The upraised arms of luxuriant green pines and trees of heaven hide the little synagogue from the street. I spied its modest blue-and-white sign for the first time through the window of a Sheridan bus. The next Saturday morning I wandered up several concrete steps, down a winding paved path, and up some green-carpeted stairs. At the top, there was a heavy wooden door with a stained-glass Star of David held together with black tape. Inside, old men shuffled along looking as if they had been preserved from Alexandria in the time of the Second Temple or the back streets of Odessa before the holocaust, quietly denying the inevitable for one more day, one more Sabbath, one more prayer. As if there were no tomorrow. Because there isn't.
A bold-faced billboard on the corner of Sheridan and Farwell proclaims the imminent construction of deluxe townhomes on this site. This double lot just one block from the lake is obviously a terrific property. According to a neighborhood paper, contractors will be asking a cool quarter million for each of the three-bedroom units. As far as I know, nobody has counted how many Jewish ghosts will haunt each of the bedrooms.
The building had already been standing for more than half a century when I first dropped in to check out Saturday morning services several years ago. Somewhat shabby and in need of fresh paint, the structure was still solid. The architectural style harks back to more stately days, with beautiful bay windows and solid mahogany woodwork. The second floor, I've been told, used to house a rabbinical school but went up in flames years ago: more ghosts.
I was always greeted at the door by a small, aged apparition who stubbornly refuses to become a ghost. He speaks in a hoarse whisper, making sure I know I'm welcome every and any Saturday--and weekday mornings as well, at 7 o'clock sharp! He has a huge nose swollen a terrifying scarlet from radiation therapy and has shrunk to several sizes smaller than his well-tailored suit. For years he was the Hercules of the congregation, keeping the minyans organized on a daily basis, the minimum of ten Jewish males above the age of 13 required for services every morning and evening of the year. Now he's too old and worn out to do anything much more than take care of himself. But he remains omnipresent, his croaking-frog voice carrying on into infinity.
Rows of gray metal-backed armchairs with red-leather upholstered seats that conveniently fold up for the standing prayers sit empty with their backs to the door. During services most of the seats remain empty. The older generations have almost all died out and the younger ones have gone their own ways. Now only the survivors remain, the crusty characters, the tough old fighters and, mainly, the poor schleppers who never made enough gelt to move to the suburbs.
High bookcases along the back wall are full to the ceiling with molding volumes. A small map of Israel and a Hebrew lunar calendar are pinned to the bulletin board on one side wall. A black memorial plaque inscribed with columns of names, each with a tiny light bulb beside it, hangs on the other wall.
At the front, up several steps and surrounded by a wooden banister, a small platform leads to the ark of the Torah, where the holy scrolls are kept. Thick red velvet drapes cover the doors to the holy ark, with boldly embroidered lions and little colored rhinestones that form mystical Hebrew letters. At the top of the ark hangs the traditional Eternal Light, an electric purplish red globe on a polished brass chain with a small Jewish star. An American flag gathers dust on the left, with its Israeli counterpart tucked behind a bookcase on the right. There are three-branched candelabras on either side of the ark. A seven-branched electric menorah stands on the reader's lectern in the middle of the platform, covered by an intricately embroidered altar cloth. About a year ago, thieves broke in through a back window and stole the silver crowns of the Torah out of the holy ark.
Rabbi Romirowsky sits in his place on the podium like the captain of a sinking ship. Until a few years ago, he used to offer Talmud classes on Saturday afternoons to anyone who would show up for them. The extent of his scholarship never ceased to amaze me. I tried to stump him with questions, and on the extremely rare occasions when he didn't know the answer on the spot, he always knew where to find it.
But what is most endearing about him is his simple faith. Without any fanfare, he embodies the pure devotion of thousands of years. Yet this was the last year he would blow the ram's horn in his own synagogue. And it was the last year the rabbi's self-effacing and already gray-bearded son would read in this synagogue the sacred script in the haunting singsong passed on from generation to generation through the ages.
There is always a bottle of good whiskey along with the wine and soft drinks at the kiddush after the Saturday-morning services. The table is spread with baskets of cake and paper plates holding herring bits, chopped up pieces of gefilte fish on toothpicks, and crackers. The treasurer pours the booze, and if he gets tired you can help yourself.
The mild-mannered fellow with the soft handshake is actually a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp who fought in Israel in '48. The bald guy with the easy smile is the brother of one of the greatest Jewish boxers of all time, Barney Ross. And here's another old warrior, stomping around on his wooden leg, warning everybody in a stern voice, "When you talk to me, keep your mouth shut!" Despite his gruffness, his calloused handshake is warm and there is a twinkle in his pale blue eyes. "Just do me one favor, have good health!"
Everybody shakes hands with everybody else. It's practically part of the ritual, after being called to the Torah. But one old man seems to make a special point of going around to each individual, clasping hands and wishing each a good Shabbos. His body is bent like a pretzel, and each step causes him pain, yet he keeps dragging himself along. The old bailiff tells me he is over 90 years old. An immigrant tailor from Poland, the old man told me his greatest joy was to be drafted during the First World War and to return from Fort Benning with the stripes of a corporal. "It was a nice vacation from the tailor shop," he cracks. In the lapel of his suit he still wears his union pin, and he recalls the strikes and picket lines with pride. But tragedy singled him out when his young wife died at the Mayo Clinic ("The doctors! They killed her!"), leaving him with three little children to raise on his own.
When I first started going to Saturday-morning services, I wasn't planning to attend on weekdays, but I started getting calls at 6:30 AM when they needed a tenth person to make up the minyan. So I gradually became one of the old schmeckers myself. To the outsider, Hebrew prayer looks like a kind of organized chaos. The structure is predetermined but each individual goes at a slightly different pace. On Mondays and Thursdays, the ark is opened and the rabbi reads from the Torah.
"Not so fast!" shrieks the Jew Who Knows Better, in a raven's grating cry. I had the pleasure of meeting this character when I began coming on weekdays. He screams in outrage every time the rabbi makes what he, the Jew Who Knows Better, thinks is a mistake. Others tell him to shut up his yapping, and he never talks back to them, only shouts. He is a grubby, rude, unvarnished loudmouth and proud of it. Outside the house of prayer, he clenches a cigar between his teeth and clamps his fedora firmly to his head.
Two suburban business types who drive up in their Cadillacs are the officers of the congregation because they pay the bills. They have decided it's time to sell out. Before the town-house developers made their bid, they were even trying to peddle the land to Burger King. Yet some of the old-timers in the daily minyan walk right by that billboard every morning and still haven't seemed to figure it out. They must know they're doomed. Yet it doesn't seem to bother them. Or they simply keep their pain inside.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.