MEMOIR: The synagogues on 169th Steet and other matters
My parents lived in the same apartment in the Bronx for 42 years. It was located on the Grand Concourse, one block north of 169th Street. The Grand Concourse used to have an exalted image as a boulevard where only affluent people could afford to live. To debunk the idea that my family was wealthy, I have always explained that there were two types of apartment houses on the Concourse--those with elevators, doormen and canopies at the front entrance and those without such signs of elegance.
We lived in the latter type of apartment house. It was a five-story, walk-up tenement with 90 apartments and a shabby front courtyard. It had seen better days before we moved in during the late 1920s. I lived there from the age of three to 18, until military service removed me from an overwhelmingly Jewish immigrant neighborhood and exposed me to a new world.
The focus of my old world was the formidable array of synagogues ("shuls" in Yiddish) located on 169th Street, the block around the corner from our apartment house. There were five different congregations on the street, each with its own unique characteristics.
At the southwest corner of the Concourse and 169th Street stood Temple Adath Israel, a huge, handsome edifice that exemplified the old joke about the "edifice complex" of some religious institutions. The temple was affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement, and its members tended to be more prosperous than those of the other congregations.
My pious Orthodox grandmother, who lived with us, was offended that men and women sat together in Adath Israel, and that it employed an organ and a choir with both men and women. Grandma frowned whenever I went there to attend a friend's bar-mitzvah or to be taken to Yankee Stadium by the temple's youth group.
I never had the heart to tell Grandma that I saw the temple's rabbi, who usually accompanied the boys to the ball game, eat non-kosher hot dogs in Yankee Stadium. Grandma, who never accepted any form of Judaism other than Orthodoxy, would have questioned the validity of his rabbinical credentials.
For many years, the temple's cantor was a man named Reuben Tucker. He later became known as Richard Tucker, the world-famed Metropolitan Opera tenor. He was an observant Orthodox Jew who declined to wear Christian religious symbols required for some of his operatic roles. But he was obviously less concerned than my grandmother about the temple's non-Orthodox religious practices.
The temple had a large finished basement used primarily as a ballroom. A section was partitioned off and leased to a tiny Orthodox congregation which was evidently comfortable sharing a building with a congregation whose religious practices were far less traditional than its own.
The basement-based congregation was composed of several dozen old men who faithfully appeared daily for morning and evening services. I never understood why they prayed apart from the much larger Orthodox shuls on the street.
They seemed to be living out the old joke about the shipwrecked Jewish man existing alone on a desert island. When a rescue party appeared, they were surprised to see that the man had built two shuls. When questioned why he had built two different synagogues, he pointed to one of them and explained: "Oh, that's the shul I don't go to."
Actually, my guess is that the old men in the basement congregation were all "landsmen" who had known each other in the same village back in Eastern Europe. They apparently wanted to continue praying together in their new homeland.
For much of my boyhood, the land next to Temple Adath Israel was an empty lot dominated by an enormous, tall rock that was a popular playground for the neighborhood boys. Our favorite game was called "king of the hill." It was the source of countless bruised knees and elbows as teams of boys struggled against each other to get to the top of the rock. (I bear a scar on my left knee from an injury suffered during of one of those boyhood skirmishes.)
In my very early teens a new synagogue was built on the property. I don't recall its formal name, but it included the word "Sephardic" in it. This identified it as a synagogue composed of descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain four centuries earlier and who had settled in the former Ottoman Turkish empire.
Its members were largely immigrants from Salonika, Greece and Smyrna (now known as Izmir) in Turkey. The Sephardic congregation was Orthodox, like the Ashkenazi shuls with which it shared the street. (Ashkenazi Jews originated in central and eastern Europe.) To me, however, the new synagogue had an exotic atmosphere because its rites of worship differed from my own shul's, and its rabbi preached in Ladino (also known as Judezmo) rather than Yiddish.
I still remember that the Sephardic rabbi was named Asher Marciano, and that he came from Sarajevo in Bosnia. (I am confident that he was unrelated to Rocky Marciano, the famous heavyweight boxing champion.) Rabbi Marciano wore a white turban when he was seen walking in the street, which for me emphasized the exotic quality of the new synagogue.
Next to the Sephardic temple was my family's Orthodox shul, Tifereth Beth Jacob. Our rabbi was a saintly, white-bearded man named Levitan. When I was very young, I imagined that God in heaven looked like Rabbi Levitan.
The shul conducted a religious school which I attended from the age of six until I had my bar-mitzvah at 13. I delivered my bar-mitzvah speech in Yiddish, a language I can no longer speak. Unlike the gala celebrations that are now commonplace, the festivities at my bar-mitzvah were quite simple. Following the synagogue services, about a dozen relatives gathered around our apartment's dining room table, drinking wine and nibbling gefiltah fish.
Only boys were admitted to the shul's religious school. Classes were conducted after public school hours at least three days a week and on Sunday mornings. I still remember the teacher, Mr. Halpern, who was an unemployed CPA.
As is the custom in Orthodox synagogues, men and women did not sit together. In our shul they were separated by a curtain. Behind the barrier, my grandmother would meet informally with a group of women after Sabbath services, reading Bible stories to them in Yiddish.
Unlike the other ladies, most of whom were barely literate, my grandmother had received a religious education at home in Russia. In our shul in the Bronx she was regarded as the congregation's unofficial matriarch.
Another Orthodox synagogue--this one a Hasidic congregation--was located further down the street, on the northwest corner of 169th Street and Walton Ave. The Hasidim are a mystical Jewish denomination whose religious practices are marked by exceptional emotional fervor. There are dozens of Hasidic sects, each based largely on East European geography and the leadership of individual charismatic rabbis.
My father had been raised in a Hasidic environment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, but he was no longer religiously observant. He was curious about the Hasidic shul on 169th Street, however, and visited it once or twice.
He encountered an even more emotional--almost boisterous--religious fervor than he had known in his youth. Half in jest, he attributed that to the "crazy Hungarian" origins of the sect that had founded the shul. He claimed that the Polish Hasidim with whom he was raised were more sedate.
I was last on 169th Street about 25 years ago. I was saddened to see that Temple Adath Israel was vacant and boarded up. I don't remember what happened to the Sephardic and Hasidic synagogues. But the saddest sight was seeing that my own synagogue, Tifereth Beth Jacob, where I had read to the congregation from the Torah at my bar-mitzvah, was now an "Iglesia Pentacostal."