Navigate to News section

My Own Private Tisha B’Av: The Judaica Store

Finding God, and a gorgeous candle holder, on Broadway

Liel Leibovitz
August 01, 2017
Via Flickr
Via Flickr
Via Flickr
Via Flickr

To mark Tisha B’Av, The Scroll asked a few writers to reflect on a private Jewish temple they’d lost, a place that was meaningful to them and no longer exists.

A healthy city, like a healthy body, is one you don’t feel running. It just moves seamlessly, everything in its place, thrusting forward. But remove a piece, even the smallest one, and you suddenly realize just how vulnerable you really are.

I felt this kind of pain the other week, like a knee giving out, when I learned that West Side Judaica will soon be no more. In many ways, the store’s imminent disappearance is a collective tragedy, ushering in a grim era in which the island of Manhattan, the bedrock of American Judaism, will be home to no more than a single Judaica store. But like every true churban, or moment of destruction, this one, too, is a personal loss.

I grew up in Israel as a mostly observant Jew, and was a bit too giddy, immediately upon arriving in New York as a younger man, to cast off the yoke of tradition. The Big Apple’s fleshpots of are notoriously plentiful, and I was only too eager, like those sinful Israelites who were bored by the Manna, to taste the meats of Manhattan. Thankfully, we grow older and wiser, but when I found myself, now the father of children, returning to my roots, I ran into a problem: Where is the newly devout to turn?

A shul is the obvious answer, but a shul, by definition, is a communal space, one you negotiate with your family and your friends and members of your congregation. I needed something more personal, a sanctum into which I could enter and inquire, privately, into matters that for years lay dormant in my soul but were now stirring again. That sanctum turned out to be a store a few blocks from my house.

The first thing that struck me when I entered West Side Judaica was the attitude. Yaakov, the proprietor, wasn’t there to edge you into a sale. Nor did he affect the thin disdain so common with independent bookstore owners, judging you for your preferences before you even had a chance to shut the front door behind you. Instead, Yaakov welcomed you stoically, ready to listen. It was the perfect attitude for a reticent convert, and I welcomed it immensely, asking questions I would’ve likely been embarrassed to ask any of my studious friends and delighting in Yaakov’s recommendations.

Every other week, I found some reason to pay the store a visit. And sometimes, it was these visits that spurred me onwards to observe yet another mitzvah. Looking at a handsome Havdalah candle holder, for example, I asked myself why I wasn’t partaking in that delightful ritual. I walked home with the candle holder and a charming spice box, and, a few days later, on Saturday night, said the Havdalah blessing for the first time in my life. It remains one of the highlights of my family’s week, and I doubt any of it would’ve happened without West Side Judaica.

Not every trip to the shop proved so momentous. More often than not, I picked up a book, chatted with Yaakov and the family members who helped him run the place, and left feeling a bit happier, knowing that a Jewish community wasn’t just an abstraction for philosophers and demographers to fret about.

And now, it’s all over. Buying Havdalah candles on the Internet won’t feel the same. Nor will walking down Broadway, seeing the empty store front and knowing that here once stood a personal temple of mine, now forever gone.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.