Thursday, December 31, 2009

Restoring Our Synagogue

While Rabbi Kret was at the shul, it seemed that the physical structure of the building was somehow held together by his Torah and his menschlikhkeit. If it weren't for him, we were sure that our old building would give in to the forces of entropy. Accordingly, when he retired in November, 1997, we decided that we could no longer keep the building together on faith (or mostly on faith), and began a slow campaign to repair and restore our beautiful, historic structure.Our treasurer, Orrin, put on a new roof in order to keep the building dry inside (a critical step). Then we had the asbestos in the basement abated. Afterward, a new basement floor, and then new restrooms were installed. This was a major step forward. The sinks in the restrooms were only a couple of feet off the floor, as if they were designed for children. It turned out that when the old restrooms were taken out, water seepage had caused the original floor, and some of the fixtures, to sink. So another floor was built on top! There old restrooms were horrible in many ways but they had two great features. First, the urinals were four and a half feet tall. Clearly, there is something about the Eastern European immigrant ancestors that we have underrated. Secondly, the restroom stalls had these wonderful, double-hinged, carved, saloon doors. Fortunately, I was able to rescue them and I hope one day to install them together with new wooden stalls. Soon after this (I think) we replaced the back wall separating our property from our neighor's. In 2001 were were awarded the grant from the New York Landmarks Conservancy which enabled us to restore the stained glass windows in the front of the building, put a new drain on the roof, install new front doors and rebuild the eastern parapet. The windows were particularly challenging because there was only a small amount of the original glass in the smaller lunette or transom window. Looking at a 1939-1940 tax photo and also photos from dinner journals (none of which were in color) we made some good guesses about what the window looked like. We are thrilled with the way they came out. At the same time, we discovered that the drainpipe underneath the building was rusted out, so we replaced it and we used the contractors to sister in new beams under the bimah, since the wood in this area had rotted. In December 2007, our old oil boiler, which was installed, at the latest, in 1937, had finally given up the ghost. In January 2008, we installed a new gas boiler, a change from tradition, but one which will be hopefully cleaner, cheaper, and easier to maintain. In fall 2009, we were awarded two small grants from the New York Landmarks Conservancy to do structural work on the roof, restore the skylights and rebuild the parapets. We have also applied for a bigger grant from State for the same purpose. We are now waiting to hear what the outcome will be. After we restore the roof, we hope to upgrade our electrical system, and when that's done, we hope to restore the plaster walls and recreate the intricate floral that once enlivened the interior of the building. This is assuming that we can raise the money. Our goal is to restore the building so that it will be well-cared for 1920s synagogue that will be a gift for us and for future generations. If we can achieve this goal, then it is because Rabbi Kret's spirit, in some way, continues to inhabit our little gem of a synagogue.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mazel Tov!!!

To Jason Caplan and Michal Sharabi on their recent engagement! May they merit to build a bayis ne'eman b'israel (a faithful Jewish home) and may they raise many children to Torah!

Cholent Review

I know that there is something of a conflict of interest writing a review of my own cholent, but who is in a better position to evaluate it than the chef?Anyway, the cholent was a little soupier, at least initially, than I would like, but the seasoning was on target. Next week, I'll add a bit more barley, and if I can get them, shiitake mushrooms.

Sanitary Closets and the Old Broadway Synagogue

Not exactly two concepts that you would expect to see in the same title but there is a connection. On August 5, 2007, in his New York Times Streetscapes column, Christopher Gray answered a reader's question about those odd metal bins that are found under kitchen windows in prewar New York City buildings. It turns out that those cast iron metal bins were "sanitary garbage closets," used for storing refuse in summer when it was hot and the garbage would start to smell. One could put the garbage in the sanitary closet, which was ventilated, until it was time take it out. These devices went out of fashion by the end of World War I, and remain as curiosities in some old, unrenovated apartments.

