Tuesday, September 04, 2007

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."

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Blogger Peggy said...

I love how there were so many synagogues and they were all different. Its sort of like how it was in our neighbourhood in Minneapolis. The French Catholics went to Our Lady of Lourdes, the Ukranians went to the church on the corner, the Czechs went to St Boniface and we Irish Catholics went to St Anthony's. There were no doctrinal differences that made us go one place or another and nobody was made to feel uncomfortable if you just went to a different church one Sunday. For me, it was just how it was.

I hope you and the Mrs are well.

Thursday, September 06, 2007 4:59:00 PM  
Blogger Jerry550 said...


When I went back to my old neighborhood in the '70s, things were completely different. Much had been bulldozed and rebuilt. There was one small Shul up the street on Saratoga Ave. that also had become a church. But I have to disagree
with you on feeling bad because I'd rather see a Shul become a church or another type of house of worship, rather than turn into a supermarket or even be razed. It seems that would make its use closer to its intended purpose.

Have a healthy and prosperous New Year to you and your family.

Friday, September 07, 2007 7:02:00 AM  
Blogger Olive Morgan said...

I agree with joe mama that I would rather see a synagogue or a church remain as a (different) place of worship than to become something quite secular or to be demolished. There is one exception in our town, when the bookstore Waterstones bought a Church in our main street. The building was beautifully adapted to retain the stained glass windows and other features, thus honouring the original place of worship.

Thank you for your comment on my blog, which (because of my long absence) I have only just seen. I hope you will return to reading my blog, as I shall be reading yours.

Monday, September 10, 2007 5:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the last two comments ...
my father (1933-2004)grew up in the South Bronx, and I'm teaching an arts program at an elementary school there this year ... right down the block from Temple Adath Israel. It's moving to see the building as I turn the corner to go to work. I think of my father and all of the Jewish children who grew up there and left for wider worlds. Then I think of the children I teach and imagine how far they may one day travel ... Adath Israel now houses a Seventh Day Adventist church, established in the year I was born, 1972 ... by which time my dad had left the South Bronx for good ...

Thursday, January 08, 2009 11:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel Risch said...

Just so you know your blog is still being read. I grew up a block away from you and am a little younger, so of course we never met. My mom and dad went to Adath Israel and I was bar mitzvahed by Cantor Botashansky in 1954. Hebrew School was downstairs, led by Harry Markson. My mom's aunt and uncle, named Joffe, went to your shul down the block. My best friends were from the building next to us, Mike Russo, Mel Wechsler, and Jimmy Callahan, all a year or so younger than I. PS 88 until 3rd grade, and all the stores on 169 Street, stickball on 168th Street and, best of all, curbball on 168th and Sheridan. Great memories all. Joel Risch

Saturday, December 29, 2012 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly enjoyed your article about the synagogues in my neighborhood from my childhood. I lived one block north of 169 street at Clarke Place and Walton Avenue. My mother was Catholic and my father was Jewish, neither of my parents were very practiced in their religion. My paternal grandmother was an observant Jew who wanted her mixed-religion grandson to have a bar mitzvah. I remember my father walking me up to the synagogue on 169th St. and speaking to one of the rabbis about classes so I would be educated in the Jewish faith and eventually be bar mitzvahed. After several weeks of spending afternoons with a gentleman who is teaching me about Judaism I came to the realization that I did not have the interest or dedication to follow through with my studies. I begged my parents to pull me out of class which they reluctantly did.

Sunday, January 20, 2013 8:30:00 PM  
Blogger Mortart said...

thank you for your recent comments regarding my father beloved blog. He would have so thoroughly enjoyed hearing from you and talking about the Bronx of his boyhood. Sadly he passed away about two years ago.
- I am Mort's daughter

Thursday, January 24, 2013 7:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 1973, Adath Israel of the Grand Concourse merged with the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale (founded in 1954) to become the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale (CSAIR).

Located in the Riverdale section of New York City in the northwest Bronx, CSAIR is a large and vibrant shul.

Here's the CSAIR website: http://www.csair.org

Saturday, February 28, 2015 2:41:00 PM  

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