This article appeared in the September 11, 2015 Jewish Advocate.

Hoshanah Rabbah will be different in Waltham this year

By Susie Davidson

Advocate correspondent

News Bayou

Morris Hollender was a mainstay of Temple Beth Israel, Waltham

For years, our teacher and Torah reader, Morris Hollender, would go to the banks of the Charles River in Watertown, to his favorite willow tree, and harvest some of its branches to prepare bundles for each person who attends services on Hoshanah Rabbah,” recalled chairman of Temple Beth Israel of Waltham’s Ritual Committee, Mark Frydenberg.

Hollender, a Holocaust survivor, died on Dec. 30, 2014, and Beth Israel members will continue his custom of preparing the bundles, beating them against a hard surface, and praying, according to Frydenberg, “that any of our remaining sins are separated from us as the leaves are separated from the willow branches.”

For those unfamiliar with it, there is something cathartic about the practice, and the raucous beating even provides a bit of relief following weeks of somber reflection, fasting, and sacrifice. “...While shaking the lulav is fun, there’s something else which you might find more interesting: the havatot aravot, the beating of the willow branches, into the ground on Hoshanah Rabbah, which falls on the 21st of Tishri [Oct. 4],” writes Dan Brosgol, Director of Prozdor at Hebrew College, on Jewish- “It is traditional to process around the bimah seven times reciting Hoshanot (penitential prayers), after which willow branches are taken from the lulavim and beaten into the ground three or more times.”

Aside from our sins, there might be an agriculturally favorable motive behind the tradition. Brosgol notes that while the origin of this practice is murky, evidence exists that “the whole lulav-shaking business is a glorified prayer for rain, as the rattling of the different branches sounds like rainfall, and...the willow beating of Hoshanah Rabbah is meant to remind us of the falling of rain on leaves.”

Others, however, hold that the lulav is shaken in all directions to reflect G-d’s omnipresence. Hollander, who didn’t drive a car, would venture, by bus and on foot, to the part of Charles River, near his home in Watertown Square, in order to harvest some willow branches. “I believe that his favorite willow tree was on the Watertown side of the Charles,” said Frydenberg. How did he know it was a willow tree? “He recognized by the shape of the leaves,” Frydenberg recalled.

He would cut a few branches, make little bundles, wrap them neatly with masking tape, and bring them to services for Hoshanah Rabbah. He would be sure to gather them a few days earlier, during Chol Hamoed, so that the leaves would dry out a bit,” said Frydenberg, who explained that if they were too fresh, it would be harder for the leaves to separate from the branches when beaten against the benches in the chapel during the service.

Hollender always made at least twice as many bundles as needed, so that during the service, he would give a bundle of branches to each person in attendance. “He was always optimistic for a big minyan that morning,” Frydenberg reminisced, “and at the point in the service where we recited the appropriate verses, we would strike the willows against the pews until the leaves separated, symbolizing separating sins from our lives.”

Due to declining health, Hollender was last able to go in 2012. “A few congregants accompanied him with their scissors to help harvest the willows and assemble the bundles of branches,” said Frydenberg. “It’s a custom we hope to carry on quietly in his memory.”

I had never heard of this ritual until I came to Temple Beth Israel, and now it’s one that I look forward to each year,” said Frydenberg.

There are so many ways we use our hands and bodies over the holidays – we touch a fist to our hearts with each Ashamnu and Al Chet, we hear the sound of the shofar, smell the fragrance of the etrog, and shake the lulav,” he added. “Striking the willow is another physical act we wouldn’t normally do, but is one to which our tradition has attached meaning.”

Brosgol highly recommends following the tradition of our forebears like Hollender. “...Grab a lulav and beat those willows into smithereens. At the very least you’ll have a fairly interesting and aggression-releasing experience.”