Before I begin, I must say how pleased I am to share this day with Evelyn Attia Laufer. Putting aside for the moment the legal implications of taking another wife, I think that it is appropriate that I am paired with a woman who is a psychiatrist and a world-famous authority on eating disorders.
My dear friend Steve Schneider likes to time how long it takes me in conversation to bring up an old girl friend. Well, I'll make it easy for him and start immediately with a recollection from almost 50 years ago when a girl friend asked me if I liked being Jewish. She volunteered that she did not like it, for very practical reasons. Her father was a very prominent rabbi and he was beset by demands on his time and energy from his congregation and the community at large. She felt isolated and ignored as a result, although her father was devoted to her, but in that undemonstrative way that many fathers -- Jewish and otherwise -- have of holding their affection back. She connected her unhappiness to her father's position, and, by extension, to Judaism generally.
On the other hand, I had no hesitation expressing my satisfaction with being Jewish, although it came at a time in my life that I entered a synagogue only for a few minutes during the High Holidays and for those life cycle events where the intimacy of the association made attendance unavoidable. That period of abstention actually lasted for many decades to come.
I was physically absent from organized Jewish life while maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity. This seeming disconnect was, to my mind, a natural outcome of my Jewish childhood. My parents kept a kosher home, but, of course, on occasional Sunday afternoons they took us to Wu-Han’s Chinese restaurant, one flight up on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn.
night dinners were always chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and a 12 ounce bottle of Pepsi-Cola that my brother and I divided with as much attention as paid to the first splitting of the atom. Candles were lit and then my parents welcomed in the Sabbath by making their weekly grocery shopping rounds to the A&P, Bohack’s and Daitch Shopwell.
There was Hebrew school, heder. That meant a dusty, airless room at the top of the Sutter Avenue shul. I say the Sutter Avenue shul because our houses of worship were identified by location alone and I doubt that my father or my observant uncles could provide the formal name for the Sutter Avenue shul, closest to us, or the Fountain Avenue shul, closest to my Grandmother Gotthelf.
Rabbi Colmanovitch (as he was called) was the sole teacher for the two Hebrew classes that met after school weekdays. The earlier class was for younger boys, 8 to 10, the later for boys approaching Bar Mitzvah. And it was only boys, with the exception of the Rubinstein sisters -- I remember the older as Rachel, nearly my age. In contrast to the boys, these girls came solely for the sake of education. No girls at that shul could expect to have a Bat Mitzvah, and I think that the balcony where the women sat would have collapsed if it were attempted. By an odd coincidence, about 30 years later, I sat next to Aaron Rubinstein at a banquet dinner and learned that he was their baby brother.
Rabbi Colmanovitch would not hesitate to swat his inattentive scholars, and I was a big and deserving target, yet my memories of the Sutter Avenue shul were mostly pleasant. While West End Synagogue has services marked by Bob Dylan music and ee cummings poetry, only discordant, unsynchronized Hebrew chanting and Yiddish conversation were heard at Sutter Avenue services. I still remember starting my Haftorah, the warbling sing song that is the artistic highlight of a Bar Mitzvah service, when an old man began chanting his own version at a speed and pronunciation distinctly different than mine.
While that beginning of my Haftorah was less than perfect, it ended, as was typical in those days, with a shower from the women’s balcony above of brown paper bags, filled with candy. The boys from heder scurried around to collect as many bags as possible from the floor, not only for the sweet treats, but aware that, in vivid contrast to today's lavish Kiddushim (the meal after services), the congregation could only expect rye whiskey, pickled herring and honey cake in the synagogue's basement afterwards.
I especially looked forward to other boys’ Bar Mitzvahs at the Sutter Avenue shul because my maternal grandmother, the wonderful Esther Malka Goldenberg, sat front and center in the balcony, recognized as a community leader because of her ownership of a grocery store a few blocks away. Esther Malka used her position of influence very much to my advantage by gathering many of those brown paper bags from other women before they could be launched onto the floor below and holding them until I made my way upstairs to visit her. She called me, contrary to the physical evidence even then, “the Klayner” because I was the younger of two children.
