Here’s the latest installment of my ongoing autobiography project. This one steps outside of the chronological storytelling I’ve done up until this point and examines my relationship with religion. Check back next Friday for part 2 of this topic, which looks at how my Jewish faith helped carve my path to becoming a doctor.
I can’t ever remember my father or mother attending synagogue. I am sure they must have, like on the day I was Bar Mitzvah at the 102-year-old orthodox temple, known as the Clymer Street shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Clymer Street. The shul had a large pew-filled main prayer area with highly sloped balconies—the women’s sections—on three sides. It was my maternal grandfather’s shul as well as that of my family’s doctor, Gabriel Kirschenbaum. The congregation originally founded a shul on the lower east side of Manhattan that was called the Buskin Synagogue, as most of its congregants had immigrated from Brest-Litovsk in what is now called Belarus. When the shul’s members migrated across John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, over the East River to the promised land of Williamsburg, they built the Clymer Street Synagogue in their new home. When the shul burned down in 1971, it was Dr. Kirschenbaum who raised the $400,000 to build a new one.
I attended Saturday (Shabbos) morning services as a child with my maternal grandfather. The shul was always full, mostly with old men with beards who smelled of snuff and who were imbued with ritual and prayed in tongues (Hebrew). They mumbled, rapid-fire, through their pray books, reading psalms they had memorized by repetition. I never felt a part of the ceremony. I could not read Hebrew that fast even at my best—I faked the reading, turning the pages to keep up with the men of the congregation. I stopped when they stopped, davened when they davened, bowing slightly forward and back. Or when more exuberant, twisting side to side.
What a relief it was when the three hour service came to a conclusion. How the old timers manage to stay upright through the extended portions of the ceremony that required standing always impressed me, a 10-year-old, who could barely manage the task. Immediately, when services were over, the whole congregation fast-footed it into a large back room set up with folding tables and white tablecloths. On the tables were treats provided by the family of whoever was Bar Mitzvahed that day. All sorts of cakes and cookies, especially sponge cakes, shared space with bowls of pickled herring and platers of home baked challahs. Sweet kosher wine was a must, though the main attraction was always the bottles of Schnapps. The congregation held back until the baruchas (prayers) over wine and bread were said. Then quick action was necessary by the congregants, my grandfather included, to get hold of a bottle of Schnapps, pour a full measure into a white paper shot cup and then throw it down. The schnapps didn’t last long at the mercy of these professional schnorrers.
My grandfather owned a candy store on the major intersection of Roebling and Division Avenue, in the heart of Williamsburg. He and his wife, Rose, had both come to the US as children from a dissolving shtetel world in eastern Poland in the early part of the twentieth century. Rose was a Reiss, the only aristocratic bloodline in my family. Doctors, professors, artists and impresarios. My great uncle Lionel, my grandma Rose’s youngest brother, was a self-taught and successful artist, in spite of his parents’ horror at his career choice. Being an artist entailed creating human images—a sin against Jewish law. He was warned of God’s revenge for creating such craven pictures; false idols to worship to, such as the Jews of the exodus had done by creating the golden calf in the Sinai Desert of old. Ironically, his greatest fame was for the images of Jewish faces that he documented in his epic bicycle expedition through Eastern Europe. He did this in the early 1920s with the purpose of sketching the Jewish faces of the people of the pale to try to determine if there was a Jewish facial anatomic identity. As such, he foreshadowed Hitler’s sinister desire. He found none, but his “G-dless” portraits of Shtetl Jews became, with Roman Vichniacs’ surreptitiously recorded photos of the 1930’s, the main archive of the faces of those who lived a way of life soon to be annihilated. Lionel traced the Reiss’s back to Iberia and their exodus at the time of the Spanish inquisition. Rather than converting to Catholicism, going underground (secretly practicing Judaism), or sailing to the Caribbean or Holland, the Reiss’s decided to head east through Germany to end up in eastern Poland. A few hundred years later (around 1905), they headed west, landing at Ellis Island and settling on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
None of my relatives ever mentioned any Rabbis in our past, or philosophers or union leaders. As for my maternal grandfather and both my paternal grandparents, their backgrounds were “non”-distinguished. Tailors, small businessmen with partial high school educations, they had street smarts and were, as a whole, a-religious. In fact, I don’t think any of my father’s family even celebrated Passover, though my maternal grandparents did. I have drunk sweet kosher ceremonial wine since the age of four at Passover Seders. I learned the four questions (fer Kochees) and, as the youngest, dreaded the moment I would be called to sing them. (Monish tanah Hillilah hizer! Why is this night different from any other?) Always the same questions and always the same answers.
