Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side

Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side

by Jonathan Boyarin


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In these pages Jonathan Boyarin invites us to share the intimate life of the Stanton Street Shul, one of the last remaining Jewish congregations on New York’s historic Lower East Side. This narrow building, wedged into a lot designed for an old-law tenement, is full of clamorous voices—the generations of the dead, who somehow contrive to make their presence known, and the newer generation, keeping the building and its memories alive and making themselves Jews in the process. Through the eyes of Boyarin, at once a member of the congregation and a bemused anthropologist, the book follows this congregation of “year-round Jews” through the course of a summer during which its future must once again be decided.

The Lower East Side, famous as the jumping off point for millions of Jewish and other immigrants to America, has recently become the hip playground of twenty-something immigrants to the city from elsewhere in America and from abroad. Few imagine that Jewish life there has stubbornly continued through this history of decline and regeneration. Coming inside with Boyarin, we see the congregation’s life as a combination of quiet heroism, ironic humor, disputes for the sake of Heaven and perhaps otherwise, and—above all—the ongoing search for ways to connect with Jewish ancestors while remaining true to oneself in the present.

Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul illustrates in poignant and humorous ways the changes in a historic neighborhood facing the challenges of gentrification. It offers readers with no prior knowledge of Judaism and synagogue life a portrait that is at once intimate and intelligible. Most important, perhaps, it shows the congregation’s members to be anything but a monochromatic set of uniform “believers” but rather a gathering of vibrant, imperfect, indisputably down-to-earth individuals coming together to make a community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823254040
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 09/02/2013
Pages: 226
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Jonathan Boyarin is Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies in the Departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University.

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Week One

And if thy brother be waxen poor, and his means fail with thee; then thou shalt uphold him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with thee. ... I am the Lord your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God. ... Ye shall keep My sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

— LEVITICUS 25:35, 38; 26:2

Day One of Parshas Behar (Sunday, May 11, 2008)

Things happen, schedules get disrupted, places get renamed, places get destroyed, sometimes not entirely forgotten. If you think you know what you're going to see and describe before you get there, you're often going to find you're too late.

Sitting in front of my Thinkpad to start this book, I shift my gaze from a screen showing a photograph I took last week on my cell phone while driving in the countryside between Lawrence and Baldwin City, Kansas. It shows a historical marker before a flat, plowed field reading: "Brooklyn. Early Trading Post on Santa Fe Trail. Destroyed by Quantrill August 21, 1863." Remind me, come August 21, and I will mourn the destruction of Brooklyn.

Again the summer starts abruptly, a few days too early. The first time, two summers ago, I had unwisely chosen to stick to my plan to celebrate the end of my first year teaching at the University of Kansas by participating in the annual Wheat State Whirlwind Tour, a bus trip through the heart and guts of the state, even though my wife Elissa was scheduled for neck surgery the same week. On Wednesday, the third day of the tour, as we settled into our motel in Dodge City for the night, I got a cell-phone call from a cousin closely watching Elissa's recuperation, telling me she had contracted hospital pneumonia and I should come home as quickly as possible. So I made the 5:30 A.M. flight to Kansas City, took a taxi back to Lawrence, and began the marathon drive to New York in time to accompany Elissa home from the hospital. A visiting cousin innocently said, "You must be glad to be back in New York," and I just glowered at her in response. I was heartbroken not to be able to finish the tour, but as some kind of recompense, for the rest of my life I'll be able to tell people about the time I had to get out of Dodge City before sunrise. And if some of my friends get sick of hearing the story, it will just mean I have lived long enough to become an old bore.

This time, two years later, I had again chosen to stay on out of town for a couple of weeks after my semester ended. I was looking forward to a visit back to Kansas, followed by a few days hiking with a friend in the mountains of my new professional home of North Carolina. Today is Sunday, the first day of the new Jewish week. I had planned to fly to New York from Raleigh for the summer Monday, tomorrow, but on Thursday night Elissa called, reporting herself dreadfully sick, suffering from the neck spasms that have plagued her ever since her surgery and from severe nausea caused by a changeover in medications. So my friend and I ended our excursion early and drove north all day Friday.

Perhaps it was because I was eager to begin this writing, but this time I was indeed glad to be back in New York, unlike the time I left Dodge City in the middle of our whirlwind tour. Here I am in New York for the summer, as far as I know, but as I say, things happen, schedules get disrupted. It's not likely, in any case, that Elissa will recover enough for us to be able to travel much this summer, so I should be here.

So this journal begins on a Sunday, the first day of the weekly Torah portion of Behar, "on the mountain" — a day when, to indulge a cheap pun, I might otherwise have been climbing a mountain but am instead at my desk in our dining room on the Lower East Side. The notion was that each weekday morning I would get up and go to the morning minyan at the Stanton Street Shul, where I've been a regular on and off now since November 9, 1983 (I know because I immediately started keeping field notes, on a diskette that's probably unreadable now if I could find it, on a word-processing program few would remember ever existed). I'd come home and write a thousand words and see if I had a book by the end of the summer. "Sounds simple, no?" I hear Zero Mostel as Tevye rhetorically asking.