Even now, I can’t think about being Jewish without thinking about Esther Malka. Not just because of the candy that she hoarded for me on those mornings, but because of the generosity that she showed to so many people in varying ways. On one or two occasions, while I was in high school, I stayed with her for a week when everyone else was out of her household. After a couple of mornings, I got used to the mailman sitting down for breakfast as part of his daily rounds, but I was surprised when the Fire Marshall sat down, at her urging, while inspecting the premises, which included the grocery store below the living quarters.
Of course, all interactions with those folks and any members of the general public, Jewish or not, were conducted in her distinctive Yiddish-English. Two of her most memorable locutions were admonishing my mother for allowing me to go to shul on a morning dressed in “Tangerines,” and identifying people that she met on shipboard on her trip to Israel in the late 1950s as coming from the Western state of “Coca Cola.”
With that legacy, how could I ever move away from Judaism, even if I stayed away from synagogues?
As my horizons broadened and my skepticism deepened, I remained Jewish at the most visceral level. I talked Jewish, I thought Jewish, I ate Jewish, although this was not always easy outside New York City. My first wife was Jewish and we were married by a Rabbi, but nothing distinguished our household in Los Angeles as a Jewish home. Her parents' experience as refugees from the Nazis in Vienna, escaping halfway around the world to Shanghai, stripped them of whatever connection to Jewish customs and rituals that they may have grown up with. This neutered condition bothered me, but I thought that the arrival of children would return Jewishness to my life, with Hebrew school, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and family celebrations. But, there were no children, the marriage collapsed and I returned to New York.
Thinking back, I can only remember going to shul once in the nine years that I lived in Los Angeles. I didn’t miss the worship, the Hebrew language, the too frequent standing up and sitting down, and the vapid sermonizing. It was the Being There, taking my place, if only for a brief time, among the Jewish people, that strange river of humanity rising in a past that we insist not be forgotten.
Actually, my exposure to vapid sermonizing began after we left Brooklyn, because Rabbi Sininsky at the Sutter Avenue shul, a stubby man with curly red hair, delivered his remarks exclusively in impassioned Yiddish, with tears. When, with great reluctance, I accompanied my parents to a conservative shul in Queens for High Holy Day services, I first heard sermons in English and slid further down in my seat. Conservative shuls were the place where I spent an hour or two each September or October while my mother, who lived to nearly 103 years old, was still able to, and therefore insistent upon, attending services.
Additionally, I made a visit to a synagogue, rarely the same one twice, each November for my father’s Yahrzeit, the commemoration of his death. My presence among a small group of strangers at evening prayers brought me little comfort, always raising questions and doubts about my connection with those people. But, I felt that it was my connection to my father that I was asserting, and I often wondered who might connect with me in the future.
In 1996, I met America’s Favorite Epidemiologist. We married in 2003, using a Rabbi who actually knew us. We moved to the building immediately behind where we are now seated, although the presence of two shuls in front of the door was of no consequence to me. My mother-in-law took ill late in 2003 and died in January 2004. Mayris, whose adult life included active participation in Jewish education, services and community activities, sought a place to regularly say the mourner’s prayers. In an interesting twist, she turned to Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, then at CBST, then unmarried, whom she had known from Rabbi Ayelet’s youth, for guidance in picking a shul that reflected the progressive Jewish values that Mayris was committed to.
Easy, go to West End Synagogue, listen to Rabbi Yael Ridberg, said Rabbi Ayelet. Indeed, I started hearing about interesting programs and discussions held mornings while I stayed home with the newspaper. Mayris even suggested that I might appreciate some of the ideas being tossed around, but I stayed true to my faith. Of course, I knew that I had to spend a little time at High Holy Day services and I agreed to go to West End Synagogue, before I learned that those services were held in some church over by the park, not in the cute little building downstairs.
Besides the gothic surroundings, not entirely cleansed of Christian imagery, where the congregation gathered, the West End Synagogue services differed from what I remembered being disdainful of in other venues. There was music and poetry and commentary that was not entirely offensive to my rational sensibilities. Then, in a few moments that sealed my future, and brought me here today, Isaac Zieman, a little old man got up and sang, in a wonderful reedy voice, Partisaner Lid, a Yiddish song of resistance to the Nazis.
Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg,
khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg.
Kumen vet nokh undzer oysgebenkte sho,
s’vet a poyk ton undzer trot: mir zaynen do!
Never say this is the final road for you,
Though leadened skies may cover over days of blue.
As the hour that we longed for is so near,
Our step beats out the message: we are here!