Well, not exactly the same, as Passover evoked an advertising blitz that was accomplished by Kosher food companies creating their own private label: Haggedahs (Passover prayer book). These were replete with stunning pictures, crafted lettering, both English and Hebrew text, and unique variations on the exodus story. The main elements of the story were, however, always the same. Bad Egyptians, enslaved Jews, Moses, the foundling bulrush Jewish boy who becomes a mumbling Egyptian prince, and then, probably the greatest Jewish leader in the religion’s 4,000 year history. Then there were the ten plagues that visited Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea and drowning of Pharos’s army, the forty years of arduous tribulation in the Sinai Desert that included an ever-present, paternalistic G_d, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the idolization of the golden calf and the ever-loved Matzah. All this mishegoss (craziness in Yiddish) had to be waded through before we could reach the promised Passover meal!
My formal Hebrew education never excited me. I attended a miserable Chador (Hebrew school) at the age of five, and then a worse Yeshiva.
When we moved to Queens, I studied Torah and my Haf Torah (my Bar Mitzvah prayers), with a somewhat emaciated gentle older man. After my Bar Mitzvah, I rarely attended official Jewish functions other than family events (Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals). I had no idea if a G-d existed, nor did I think much about it. My life was focused on becoming a doctor and being a Jew played no role in achieving that goal. While I felt a kinship with other Jews, it was an uneasy one as I knew so little and did so little that would support my Jewishness. My gentile friends would often embarrass me by asking me “Jewish” questions: “Where do Jews think the dead go? Do you have a heaven and hell? Do you keep kosher? Why did the Jews kill Christ?” I often confabulated answers rather than embarrass myself by admitting my ignorance and disinterest. I even re-read the interesting parts of the Original (old is not a suitable term) Testament on my own. It did little to connect me to a living G-d. I saw films about Hassidics, about Jews in Israel (where it was comforting to find out that few went to synagogue, or observed the Sabbath, but still felt they were good Jews). I went to Israel with my children. I felt I was Jewish, I felt my open-minded curiosity, my ability to think for myself (a gift I attribute to my mother), to learn, to explore, to understand. These were Jewish traits. But still, I had only inklings of a G-d-driven master plan for the chosen people.
I certainly felt outside of that plan, especially around the Hassidic, the ultra orthodox, who my “conservative” grandfather despised for the separate Jewish world they had created in Williamsburg. This world consisted of mini-synagogues with separate women’s prayer sections and dressing in “un-American,” unassimilated ways (tsitses, flowing black robes, fur-lined hates, payees). Those Jews avidly read, studied, and debated the original testament and the writings of the great Jewish Rabbis and scholars. These were the firm keepers of the Jewish flame.
Me? I was a genetic “thoroughbred” Jew who knew not what it meant to be a Jew. As much as I was ashamed at my lacking, I didn’t much try to be otherwise. In late 1999, I went to Israel with my Christian second wife, who, like my first wife, was intrigued by Judaism’s role as the roots of their religious beliefs. I made sure they understood that Jesus was of the house of David (like me, I would tell them). It was Simchat torah when we arrived and a merry band of Hasidic evangelist men and children had setup shop in an elevated part of the square in Tel Aviv, right outside our hotel’s entrance. A three-piece band played familiar Jewish tunes. The men and children danced, and we, my wife and I, sat on a nearby bench to watch. A dancer approached, “Are you Jewish?” he asked in English.
“Yes,” I answered.
He grabbed my hand. “Come and dance with us.”
What the hell? I thought. The music’s beat encouraged my sense of abandon. I danced and toddlers were put on my shoulders, a fur-lined hat on my head. These are my brethren, they accept me, and maybe they would yank me into their orthodox cult in the twinkling of an eye. A feeling of epiphany gripped me and my dancing feet. My shame, my sense of Jewish inadequacy faded, at least for the moment.