Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Aleksander Hasidim May Be Nearly Extinct But Their Havdalah Custom Lives On

My husband and I spent this Shabbat in Neve Aliza (located in Israel’s Shomron region) to celebrate a family Bar Mitzvah. The proud parents grew up in Israel but their joint roots are American and British. I was expecting a warm family setting with all the usual trappings, including familiar customs. And so it was, until Havdalah. I didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the father held up two long Shabbat candles crossed in an “X” position instead of the typical braided Havdalah candle. Sniffing small clusters of cloves and/or lemon scented fragrance followed the usual bill of fare, as did the singing of Hamavdil Bein Kodesh Le Khol and Eliyahu Hanavi.

I was about to give my husband the "let’s go" signal when I finally picked up on the fact that this was not a routine Havdalah ceremony. The Bar Mitzvah boy’s father, who hails from London, never extinguished the Havdalah candles. Instead, he placed them in the silver candlestick holders that his wife had used to welcome the Sabbath Queen and carried them back to stand on their silver tray, flames aglow. I quickly rushed over to him, asking “what are you doing?” “I’m extending the Shabbat another two hours,” he answered with a smile, realizing the irony of having just formally ended the day of rest. “Where did you get this custom from?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders, explaining that it was always done in his house and that he thinks it started with the Aleksander Hassidim. At least, that’s what his mother, a descendent from this sect, once told him.

Who were the Aleksander Hassidim and where did they come from? He wasn’t sure, maybe the Polish city of Lodz. All it took was a quick Google search to find out that the now nearly extinct Aleksander Hassidim were the second largest Hassidic group in pre-Holocaust Poland. Clearly the flames of extinction did not succeed in obliterating their spirit. However, this prompted me to think about the numerous customs many of us practice without really knowing their origins. So there you have it, the perfect family roots activity: Take a specific ceremony (and we have lots of them), ask your students what customs they have for it, then give them an assignment of sitting down with their parents/grandparents to trace the custom’s origins. In the process, have a Shavua Tov.

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