Celebrating Shabbat in Bluegrass country was no horsing around!
It harnessed tradition, love and a dose of Southern hospitality. Growing up in the heart of the Bluegrass, Lexington, KY, in the 60’s and 70’s, Shabbat had a special meaning for me. Friday nights were spent being together and enjoying a delectable family dinner at the home of my Uncle Erwin, a grandfather-figure for my younger brother, Aron, and me. Our mom was not simply his niece, but like a daughter to him, as close as a daughter can be. Uncle Erwin lived in a tall, narrow red brick house situated on a giant hill. Built in 1924, the house was filled with old photos and lots of breakables. Uncle Erwin, Aunt Mollie and their young son, Casey moved into the house in 1940. Casey recalls even today his little brother Larry climbing through the old-fashioned coal chute down to the basement whenever he would forget his key to the house. Good thing the house had already been converted to gas heat!
Dinner was formal and proper — we dressed in our Shabbat “best.” As we raced up to the back door of the house into the kitchen, we were greeted with the biggest bear hug from Louise, Uncle Erwin’s housekeeper. Louise worked for Uncle Erwin for close to 20 years and was a beloved and respected part of the family. As I approached the house, I was overcome with the sweet smells of Shabbat – homemade challah, chicken soup with matzo balls and brisket with all the trimmings. Louise’s challahs were so beautiful that before making Kiddush, Uncle Erwin would always take a photograph of them with his new-fangled Minolta pocket “spy” camera, that would fit easily in the palm of his hand. I thought it was so cool!
Mom and I welcomed Shabbat by kindling the lights in the ornate silver candlesticks that had belonged to Aunt Mollie, who had passed away. Uncle Erwin took great pride in singing the Kiddush. You see, he was on the road for 8 months out of the year as a wholesale jeweler and always made sure he was home every other Friday in time for Shabbat dinner. But it was Dad who sang the loudest, which was so embarrassing to me. I remember drinking and enjoying the sweet red wine, even at a very young age. I couldn’t wait to eat the warm, soft challah that tasted like cake. Then out came the dinner, in a formal manner. Louise walked around with large platters and we served ourselves. Uncle Erwin would regularly ask Aron if he was going to eat everything he took. He would call him a “pelican,” because “his eyes were bigger than his bellican!”
Us kids would always finish first, but we were required to sit until everyone was done eating. Then dessert was served and we still stuck at the table – until we got up the courage to ask to be excused. We would jump up from table and play ball in the backyard or for a real treat, watch color TV in the sunroom! Uncle Erwin would also let us sit in his orange vibrating chair which was loads of fun.
After the adults finished dinner, we would pile into the station wagon, on the “way back,” and drive to Shul for Friday night services. Our Shul, Ohavay Zion Synagogue, was built in the late 19th century as a church and founded as our synagogue in 1914. There, we would see all the “regulars” and many friends, including my best friend, Laurie. When it was time for the Oneg, Laurie and I would race down the hall past the classrooms to the social hall to be first to grab a kichel. I recall jumping onto the high stage and playing in the heavy red velvet curtains, trying to tag each other as we wrapped ourselves in the curtains. We would hide from each other, twist the curtains around us and then spin back around. Of course, Aron would always get in trouble, but not me!
Celebrating Shabbat in my youth in Bluegrass country was special. Carefree and happy we were. It was that feeling of warmth, love and being with my family and my friends. It was sharing this time together at the end of a busy week — so sweet, magical, memories that I will always cherish.
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