Religious Life

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Teachings / Learnings & Practice of Orthodoxy to Jewish Children in the Early Twentieth Century


Teaching began at “Mother's Knee” . Father taught for the most part by example, as he laid Tefilin each morning and stood erect toward the East wall as he chanted the prayers. By age four, children knew what was expected of them and that there were “karyagim mitzwot” (613 commandments), although they could not identify most of them. They could recite the Mode Ani in the morning and the Schema at night. They knew the difference between kosher and treif and they knew that the Schabbat is holy and that they could not desecrate this day and had to be ready to sing Lechododi early on Friday evening. They also knew that the day came to an end on Saturday night when three stars appeared in the sky and concluded with Havdalah.

It was taught that Loschon Horah (evil speech) is damaging gossip and forbidden; Zedakah is important; honoring parents by adhering to their directives is a must for a long life and that the Lev Tov (good heart) outweighs cleverness and wit. They were made aware of the ten commandments but did not know what all of them meant. They knew about the holidays and the foods that were eaten for each. They knew about Challah or “Berches” (another name for same); about Pessach and Matzot; about the separation of milk and dairy food and the various separations of dishes which had to be kept separately. They knew about Yom Kipur and were aware that after Bar Mitzwah (Bat Mitzwah did not exist for the orthodox) they would have to fast.

Most households had a Schabbes Goi, a non-Jewish person who would turn lights off and on on the Schabbat and would warm the food if need be (although a number of homes left a small flame on where food could remain warm).

It was known that no labor could be performed on the Schabbat and holy days and that tools such as scissors could not be used. Children additionally knew that they could not comb their hair, brush their teeth, or tear paper, including bathroom tissue. They knew that riding bicycles or utilizing transportation other than their legs was considered forbidden.

Children knew the joyful aspects of the holidays. They visited with nearby friends and relatives; enjoyed cake and other delicacies on Schbbat afternoons; sang the Schir Hamalos and other songs on Friday eves; and said the blessings before and after the meals together as a family. There was much joy and anticipation with each holy day: The building of the Sukke; the preparation of the Seders; the bags of candy and other sweets on Simchat Torah; the spirit of security and the satisfaction of belonging!

Although Hitler and life has changed dramatically since those days and has annihilated much that was good and beautiful, still it is a blessing to remember the happy memories of early childhood when life held so much that felt safe and good!  

Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap.

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