What the Day of Atonement Meant to One Hasidic Woman

Posted By on October 1, 2014

Like White Ghosts in the Mikveh

courtesy of frimet goldberger

Clean Slate for Hashem: Frimet Goldberger wears the hand-embroidered cotton apron she received from her mother-in-law while lighting Sabbath candles.

On the top shelf of our living room buffet sit some of our once-a-year religious accoutrements: a Passover matzo set, a white tablecloth for the sukkah and a white apron. This is not your typical kitchen apron; it is my vase shirtsl literally, white apron: a small, square-shaped, hand-embroidered cotton apron made of fine threading and worn from the waist down, reaching a few inches above the knees. Every married Hasidic woman owns one. I received mine 11 years ago as one of the many customary gifts my future mother-in-law and khosn, fianc, gave me over the course of my six-month-long engagement. Hasidic women traditionally wear the vase shirtsl when lighting Sabbath candles, and I wore mine for the first time on a Friday night, four days after my wedding. I tied it around the waist of my favorite black velour Sabbath robe, and, siddur in hand, blessed the candles and my new home.

I wore the white apron on Yom Kippur, too, a reminder of the days pureness and its significance: a clean, white slate in the eyes of HaShem.

For the adults and boys aged 13 and older in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar village in upstate New York, Yom Kippur was a pensive holiday spent mostly at synagogue. Young girls would fast and pray from the age of 12, but our place was at home, tending to siblings, nieces and nephews, so that the women could attend services. Every Yom Kippur until I got married, I prayed and atoned for my sins while being surrounded by young children and their ravenous demands.

If quiet contemplation was the overall mood of Yom Kippur, white was the holidays color. After the white tablecloth was set, my mother unwrapped the cleaned and stiffly starched vase kitl, which is a white robe used as a burial shroud for male Jews, but also typically worn by married Hasidic men on Yom Kippur as well as during Passover Seders and under the chuppah when they get married. It serves as a symbolic reminder that a person is but flesh and bone, a mortal bound for the grave.

As the candles were lit on the eve of Yom Kippur and a melancholic atmosphere descended upon us, my father would wrap himself in the white shroud and stand over the dining room buffet, stiffly starched white tash-tikhl, or cloth handkerchief, in one hand, and Yom Kippur makhzer, prayer book, in the other. One by one, he would put the handkerchief on each childs head and, holding both hands in place, bless us individually a moment frozen in time.

Following my fathers brukhe, or blessing, I watched through the dining room window as the ethereal procession of men in white kitls made their way to Kol Nidre. Their eyes to the sidewalk, and their hands tucked into their gartls, the belt that separates the upper body the mind and soul from the lower body and its impurity, they dragged their non-leather shoes on the cement. Wearing leather shoes, once considered the most comfortable footwear, is one of the five forbidden pleasures on the Day of Atonement eating and drinking, bathing, anointing and and having marital relations being the others.

On Yom Kippur, married Satmar women cover their heads in white turbans or scarves instead of the usual wigs or other headgear, as was the wish of the lateSatmar rebbe Joel Teitelbaum. Every year, my mother, who normally wears a wig and hat, would spend half an hour in front of the mirror before going to synagogue, tying the white tikhl, or scarf, around her shorn head. Like many other middle-aged women, she opted for the classier look the scarf in place of a white turban, which was popular among the younger generation. Then she would tie her vase shirtsl around her waist and walk to the main Satmar synagogue of Kiryas Joel.

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What the Day of Atonement Meant to One Hasidic Woman

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