A few weeks ago, a good friend and I went to lunch on the Lower East Side. We were noshing on pastrami sandwiches at Katz’s, with sides of sauerkraut and pickles.
I was telling her about my plan to visit one of the local synagogues after lunch, and she seemed surprised.
“You’re a secular Jew; what are you doing spending part of your free day in New York in shul?”
“I’m curious to see where my paternal ancestors would go on Saturday mornings,” I told her. “I’ve never been inside a synagogue around here. Eateries, yes—shuls, no.”
I never knew my father: Paul Schreibman, a native New Yorker from Flatbush, Brooklyn. He died tragically when he was 29; I was just 2.
I grew up in a home best described as culturally Jewish but not practicing. In South Florida, where my mother and I lived, the Brooklyn accents of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles rubbed off on me: As I learned to talk, I acquired something of a Brooklyn accent myself, though I wouldn’t actually travel there until I was a teenager.
The Lower East Side is one of the New York neighborhoods that I most closely associate with my paternal family heritage. The first time I visited New York, in 1995, I was 19 and in my first year of college. I spent most of my time with my father’s elderly aunts Ida and Miriam, who lived downtown, not too far from the Lower East Side, and who, like me, ate knishes and rugelach like they were going out of fashion. I stayed with Ida in her rent-stabilized apartment on 14th Street; she’d lived there for over 40 years, and her sister Miriam lived right upstairs. Ida and Miriam had been occasional fixtures in my Florida childhood; they came down from New York once when I was 5, just to take me on a “girls’” vacation to Disney World, and they spent occasional Jewish holidays with my grandfather, grandmother, mother, and me in Florida. But I’d never visited them in New York until this trip.
Ida and Miriam had kitchens that smelled of matzo ball soup and kugel, spacious apartments filled with impressionist and abstract art, and penchants for hosting dinner parties. They were in their late 70s, but energetic still, proud to show me the New York of their childhoods, the same places they’d taken my father to see when he was a child.
He was their nephew, their brother’s son, and they had always had a soft spot for him, especially Ida. I was eager to listen and learn as Ida and Miriam took me around the Lower East Side—the place that their parents had found themselves in after emigrating from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. As we walked around, they shared with me their memories and recollections of who my father was and I remember feeling closer to him than I ever had previously.
Walking past Adrienne’s bridal shop on Orchard Street, Ida recounted the story of shopping for a dress for my father’s “hippie, but beautiful ’70s wedding” to my mother, and she shared with me the story of the guest who was struck down with appendicitis during their simcha. “It’s funny now, but it wasn’t at the time, let me tell you …”
Much of what I learned about my father I learned from food. The first time I ate at Katz’s deli, I sat across the table from Ida and Miriam and they told me I had to order corned beef on rye, with a side of pickles, “just like your father used to have.” Who was I to argue? My mother later told me that my father’s other staple order in a deli was bagels with cream cheese and lox; this was his comfort food of choice.
When Ida and Miriam strolled with me to Guss’ Pickles on Essex Street, back in 1995, they told me they used to take my dad here, too. A few of the guys working behind the big red barrels were elderly—one knew Ida by name. She’d been coming since she was a child, and she didn’t have to tell the guys behind the barrels want she wanted. They knew: a straightforward sour pickle—she was a traditionalist when it came to pickles. They ordered me a sampling of flavors, but it turned out that I was a traditionalist, too—and my father’s favorite of a half-sour was also my favorite.
One of the Guss’ pickle guys now runs a store called The Pickle Guys just down the street from where Guss’ Pickles used to be. When I visited recently, he still had the pickles in all the same bright (but fading) red barrels, but the choice of flavors had increased since I had come with Ida and Miriam: There were now at least 30 different flavors of pickles on offer.
I remember taking my mother to Yonah Schimmel’s when I was living in New York, how she shared with me some memories of eating knishes with my father, mostly in Brooklyn at Mrs. Stahl’s, but once or twice here. Mom told me that when she and my father were students living in Washington state, before I was born, they both missed New York deli: “We had a kind of permanent yearning for the foods we grew up with. Good deli food was hard to find in Washington in the mid 1970s.” Living in Florida in the ’80s, we’d go on occasion to the (now closed) Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House in Miami Beach—I had been introduced to the real New York deli food of my parents’ youth years before I ever set foot in Manhattan.
When we first came to the Lower East Side together in 1995, I recall Miriam telling me that my grandfather Joseph Schreibman—my father’s dad—was the proprietor of a fruit and vegetable market on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in the 1940s and ’50s, that he wanted my father to take over the family business, but my father had a more intellectual pursuit in mind: college. His was the first generation of Schreibmans to go to college.
This story has been recounted to me several times, from various relatives, since that first time Miriam shared it with me: Narratives told to me about my father’s life continue to replay themselves, making me think of an old record player with only a finite number of records that can be played on it.
