Left in Andover: A woodland Rosh Hashanah

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

On Nov. 6, 1950, shortly after closing on Popplewood Farm in Andover, Mom wrote Grandma: “We were in Rutland on Sunday night with the express purpose of meeting the Jewish community. We went to the Jewish Community Center and Modern Orthodox Synagogue housed together in one beautiful building. There are 75 families, very friendly, the group is at least 25 years old. We intend to go there at least once a month. There was a nice program and refreshments. I was invited to a meeting of the Jewish Women’s Council, they are going to have a rummage sale … Do you still have that Chanukah menorah for me?”

As it turns out, maintaining an ongoing connection with a larger Jewish community in rural Vermont was — and continues to be, quite a challenge. What with icy roads, old vehicles and chores to do at home, I remember my family going to the synagogue in Rutland only once my entire childhood.

Miriam Leader at age 90 lighting the menorah.

Every small town in Vermont has at least one big white church. Bonded together by profound religious belief, communities of faith also offer members close-by mutual support essential to rural survival. Had the price of admission been anything other than fundamental religious belief, my family would have joined in a heartbeat. Realistically, the church community in Andover and the Andover community were one and the same – or so at least it seemed to us, the only Jews in town.

I attribute my strong sense of Jewish identity to Mom’s spirituality. Grandma sent Hebrew school books in the mail, and the Chanukah menorah my great grandmother brought over from Europe gained in emotional significance as we lit candles together year after year.

Dad summarized his own religious background thus: “I was brought up in an Orthodox family in Bennington, but I was never bar mitzvah, even though my father was a rabbi and the shochet. He used to rationalize that as long as I wasn’t bar mitzvah he could insist on my studying, learning, but he didn’t do much about it. I was stubborn, a rebel. I threatened to run away from home.”

In 1961, when I was in fifth grade, my family started spending the school year in Northampton, Mass. Finally, we were able to join a synagogue within walking distance of our house. I adored attending Hebrew school, learning songs and prayers. I loved having a tribe to belong to larger than my own family.

This feeling was soon shattered when we were expelled from the congregation, including Hebrew school, for inability to pay the dues. Although my parents subsequently joined the non-denominational Unitarian Society, this was more a political home than a spiritual one.

Family celebrating Rosh Hashanah as the shofar is blown.

I had no additional exposure to organized religion until the late 1980s when I was raising young children of my own in Andover. In order to instill a sense of Jewish identity in my next generation, I joined a Jewish community in the area for both worship and fellowship. Attending Hebrew school along with my children was both fulfilling and fun.

This High Holiday season, with its Covid-19 strictures against in-person meeting, has been both a challenge and a blessing. I live 45 minutes away from a synagogue. Paying the expected dues remains an issue for me this year as it has been for the last 30.

On the plus side, however, I am the beneficiary of close relatives spending more time nearby due to the pandemic. Out of our current 15-member (up from four at the turn of the century) three-generational family living close by, an even 10 of us, a radically re-imagined minyan of adults and children, Jews and non-Jews, gathered deep in the woods last week for a Rosh Hashanah/Jewish New Year’s celebration.

First, we observed an all ages taschlicht, sprinkling bits of bread into moving water to represent whatever we wanted to shed of the old year. Following testimony ranging from “being kinder to my brother” to standing for positivity in the world, we dipped wild apples into local honey on one of my handmade plates to augur a sweet New Year. According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is not only the Birthday of the World, but an opportunity to recreate ourselves as well.

Then the kids, who had been practicing for months, took turns blowing the shofar, or ram’s horn, calling us to attention as in ancient times. We concluded with an hour long hike.

Beyond the shadow of a doubt we violated every rule and protocol in the book. Nevertheless, I have to believe the ancestors, including my mother, are pleased. May the strains of her favorite song, “Hinneh mah tov u’mah nayim, shevet ahim gam yachad,”or “Behold How Good and How Pleasing for People to Sit Together in Unity” echo down the mountain and out into the world. “L’Shana Tovah,” a good and sweet year to all.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Katherine Fogg says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful story!

  2. C.J. King says:

    Fantastic, Susan. Well written, heart-felt, and heart-warming!