Approach/Avoidance and the Demise of the Red Petticoat

I approach the Jewish New Year by avoiding its arrival as long as possible, until it’s almost upon me and impossible to ignore.  The New Year is accompanied by bittersweetness for me, because it requires looking over my shoulder; in particular, it means missing my parents.

It brings back memories of my childhood and of a holiday and time of year that was of great importance to my mother. She was not a particularly religiously observant person, but she  fervently held on to the High Holidays and expected her children to follow suit.  This meant going to services for both the first and second day of Rosh Hashonah at our conservative synagogue, an inevitably boring and tedious affair for me.

I did enjoy watching my Mom’s female friends, dressed to the nines, each flaunting a hat that could be its own conversation piece.  This was the early 1950’s when hats and gloves were de rigeur!

I enjoyed getting dressed up too.  One year, I had a bright red taffeta petticoat edged in black lace, under a princess style navy dress that had a long zipper up the back. As far as my 14 year old self was concerned, it showed up my tiny waist to perfection .  The red petticoat had only a one button closure.

During the service, I decided to take a bathroom break, and walked solo from a front pew to the door at the back of the room.  Approximately in the middle of my exit, I sneezed. I felt the button pop. With each step I felt my fabulous red petticoat descending to the floor. I dared not look at the seated congregation. I had no choice but to continue on my way as casually as possible.  By the time I was about 3/4 of the way back, the petticoat was at my ankles.  I had no other option than to gracefully step out of it and casually throw it over my arm. I was just old enough to enjoy the humor of the situation, while being horrified at the same time.  I did not return to the service.  I dumped the petticoat in a waste basket rather than have to continue holding it like some weird accessory.

princess dress

Because the synagogue wasn’t large, if there was a crowd of congregants, children had their own boring services in the basement of temple.  At least in the synagogue, I was able to stare at the stained glass to relieve the tedium of standing up and down repetitiously and listening to men chant in Hebrew, a language I had been taught how to read, but did not understand.  I did enjoy the traditional music and would look forward to participating in that part of the service, because I knew the lovely old melodies and had memorized the Hebrew words.

Ere (on the eve) of Rosh Hashonah, we had a large traditional dinner at our house, which I always enjoyed, except when it came time to do the dishes.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a somber affair. I considered it quite an ordeal atoning for my sins and trying to fast all day.   I clearly remember  one Yom Kippur, when I was probably about 12 or 13.  My cousin and I blithely skipped out of services and went shopping for fall clothes. It was deliciously dangerous. Somehow word got back to our parents, as it always did, and I remember being severely reprimanded.

I used to wish that these holidays would mean more than they do to me.  Now, I accept whatever response I have and do what I feel is authentic for me.  There might still be a touch of guilt, but nothing I can’t easily sweep away.  I like the ritual of starting a new year with a spiritual outlook.

In the early years after I’d left home and married, I felt compelled to find a service to attend.  I always came away disappointed.  As the years have passed, I no longer look for a religious service that will fit or inspire.  But, I do feel compelled to have a traditional dinner each year, either with friends or family.  I buy crisp new fall apples to dip in local honey to help make the year sweet.  This year, I even baked a honey cake.


I’ll have three of my youngest grandchildren at our dinner table, and for reasons that mysteriously transmit from mother to daughter, I hope to share a bit of Jewish tradition.


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