In the past five years or so, I’ve connected more with my Jewish roots than before—going through a traditional Jewish wedding and, subsequently, a Jewish divorce, has enmeshed me with my religion in some unexpected ways: I’ve lately been writing for Jewish magazines and newspapers, and through this work I’ve developed an interest in, among other things, landmarked or at-risk historic synagogues. I wonder what my father, a man who, I’ve been told, had a keen sense of his own Jewish identity, would think of my recent forays into old shuls.
Few places have helped me feel more connected with my family heritage than synagogue. Inside a shul, especially one with a real sense of its own past, I feel closer to my own Jewishness, and also to my family. By doing something that was an integral part of the lives of my paternal family, something they valued and did with frequency, there’s a sense of connection, a thread that runs through time. But in all the years I’ve been coming to the Lower East Side and visiting eateries with Ida, Miriam, and my mother, this summer was the first time that I set out to visit shuls.
I made my way to the Stanton Street Shul, because I remembered Ida and Miriam pointing out this synagogue to me as we walked down the street together in 1995, saying it was “small but beautiful.” They had come together to a few fundraising events here in the ’90s. I don’t think my father had set foot inside, but it was the kind of place I imagine my father may have enjoyed visiting, had he lived. I remember Miriam telling me at one point that he appreciated at-risk buildings and places, that he liked old neighborhoods with history and character. My mom tells me that on the rare occasions when they left Brooklyn, he’d always prefer going downtown over anywhere north of 14th Street. When I lived in New York in my late 20s, I felt similarly. In my dreams, my father lived, and he took me to his favorite spots in New York, we went to a spirited little synagogue together, we went to Katz’s together afterward to nosh.
I’d recently written an article about old shuls in London’s East End and in doing so, my curiosity about New York’s historic shuls had been piqued, too. The rabbi, a man my own age, dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans, gave me a tour of the Stanton Street Shul, telling me that it was thriving—unusual in an area where so many smaller shuls had closed. The secret, he told me, was “passion.” I could relate to that word; here I was on the Lower East Side, visiting shuls on my one free day in New York City.
Ida and Miriam couldn’t have taken me to the masterpiece shul around here, even if they’d wanted to; Eldridge Street wasn’t open to the general public until 2007, when it received funding for much needed repairs and museum space. The shul is barely on the Lower East Side now; it’s become swallowed up by Chinatown on all sides.
I found it to be a little off the usual track; I asked directions and was told: “Go under some bridges, left, then right, then left again.” Once I found it, I felt ever so slightly awed. The shul is a Moorish masterpiece; so grand that it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
When my great grandparents were living on the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century, this synagogue was the place to be—it was the heart of the Jewish ghetto down here. This was the first, and plenty of others followed suit.
As I walked around the sanctuary, admiring the little Victorian light fixtures and the hardwood floor, sagged in a few places from decades of davening men, I felt the sense of continuity that being Jewish can bring. I felt a small sense of the awe that my great grandparents might have felt, coming to America and witnessing the construction of buildings like this from the ground up.
When I visit a shul, as someone who didn’t grow up practicing, I feel that Judaism, in addition to being a part of the story of my paternal family, belongs to me, too—that Judaism, a part of my father’s story, is also part of my own.
Plaques on the walls list names of those long gone, some of whom died young, like my father. Being in the sanctuary of a shul around these names on plaques makes me think of the fragility of life and the tragedies that can befall families—and the importance of remembering.
Not understanding Hebrew, I typically allow myself to fall into an almost meditative state as I let the notes of melodies and prayers find their way into my ears. The ancient tunes sound mysterious to my novice ears.
Evidently my parents used to attend shul in Washington, on the High Holidays, when they were living there, but that they were turned away as their student budget didn’t stretch to synagogue membership. “He wanted to go to synagogue because he’d grown up going, at least for the holidays,” my mother told me. I understand that my father wasn’t a pious man but that he always felt a connection to his Jewish roots. Had he lived, I imagine that he would have taken me to synagogue on occasion. Perhaps I may have had a bat mitzvah, too; I’ll never know these things.
My father was brought up going to shul on High Holidays; his parents enrolled me in Hebrew day school when I was a toddler and they took me to and from the school for a year, until logistics proved too difficult to manage and I stopped going, aged 5. I don’t remember any of the Hebrew I learned, but being within the sanctuary of a shul and hearing the words sung or read aloud helps me somehow feel entangled with my history.
In shul, I find, some things are shared, some are given, and some are simply intangible: They are palpable; they are for continuing. This makes me think of the boxes of my father’s belongings which have been saved for me by thoughtful relatives: an album of his bar mitzvah photographs, a watch, my parent’s ketubah signed with a similar scrawl to my own signature.
Whether or not I go to shul, whether or not I know Hebrew, whether or not I had a bat mitzvah—this is all somewhat interesting, but what is more interesting is something else: I believe in Judaism, and I think that this is a gift passed on to me, at least in part, by my father.
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Amy Schreibman Walter is a writer and teacher living in London. Follow her @amyswalter