“No spitting, throwing cigars, cigarettes, and any other shmutz on the floor.” It’s not a sign you’d typically expect to see in an American synagogue. But this Yiddish sign once hung at Congregation Ahavas Achim Anshe Sefarad in Revere, Massachusetts, which closed in 1998 after nearly eight decades.
“That’s one of my favorite signs,” said Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, pointing out that the English word “floor” is spelled phonetically in Yiddish letters. “It very much demonstrates the story of acculturation. It’s funny to read English words written in Yiddish. But it shows how Yiddish speakers began to use English and Yiddish words interchangeably.”
Strassfeld is a retired New York City rabbi and the author of several books on Jewish life, practice, and spirituality, including The Jewish Catalog series, which he co-edited.
But these days, racing against time, Strassfeld is on a mission to preserve signs from American synagogues that are closing, renovating, or simply cleaning up. “These signs are unique, one or two of a kind,” explained Strassfeld, who has salvaged more than 300 signs from about 50 synagogues in the Northeast. “Once they are lost, they are really lost.”
Strassfeld’s father, the late rabbi Meyer Strassfeld, gave him his first sign in 1965—right before the family moved, along with many Jewish families heading to the suburbs, from the Mattapan section of Boston to Marblehead, Massachusetts. Written in beautiful Yiddish calligraphy, the sign, “Fixed Regulations: Shomer Shabbat Hevre,” declares that one must be Shabbat-observant to lead services, receive an aliyah to the Torah, or duchan (recite the priestly blessing).
Unfortunately, the sign’s history and origins remain shrouded in mystery. To this day, Strassfeld is puzzled why the sign lists rules that were not required by the large Orthodox synagogues in this former Jewish neighborhood. Was the objective to clarify rules? Inspire worshippers to observe higher religious standards? Or was this a breakaway, stricter minyan that met in a private home?
In any case, Strassfeld never expected that this sign, which he received as a young teenager, would still inspire him today. “At the time, I did not realize that it was a part of history, or that 50 years later I would be on a mission to salvage synagogue signs from the dumpster,” he explained. “I just knew that it was unusual and interesting.”
Strassfeld’s extensive collection, which now includes both simple handwritten signs and meticulously calligraphed folk art, provides a pictorial history of the 20th century Eastern European Jewish immigration and acculturation experience, beginning in the 1920s. This set of signs parallels the journey from Eastern European immigrant to American citizen and provides historical insights into synagogue rules and etiquette, religious practices, high holidays, American patriotism, and Jewish education, as well as the Americanization of the Yiddish language.
As a graduate student in Jewish history at Brandeis University in the 1970s, Strassfeld made his maiden sign “discovery” at Congregation Linas Ha-zedek beis Yisrael in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which was closing after seven decades. At first glance, this colorful sign seems like an ordinary announcement, in Yiddish, that lists the hours for selling chametz to the rabbi before Passover, a custom still observed today. Yet, as Strassfeld explained, rabbis once depended on the gratuity from the symbolic selling of leavened food to supplement their incomes.
At the time, Strassfeld was not actively looking to collect or salvage signs. Rather, when he visited the shul with the late Richard Israel, then executive director of Hillel of Greater Boston, they sensed that this was something interesting.
Soon afterward, upon moving to New York, he learned about the closing of Congregation Mesilath Yesharim, on Walton Avenue in the South Bronx, formerly the hub of a vibrant Jewish community.
The red-white-and-blue bilingual sign pictured here announces Hebrew school registration in both Yiddish and English. The sign reflects Americanized Yiddish, with the English word “registration” written in Yiddish letters. The English version reads, “Send them in our Hebrew School,” rather than “to our Hebrew school,” indicating that perhaps the sign was translated from Yiddish by a non-native speaker.
The use of English in neighborhoods of second settlement such as the Bronx shows an endeavor to keep younger English-speaking Jews in the fold, according to NYU historian Hasia Diner. And the red-white-and blue color scheme, characteristic of many signs in this collection, offers an apparent response to the significant anti-Semitism rampant between the First and Second World Wars. “Jews found their participation as a way to underscore their patriotism. Now that we are in an anti-immigration era, it’s easy to understand why you want to prove that you are loyal to America,” said Jonathan Sarna, who teaches history at Brandeis. “Patriotism was at its peak during the war years. Jews sought to document their war-dead partly because anti-Semites claimed that Jews profited, rather than participated in the war.”
For example, until it closed in 2008, Congregation Beth Israel of Quincy, Massachusetts, proudly displayed the sign, “For God and Country, They Serve,” in honor of Jewish war veterans.
Nevertheless, not all immigrant Jews joined synagogues. “The idea of belonging to a synagogue and paying dues was a very American idea,” said Diner. Many Eastern European immigrants attended services only on the high holidays, either because they needed to work on Saturday, had forsaken religion, or, living in a largely Jewish neighborhood, did not need a synagogue to meet other Jews.
Hence, fierce competition existed to sell tickets for high-holiday seats, with signs announcing visiting guest rabbis or cantors. This bilingual sign from Congregation Hebrew Tabernacle in the Bronx is apparently trying to attract younger Jews with its announcement of “the well-known and young cantor.” Not everyone purchased tickets, as a sign from a defunct Brooklyn synagogue indicates, “Entrance for ticket holders only, rear entrance for those wishing to say Yiskor.”
Synagogues had money problems, then as now. Signs address such topics as giving donations only to authorized individuals, giving the first donation (apparently for an aliyah) to the shul, and soliciting money during services. “No collecting charity from barchu until after the kedusha and during Torah reading,” read this sign from Congregation Anshe Sfarad in Borough Park.
Tracking down discarded signs depends on maintaining a network of contacts, proactively reaching out to rabbis and synagogue organizations, and scouring newspaper articles for synagogue closings. Occasionally, leads come to Strassfeld from unexpected sources, like the contractor who was gutting a Manhattan building and unearthed heavy marble tablets from the Proskurover Zion Congregation, a now defunct shul in the East Village. And Strassfeld also relies, naturally, on a Google alert for notifications about synagogue closings.
Persistence has paid off with some unique treasures. At Congregation Shaare Zion (the “Orange Street shul”) in Chelsea, Massachusetts, which closed in 1999, an elderly couple told Strassfeld that no items remained. But upon searching the basement, he discovered a beautiful calligraphed list of members of a “Hevre mishnayot” (Mishna study group), which included names of women, dating back to 1924.
After years of scouring trash bins, storage containers, and moldy basements, and following up on false leads, you’d think Strassfeld might grow weary. Time and time again, after doggedly pursuing a lead, he has come up empty-handed, perhaps because signs had been tossed during a renovation project or what’s remaining is badly water-damaged. Yet today, his determination is greater than ever. “I don’t believe people when they say there is nothing you will want. I am happy to find one or two signs,” he explained. “These synagogue signs are part of a larger American-Jewish story. There are signs today that convey values and concerns that are different from 50 or 75 or 100 years ago. We are now writing another chapter of this ongoing Jewish story.”
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