Eulogies, Memory, and Archive

By Katie Webber, HJHA Intern

An important part of the function of memory is to collectively share the past with one another. History does not live within the pages of books, but in the stories we tell to one another. None of these stories may necessarily be “true,” but all are approximations of our understandings of people and events. When we come together to share this history we are in fact creating history and creating collective memory.

As I have worked in the archives for the past few weeks, I’ve thought about how we remember and create the most intimate of histories. Eulogies encapsulate the memories of our loved ones in a time of deep mourning for their loss. We look to spiritual leaders for support, such as Rabbi Jack Segal who was the Rabbi at Beth Yeshurun for 23 years and delivered hundreds of eulogies during his time serving there. I have spent hours trying to decipher the handwriting of scrawled notes about Beth Yeshurun parishioners, sometimes scratched out and started anew as Rabbi Segal has gone back and made edits.

It is clear to me that Rabbi Segal carefully considered his role as both the preserver of memory for those who had recently passed as well as the comforter to the remaining family members. He pencils in family members who are maybe not quite officially family members, writing down that they are a sister’s fiance or a close friend to the deceased. He also carefully weaves in Psalms, those which both lament in the ancient composer’s tragedies as well as comfort us in the present day. He talks of great men and women of the Bible, whose lives he likens to those who have passed. He also shares the accomplishments of each individual’s life, their career, family, and the impact they made on the Houston community.

In a way, Rabbi Segal was also performing the work of an archivist. He had incomplete information, snapshots from a person’s life, or a letter or call from a family member if he was very lucky, and with that he constructed a narrative history. As historians, we do the same. We are left with whatever writing people have kept and given to us, pictures from important life events, and, if we are very lucky, a short interview to talk to someone about their life. Neither a eulogy nor an archive can tell the whole “truth” about history, but they both do the important work of piecing together our collective memory and, hopefully, teaching us something about ourselves in the present.

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Debuting the HJHA Brochure!

After a winter break hiatus, the HJHA blog is back with an announcement… We now have brochures! Designed and created in collaboration with Rice University’s Office of Public Affairs, these brochures describe the HJHA’s story and mission and highlight some of the types of materials we are looking to collect. The HJHA team will be dispersing our brochures around Houston in the coming weeks to spread the word about the archive. To make sure that your synagogue, community center, or business receives a stack of brochures, please reach out to Dr. Furman at jf36@rice.edu.

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Cheese pancakes, goose dinner, and a “trendel”: Beth Israel’s surprising guide to Hanukkah celebrations

Chanukah (or is that Hanuk(k)ah?) is on our minds this week, as many of us light the candles each night, gather with friends and family to eat latkes and spin dreidels, and exchange gifts.  Unlike most Jewish holidays, Chanukah’s central rituals are performed at home, not in synagogue.  This distinction necessitated the publication of how-to guides, so that American Jews could faithfully observe Chanukah each night without the watchful presence of a rabbi or cantor to lead them.

One such guide, Congregation Beth Israel’s “Hanukah at Home,” aimed to instruct Jewish Houstonians from Texas’s oldest synagogue in the proper performance of holiday rituals.  There is no date printed on the pamphlet, but references to democracy and American values, common during the early years of the Cold War, lead me to suspect that it dates from the late 1940s.  “Hanukah at Home” can be found in our collection of Beth Israel archival material, MS 711, available to researchers and community members for viewing in the Woodson Research Center in Rice University’s Fondren Library.

“Hanukah at Home” prescribes rituals that are utterly baffling to the modern reader who is accustomed to contemporary traditions.  For one, Beth Israel members were encouraged to dine on cheese pancakes and other dairy delicacies, not potato latkes, which we all think of as the quintessential holiday food.  The tradition of eating cheese on Chanukah comes from the story of Judith and Holofernes, and you can read more about it here.

For another, the Beth Israel guide informs the reader that “[g]oose is the traditional main dinner dish during Hanukah, served with potato pudding.”  Does a goose feast sound strange to you?  It isn’t!  Here again, “Hanukah at Home” is documenting a holiday tradition that has been largely lost to history.  See Jeffrey Yoskowitz’s New York Times article about the Chanukah goose feast here.

Finally, the guide advises readers to enjoy spinning the “trendel,” not the dreidel – a four-sided top with Hebrew letters on it.  According to Rabbi David Golinkin, trendl was a term used by German-speaking Jews to refer to the Chanukah toy, from a word meaning “to roll.”  (My thanks to Rabbi Steve Morgen of Beth Yeshurun for helping find this source!)  You can read Rabbi Golinkin’s surprising history of the dreidel, and its non-Jewish origins, here.

Most of Beth Israel’s founding members in the mid-19th century claimed ancestry from German-speaking lands, but it is fascinating to see a German term used here in place of the more-familiar dreidel, in a document that seems to date from the 1940s.

There is so much more to say about this guidebook, which encourages readers to sing “Rock of Ages” and “America” each night after candle lighting, and which offers a different theme and set of values for Jewish families to ponder for each night of the holiday.  On the first night of Chanukah, as Beth Israel families exchanged gifts, they were asked to keep in their hearts “the thousands of children in the world who are hungry and cold and without the love and warmth of home and friendship.”   On the sixth night, readers were called to remember that “every human being, no matter what his color or his race,” is a child of God and deserving of love. 

Looking back in history deepens our appreciation of how customs evolve and endure.  From the Houston Jewish History Archive at Rice, best wishes for a joyous holiday, however you choose to celebrate!

For more on the history of Congregation Beth Israel, the oldest synagogue in Texas, visit their website and learn about their wonderful archive here.

 

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“Oysters a la Goldman”: Some new recipes for your Thanksgiving table

 

“Island Treasures: A Book of Choice Recipes,” Galveston Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, 1950

With Thanksgiving upon us, many of us are busy with food shopping and menu planning.  It’s the perfect time to look back in our catalog of South Texas Jewish cookbooks for recipe inspiration.  What we often find are attempts to integrate traditional Jewish foods with local and regional cuisines, in ways that sometimes stray from traditional dietary laws.

As a case in point, consider this cookbook, “Island Treasures,” produced by the Galveston section of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1950.  Below, you’ll find recipes for “Golden Glow Salad,” “Texas Corn Bread,” “Creole Gravy with Chicken,” and “Oysters a la Goldman.”

We are grateful for our wonderful collection of South Texas Jewish cookbooks, and we are always looking to add more to our library!

 

 

 

 

 

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Introducing the HJHA Blog

Programs, Congregation Emanu El, Houston, TX, c.1975

Welcome to the Houston Jewish History Archive’s new blog!  My name is Dr. Joshua Furman, and I am the founding director of the archive.  Here, you can look forward to reading exciting updates about our collections of South Texas Jewish history, posts from HJHA interns and Dr. Furman about our ongoing work, and updates on the kinds of materials we are looking to collect here at Rice.  We’ll also keep you informed about upcoming events related to the archive, and share tips about how you can visit us at the Woodson Research Center here on campus.

Feel free to ask questions and share your memories in the comment section below!  For more information about the HJHA, or to suggest a topic for the blog, contact Dr. Joshua Furman, or visit our website.

 

 

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