Every day is Thanksgiving when we recite 100 blessings

November 26, 2013

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Memories of Beth El and Thanksgiving

A native of Norfolk , Shulamith Elster is the daughter of the late Rabbi and Mrs. Paul Reich (Congregation Beth El, 1935 to 1967). She writes occasionally for the Washington Jewish Week reflecting on her 50 years in the Washington Jewish community and on four generations of family life. She is a summer resident of Virginia Beach since 1960.

1620 — “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean…they “gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing for their continuing life.” (William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation)

1836 — Sara Josepha Hale, best known for Mary Had A Little Lamb, prevails upon President Lincoln to make the Thanksgiving custom into a national day of Thanksgiving.

1939 — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moves Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last to allow a longer Christmas shopping season! Twenty-three states follow, 23 states do not move the holiday. Texas and Colorado celebrate twice.

1940s — Before the empty lot became Beth El Temple and Junior Congregation in Rooms 5 and 6, “the” place to be, there were wooden pews made for squirming! Women wore black as widows, the prayer for Jerusalem was read and every visitor to Palestine returned to speak on Friday nights. Confirmations were crowded with overflow seating in the balcony, a gas heater warmed the tiny chapel, Mr. Polis and Victor Rose gave out Hershey bars after Adon Olam.

The 50s — When the shrubs between the two buildings disappeared and the bicycle rack was moved, we found new places to play on the construction site and wrote our initials in wet cement. The newest of the old wooden pews moved to the new balcony. Trucks with new seats arrived—too late for the first wedding— but they were soft.

Over many years I listened to my father preach hundreds of sermons. To his congregants on Friday night he spoke to engage, educate, provoke, and stimulate and never to entertain. Each Shabbat morning he spoke almost exclusively on the Torah portion integrating special words of wisdom directed at Bnai Mitzvah.

My liberal arts education began on Friday nights at Beth El. I learned about the philosophers and thinkers who shaped Western Civilization, about the unique contributions of Judaism to Mankind (yes, then it was Mankind) and the pulpit on Shirley Ave. taught me about the Feminist Movement and Betty Frieden in 1967!

On Friday night women wore hats and carried gloves. Often I was preoccupied by the fox heads worn by Mrs. Meyers who sat in the row in front of my mother, Judy and me. She prayed for Jerusalem in a lovely Southern accent.

Then there was THE sermon—the Thanksgiving sermon—the sermon that I will always remember:

He began “I am thankful for America,” and Daddy continued through the alphabet— b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w.

“X,” I whispered to my Mother,

“What the X is he going to be thankful for?”

Pause. Long pause.

“I am thankful for the eXtras!’ (1954)

We moved from Shirley Ave. to Colonial Ave. and from New York to Potomac, Md. and until Thanksgiving in 1986, Papa Paul to his six grandchildren, began with his special blessing:

Some have meat and cannot eat. Some can eat and have no meat. We have meat and we can eat. Praised be the Lord!

Seder like—then he read the Thanksgiving Proclamation of the President of the United States.* The arrival of 14 of the fourth generation convinced us to move to a somewhat abbreviated reading.

A hundred blessings! Consider a new tradition!

by Shulamith Reich Elster

Letter to the Editor