Every day in the summer of 2008, professor and author Jonathan Boyarin went to the Stanton Street shul, one of the few congregations that remain in operation on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He wanted to understand how this shul, which was founded in 1913, endured into the 21st century while hundreds just like it that once thrived have since disappeared. Boyarin kept a journal about his daily visits to Stanton Street. His record of that period forms the basis of Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side, published by Fordham University Press.
Day One of Parshas Bechukosai, May 18, 2008. The renovated beis medresh, or study hall, which seemed beautiful but stark, almost cold, when it was first opened last fall, is starting to acquire atmosphere. The floors have become a little bit scuffed. The half-flight of steps leading down to the beis medresh, which before the renovation were not only worn with decades of footsteps but also markedly tilted to one side, are neither worn nor tilted yet, but the dark stain that was intended to make the new ones look old is already somewhat scuffed as well. Meanwhile, the empty spaces begin to fill with sounds: A young man who grew up in the Belz Hasidic community in Borough Park, New York, who is in the neighborhood as a guest of Isaac Maxon’s for shabbes, sings snatches of luxuriant liturgical melodies of the Belzer Hasidic community as we wait on Friday evening for the minyan that never happened, and something of the echoes of his tunes remains in the air even after he has left.
I still have the overwhelming impression, though, that when the downstairs was renovated, all the ghosts departed, as well. Some I can and will recall by name or by some other characteristic: Moshe Sternberg, a former dressmaker (the only reason I know is because, once during my first years in the morning minyan, Mr. Sternberg was given the honor of covering the Torah scroll after the reading, and another member spoke up, “Mr. Sternberg was a dressmaker, I think he knows how to cover the Torah”); the gentle Itshe Duhl; nervous Mr. Teigman, who had a print shop in the neighborhood and bitterly opposed Rabbi Singer’s practice of opening up the ark to count the Torah scroll as the tenth for the minyan, threatening at least once to walk out so that there wouldn’t even be nine living Jewish men in the room, let alone ten; Heshy Gleicher (“Cheap Heshy”), who for decades owned a discount store around the corner on Clinton Street; Heshy Kolber (Benny was so contemptuous of him that once he muttered, un dus hot gehat a siti dzhob, “and this had a city job”); Shimen Perlman (a showman with snatches of Yiddish vaudeville and comedy theater; he could imitate a stereotypical Litvak Hebrew school teacher or a mock impresario announcing “Ladies and gents, katshkes un gendz,” “ducks and geese”); Mr. Berger, who used to yell at Heshy Gleicher and others, including me (Rabbi Singer calmed me down by saying, “He just talks loud”; when Elissa would walk in, he became a perfect gentleman; and when Jonah would come in as a toddler, Berger would call affectionately, “Hey, Pupik!”); Ari Lemkin (he should live and be well), a sad young man who eventually became Rabbi Singer’s right-hand man in the shul and resolutely sided with the Singer family once the dispute over the future of the shul broke out; other Heshies and Harries, Moishes and Abes, over the years.
I like to think of their ghosts as being available to make up the minyan, but no one thinks that’s how Jewish law works, not even among the minority of us who continue to accept the custom of counting the Torah scroll. May I share an image, without intending disrespect to any of them, simply because it continues to echo, insistent in my mind? It’s reported that, when the workmen doing the renovation tore up the old, badly worn floor of the beis medresh, they found nothing below it but dirt. Trapped in the dirt, along with a number of live rats, who scurried away but continued to trouble the building as long as the renovation work was in progress, were dozens of dead rats. I’m glad I didn’t see them, and I’m sorry to associate them with memories of past human residents, lehavdil b’elef havdoles, that is, to distinguish with a thousand distinctions. Blame the image on that endearing character, the Death of Rats, a sidekick of the equally colorful and sympathetic Death in Terri Pratchett’s Discworld novels, or maybe on a joke made by a character in Kugelmass’s The Miracle of Intervale Avenue, about another old shul in another borough, that you could put a yarmulke on a rat and include him in the minyan.
If we cannot count those who are physically absent, there is no apparent prohibition against one live male Jew doing double duty, attending one minyan and then moving on to fill the complement for another. This happened regularly, weekday mornings in the 1980s and early 1990s, when, in addition to the minyan at Rabbi Singer’s shul, the Chasam Sopher shul around the corner on Clinton Street had (as it still does) a morning minyan, and when Rabbi Heftler’s shul on Attorney Street still stood. (It has since collapsed, been demolished and replaced by an apartment building that, in its architectural detail, seems to me, at least, deliberately to recall the outlines of the neoclassical shul that once stood on the spot.) Occasionally, during the months after our first child, Jonah, was born, I would proceed on to Attorney Street after finishing at Rabbi Singer’s and come home around 9 in the morning, sometimes having had a shot or two with the old men, but Elissa put a stop to that after a month or two. More frequently, we would call Chasam Sopher and ask them to send one man, or maybe two, but we would always be careful to send them right back if another of our regulars straggled in. Occasionally, though not nearly as often, Chasam Sopher would likewise be short one congregant (they paid yeshiva students to come to the morning minyan, an option our even poorer shul didn’t have), and Rabbi Singer would be absolutely prompt about taking advantage of this opportunity to even the credit-debit balance of this Lower East Side shul economy. One winter morning, he personally left his shul to make the minyan at Chasam Sopher, in such a rush that he slipped on a patch of ice by the doorway, broke his leg, and was in the hospital for weeks.
This exchange system has broken down in recent years. The Stanton Street congregation is in some respects marginalized or even ostracized by the broader (though still rather narrow) Lower East Side Orthodox community, both because of bad memories left over from the struggle between Rabbi Singer’s family and the congregation early in this decade and because of certain issues in Jewish law (the appropriate realm of women’s participation; the possibility of creating an eruv, or boundary marker to permit carrying on the Sabbath, on the Lower East Side) that appear to some to put Stanton Street outside the Orthodox camp. Things came to such a pass that, about a year ago, the rabbi and the president—or perhaps just the president on his own—of Chasam Sopher declared that they would no longer agree to send men to Stanton Street when we needed someone to make the minyan; we had apparently been put under some kind of communal ban.
Well, yesterday in the early evening, at the time for saying the afternoon service of shabbes, Sol Decker decided that he would go to Chasam Sopher to see if he could borrow a tenth. I guess he just decided that the ban wasn’t necessarily going to last forever. He returned promptly with two young Lubavitch Hasidim that I hadn’t met before. One of them, Israeli, but with a reasonably good command of English, told me later that he and his friend had been walking around and went into Chasam Sopher. (He implied that they found the shul more or less by chance, though my assumption has been that when young Lubavitchers walk miles from their base in Crown Heights on shabbes afternoon, they know exactly where they’re headed.) A few minutes later, when Sol walked in, he was told by the Chasam Sopher regulars, “Let the Lubavitchers come with you.” Perhaps the ban is over. In any case, I suppose it was easier to ignore it this time because these two Lubavitchers, “surplus” Jews, were available for dispatch anyway—no regular member of the Chasam Sopher minyan had to be sent. And perhaps next time they need someone, they won’t be too proud to call us, and perhaps next time we need someone, they won’t refuse to send one of their regulars.
Reprinted from Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side by Jonathan Boyarin. Copyright © 2011 by Jonathan Boyarin. Used with permission of the publisher, Fordham University Press.