But things happen, people die: this time Mr. Erving Krause, one of the older regulars who started coming to Stanton Street several years ago out of friendship for Benny Sauerhaft, himself well into his nineties (he should live to a hundred and twenty). Benny's the president of the Stanton Street Synagogue, which I'll mostly be calling our shul here. So for today and the next few days, no morning services will be held at Stanton Street; instead, the regulars are invited to attend the shiva minyan at Mr. and Mrs. Krause's apartment in the Grand Street co-ops, providing a quorum of ten Jewish men (that's the minyan) so that his son may recite the mourner's prayer while observing the initial seven-day period of ritual mourning (that's the shiva).

I walked into the Krause apartment at 8:30. A minyan was already present, only one or two of them folks I recognized from Stanton Street, including Benny Sauerhaft and Jack Fish, a former vice president of the shul who has since returned to his old congregation on Sixteenth Street (uptown!). Our rabbi for just a few more months now, Yossi Pollak, straggled in after me, along with a couple more Stanton Street regulars. A cooler of bottled water had been placed in the hall leading to the living room where the minyan was being held. The cooler bore the logo of the organization that provides for mourners' needs, the logo in Hebrew and English script using the distinctive font that indicates the organization is somehow connected to the ArtScroll publishing organization.

Mr. Krause's son, whom I could not see during the service because I stood just outside the living room itself, led the service in a fluent Ashkenazi Hebrew. For one long moment during the service, Benny and I looked at each other. I'm not sure what his eyes were saying, but I think mine were saying the same thing, and it was something like, "Here we are, both alive, and it's nothing to take for granted, because after all, here's Erving Krause already gone."

Day Two of Parshas Behar, May 12, 2008

On a rainy, cool spring morning like this, dream, gossip, prayer, and memory seem to share no interest in their borders with one another. Our bedroom overlooks the corner of Avenue A and East Third Street, which makes it light on sunny days, noisy on weekend nights, and cold whenever a wind is blowing. Drowsy and half-awake, I see it is light and wonder if I am late, unused to setting an alarm after months in the North Carolina countryside.

Not late, surely, for the shiva minyan on Grand Street that I attended yesterday, though today being Monday and a work day, it will begin an hour earlier than Sunday. But I dread the thought of walking to Grand Street in the rain (my mother would say: "You're not made of sugar, you won't melt") and the notion of taking the bus there seems too silly. Besides, that living room will be full of men wet like me, if they've come from as far as I would, rather than (as more likely) from other apartments in the same huge Grand Street co-op building or from similar ones nearby.

But a bit late, not entirely too late, for the other option, one that Rabbi Pollak had put in my mind when he told me that Stanton Street would not be holding services during the shiva for Mr. Krause: "They seem to be getting enough men at the shiva minyan, so if you want to go somewhere else for a few days, this is the time to do it. Anyway, after the shiva, we're really going to be needing you back at Stanton Street" — after all, Mr. Krause himself had been one of the regulars, and he certainly won't be there. Another regular, Dudi Dembitser, is going on a trip to Israel and will be away for some time. (I asked him, "Are you planning to come back?" and only when he answered that he was did I wish him, in Ashkenazi Hebrew and then in Yiddish, "Go in peace and return in peace," explaining that I had learned this practice from Rabbi Singer alav hasholem, may he rest in peace. Since, in principle, one who manages to find his way to the Land of Israel is then supposed to stay there, Rabbi Singer never wanted to assume that a fellow Jew was making a one-way trip instead.)

Reader, do you not know Rabbi Singer? I shall have to introduce you to his memory, later this summer, if we find the time. No, not Rabbi Singer from the Bialystoker Shul. No, not Rabbi Singer from Boro Park; they were his cousins. This was Rabbi Yosl Singer ...

The other option, one that I chose this morning, was the regular minyan at the Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street between Second and Third Avenues. I'd been a regular there, too, for years while I worked long hours as a lawyer in midtown; starting a few minutes earlier, ending more promptly, and leaving shul already several blocks closer to work added up to billable hours. Besides, even then the crowd at Stanton Street often had to wait fifteen, twenty minutes, half an hour sometimes until there was an actual minyan. At Community, now as then, more than half of the congregation are men who live outside Manhattan, drive in early, join us, and work nearby, some at Beth Israel Hospital just up First Avenue. The Community Synagogue minyan is scheduled to start at 6:30, and does, but I was still impressed to walk in at 6:40 and find them already beginning the Amidah, the core of daily prayer as far as the ancient rabbis were concerned, so called because it is recited while standing. But there are many pages in the morning service before the Amidah — so you take a look at an Orthodox prayer book and tell me how they could possibly do that in ten minutes!

