, better known as the Maharil, lived in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries in Mainz, Germany during the aftermath of the Bubonic Plague (the Black Death). He witnessed the barbaric attacks on the Jewish communities of Germany and Austria by the gentiles who blamed them for poisoning the wells and causing the outbreak. After the devastating loss of so many to the plague, the tragedy was compounded by countless more Jews who were murdered or driven from their homes and towns where they had lived and thrived for generations. Since so many Jews were scattered and far removed from their “homelands,” the Maharil took it upon himself to author a sefer detailing the rich and varied minhagim of these Jewish communities. Entitled Minhagei Maharil, the book records the particulars of how these communities prayed, ate, educated their children and observed the holidays. It includes all of the details that made Jewish life in these communities multifaceted and distinct. Through this definitive work, the customs that enhanced and enriched their Torah observance were preserved. Despite the fact that these communities were forced to disperse, the traditions that made them unique were not lost.
We live in the twenty-first century, sixty-seven years and several generations removed from one of the greatest destructions to ever befall our people. We have done a superior job building impressive Holocaust museums that attract and educate thousands of visitors—especially young people—including Yad Vashem in Israel, the Holocaust Museum in Washington and numerous others. There are Holocaust memorials, best-selling books about the Holocaust, Academy Award-winning films and the Shoah Foundation’s recorded testimonials of survivors on virtually every continent. Holocaust studies is an academic discipline replete with some of the world’s most notable scholars and Holocaust education is mandatory in many schools throughout the world. As the years go by and as the population of survivors dwindles, we are not in danger of forgetting their stories or the evil perpetrated against them and their families, friends and communities who were mercilessly wiped out. What we risk losing is the connection the survivors forge to the great lost Jewish communities of the past.
America is a wonderful country, and perhaps there has never been a time in our history in exile when as a people and as a religion we have been so blessed with freedom, acceptance and prosperity. Our history here is relatively short. We came as immigrants, shedding our “old” customs along with our religious garb, hoping to build new and better lives for our families. Tragically, in our enthusiasm to succeed here, we have lost an untold number of Jews to assimilation. True, there were those who remained steadfastly committed to Torah and mitzvot and who had the foresight to build shuls and schools and all types of institutions fundamental to a vibrant Jewish community. But unfortunately, a lot of the flavor and richness that colored the life of the individual communities of our great-grandparents have blended indistinguishably into a great melting pot. The customs and rituals that each community upheld and treasured, complementing their halachic observance, are fading into the backdrop, offering a one-dimensional picture of Jewish life.
One may argue that the loss of minhagim of past communities is negligible compared to the loss of millions of lives. One may also argue that losing minhagim to the march of time is not such a calamity—Jews are still shomrei mitzvot, still committed to learning Torah and transmitting our mesorah to the next generation. And this is an astonishing accomplishment given the odds we have overcome. I would counter that while losing minhagim may not be a tragedy, it is still an irreparable loss.
Consider some of the customs that we know of and still practice in certain families and communities and how they add an extra layer of meaning and excitement to the basic observance of the mitzvot. One such custom is eating kreplach (small pockets of dough with a meat filling hidden inside) on erev Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabbah and Purim. Each one of these days doesn’t appear to be a holiday on the surface, as melachah (manual labor) is permitted, but we know that each one has a festive nature “hidden” within. Each one is also a day of harsh judgment where we ask for mercy and compassion. Kreplach also symbolize that just as the meat is covered by the dough, so should strict justice be covered by compassion.
Another custom relates to whether or not to decorate in honor of Shavuot. In many communities, people would decorate their homes and shuls with flowers and greenery on Shavuot to recall the abundance of flora on Har Sinai at the Giving of the Torah. Lithuanian Jews, following the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, refused to decorate, as it was the custom of non-Jewish houses of worship to adorn sanctuaries with flowers.
Each community had its own special tunes and melodies for the davening that would tug at the heartstrings of the people and awaken their souls to the mood and kavanah of the prayer and the essence of the day it defined. In Frankfurt, they had thirty different tunes for Kaddish—a different melody to permeate the spirit of each holiday and special Shabbos throughout the year.
There were minhagim in educational practices, such as when and what a young child begins to learn. There were minhagim for all of the lifecycle events—births, a bris, a pidyon haben, bar mitzvah celebrations, weddings, funerals and how to observe a yahrtzeit. Psychologists have stressed how important rituals and customs are to an individual’s upbringing; the familiarity, the positive associations and the inherent meaning make indelible impressions that last into adulthood. Hearing a certain melody or eating a specific food can generate very positive and powerful emotional responses within people years down the road. Fortunately, we have maintained some minhagim, and they are a dynamic part of our communal and familial practices. But many of the customs that were unique to specific communities have been lost, and sadly, a piece of that community’s heritage has been lost along with it.
As the twilight of the last Holocaust survivors looms, we must consider the legacy the survivors will inevitably leave behind. Their stories of endurance and loss are well preserved, but the histories of the communities they came from and the unique expressions of Jewish practice they embodied are in danger of dying out. Like the Maharil long ago, who saw the importance of cherishing and perpetuating the beauty of communities that were destroyed, we too need to compile, at least figuratively, our own book of minhagim, and renew the traditions from the towns and villages our own families are from. The Holocaust should never be forgotten, but neither should it be survivors’ sole legacy. We can reassure them that the history they singularly keep alive won’t be forgotten. We should take every opportunity now, before it is too late, to ask our ancestors about the glorious communities they came from, that we ourselves descend from, and we should adopt in our own families the meaningful customs that expressed the heart and soul of Judaism for centuries. We owe it to the survivors to not let the legacy of their communities die, we owe it to ourselves and, most profoundly, we owe it to our children who deserve a piece of the tapestry of Jewish experience that will add an immeasurable richness to their lives as Jews.