Sam Lemberger, owner of the Second Avenue Deli (his older son is the manager now, at the new location at Thirty-Third and Third — no kidding, that's where it is, this isn't a joke about toity-toid street; I asked Sam why he relocated there after he lost the lease at Tenth Street and Second Avenue, and he answered, "I bought the building!") immediately comes over to me as I'm putting on my tefillin: "So I heard you're looking for a rabbi [at Stanton Street]. Maybe you'll take Charlie? Is Chovevei helping you with the search? Sure, moving to Westport is the right move for Rabbi Pollak. He'll earn a living there, he'll get a house there. The only question is whether he'll move on to a bigger city eventually. I wish Community and Stanton Street could coordinate in some way — we're appealing to the same crowd."

I get impatient with Sam's kibitzing and eventually indicate that I want to focus on praying: "Okay, let me daven." But it's not as if I really had some kavone, some intent to communicate with God this morning. I just want to be with Jews doing something relatively innocuous (though surely sexist) and old-fashioned, and I want something to write about every morning this summer. Most of the faces are familiar to me, though I can't put names to many of them: anyway, Shimon the Israeli contractor, Barry the restaurant-furniture manufacturer, Stan the guy with the English accent who loves to bang on the synagogue's old piano. And they notice me, too, and remember my Hebrew name, and call me to recite the blessing over a portion of the weekday Torah reading.

For the second of three times this week — Sabbath afternoon, and then again Monday and Thursday mornings — the minyan hears the beginning of Parshas Behar. After I recite the blessing, I stand in front of the Torah scroll next to the baal kore, the Torah reader. Silently I mouth the words of the passage as he chants them aloud, and the text once again tempts me to florid allegorizations of homecoming, of the Lower East Side as another promised land: "When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the Lord" (Lev. 25:1) — but the Sabbath, when we're forbidden to write, is just the day of the week when I won't be making entries in this journal. In "the fiftieth year ... you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family" (Lev. 25:10). Well, the apartment is in our joint names, though I think of it as Elissa's, and I like to joke when I come back for a spell during the semester, "Nice place you got here, lady!"

There is a mourner at the Community Shul minyan, as well; I presume that, wherever he lives and whatever his family situation, he is with us to say kaddish in the absence of a minyan at his home. At the end of the service, he comes forward and sits on the low step to the platform in front of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept. One by one we approach him and murmur, as we did before Mr. Krause's family yesterday, the Hebrew formula "May you be comforted among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

Day Three of Parshas Behar, May 13, 2008

A better night's sleep, and a brighter and calmer morning, leave me awake in time to get to the Community Synagogue by the beginning of the morning service today. This morning there's no particular reason to go to Community rather than the shiva minyan, except that it starts earlier and I want to get my day going. Anyway, I can't get inside the Stanton Street Shul, deeper into the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, can't get to the ultimate "there" of this journal, while it's closed during Mr. Krause's minyan. Though of course I'm doing (in the phrase of the feminist anthropologist Kamala Viswesaran) homework, rather than fieldwork, somehow I feel like an old-fashioned anthropologist stymied in his journey toward the native village by a colonial bureaucracy, a flood, a war ... a shiva at the mourners' home.

So I take notes meanwhile at some other village, at the margin of the field site, a little closer to the metropole, a little farther uptown. Deduction: at least two of the young men who seem to be regulars at the Community Synagogue minyan are, as I had guessed, students, since on their way out this morning one of them asked his fellow: "So, did you pull an all-nighter?" (It's exam time, though some, like me, have already finished the spring semester; that's why I'm in New York, after all.) It would be inaccurate to say that the Community Synagogue minyan, in the decade or so since I've become familiar with it, was ever a congregation primarily made up of old men, unlike several other minyanim on the East Side. But it does seem nevertheless that the average age has dropped in those years. New people, such as these students, have come. Too many of the elderly have departed, along with others, may we be preserved, who hardly seemed to be at the end of their term.

Bill Feinerman, who is still alive and well into his nineties, but barely able to move on his own, was a regular in the years I first started coming to the Community. A well-built man with a solid mustache, carefully dressed, articulate, of firm opinions about many things, including proper synagogue behavior and customs. Whatever he still remembers of the old days in the neighborhood I will never learn from him now (how much documentation I have failed to do over the past three decades will haunt me, as long as my own consciousness holds out).

Across from Bill sat Mr. Irving Feld, the synagogue's gabbai. One morning years ago Feinerman and Feld were having a conversation during the morning services. I have no idea what the topic was. Feld didn't understand something Feinerman said, and Feinerman repeated it. Feld said he still didn't understand, so Feinerman growled, "I'll write you a letter!"

No, I'm remembering wrong. It wasn't Feld sitting across from Feinerman that day, it was Max Isaacs, a local businessman (primarily real estate), one of the surviving founders of the congregation from 1948, who boasted of his friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. What do I remember about Max Isaacs, without digging deeper? First, his gait, supported by a cane, but always determined and even impatient; and second, a joke he repeated several times, looking at the supermarket circulars: "Shrimp is still high!" As though he were still just waiting for the price to come down on this obviously nonkosher food. Certainly he was not meaning to signal that he ever intended to buy it at any price, but perhaps all the same he was reminding the congregation that none of the members might be quite as observant as he appeared when among the congregation.


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Table of Contents

WEEK Three
WEEK Seven
WEEK Eight
WEEK Eleven
WEEK Twelve
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