In Christopher Gray's column, he reproduced an ad that was placed by the Montauk Sanitary Improvement Company, which was promoting its product, the "C.S.R. Sanitary Garbage Closet." When I read the article, I looked at the ad, and took a double take when I saw the address of the Montauk Sanitary Improvement Company. It was 15 Old Broadway, the address of our shul today. We knew that there had been a house on the lot when shul stands (what appears to be a two story house with a balcony is visible in a very poor quality 1912 photo of that area in the New York Times) and we even know the name of the person who sold it to the congregation in the early 1920s, but until the article about the sanitary closet, that was about all we knew. And now we know more. Although it is hard to think of 15 Old Broadway as anything other than the Old Broadway Synagogue, the area has been occupied for centuries. Old Broadway gets its name from the fact that it was the original path of Broadway before the modern boulevard of Broadway, as laid out in the 1811 City Plan, was extended to the neighborhood. Indeed, the village of Manhattanville has existed at least since 1807, and perhaps even earlier. In addition to the spirits of those who attended our shul and who are no longer with us, one wonders about those who preceded us. Are their spirits around somewhere as well?
Click here to go to an advertisement for the sanitary closets in one of the Quarterly Bulletins of the American Institute of Architects from 1908.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Appreciation of Chaim Feigenblatt

This past August (2009), we lost another of our old timers, Chaim (Henry) Feigenblatt. I unfortunately was only able to get to know him in his later years. I always think of him together with Mr. Rubinstein, who were both elderly Holocaust survivors from Poland. For many years, they were mainstays of the minyan at Old Broadway, even after Rabbi Kret (also an elder survivor from Poland) had retired.Mr. Feigenblatt was born in Poland in a town which is unpronounceable in English. I don't know much about how he survived the Holocaust except that he was in a labor camp, and when one of his brothers and also one of his sisters came through, he was able to rescue them, so that all three survived (although most of the family was killed). Mr. Feigenblatt came to America in the later 1940s or early 1950s, when the immigration restrictions were relaxed. Eventually he became the owner of a dry-cleaning business and was successful. By the time that I got to know him at shul he was quiet but friendly and had a special love for children. He especially lit up when he saw one of my daughters. Later on, I also learned that he loved cholent, which earned him a place in my heart since I have become Old Broadway's chief cholent master chef. As he got older, it became more and more difficult for him to get to shul although his wonderful and energetic wife, Mary, did her best. We almost always gave him an aliyah when he came, and after he ascended the bimah, said the berakhos with tears in his eyes. Whether it was because he was aware of how sick he was becoming or because getting an aliyah reminded him of the family he lost in Poland, we will never know. I miss him. May Chaim ben Immanuel's memory be for a blessing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

How Should We View Yishmael in Jewish Tradition?

The last few weeks in our Sunday morning shiur with Daniel Fridman, we have been examining the personality of Yishmael in the Chumash and also how he is understood by a number of the Rishonim (Jewish commentators who were active before 1500 CE). I was surprised to learn that rather than having a negative attitude towards Yishmael, there are a number of authorities who see Yishmael in a positive light and that his expulsion was deeply unfortunate and perhaps casts a shadow on Avraham and Sarah's actions. In this scenario, Yitzchak becomes a more active figure who strives to maintain a good relationship with Yishmael and seems to find solace in Beer Lechai Ro'i, the well associated with Yishmael and Hagar. Indeed, after Sarah death, Yitzchak seems to bring Hagar back to Avraham, albeit with the name Keturah, as his wife once again. The positive (or at least not negative) attitude towards Yishmael and his family continues into the next generation when Esav rebuffed for taking a Canaanite wife, takes as another wife a daughter of Yishmael.

What does it all mean? One of the first things we learn about Yishmael is that God hears his cries when he is about to die in the desert, "ba-asher hu sham," as he is in that time and place. Whatever he may become in the future has no relevance for when he was in the desert about to die, he was a zaddik and God took cognizance of him and enabled Hagar to find water for him. Perhaps this is how we should treat those whom we have had a falling out. Perhaps we have to forgive past slights and perhaps even anticipated slights and deal with people as they are, in the moment. Perhaps a forgiving attitude will lead to a more positive relationship. We can only hope.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Birthdays are for Pharaoh

Chanukah and Parashas Vayeshev (about Yosef's imprisonment in Egypt) are a bittersweet time for us at Old Broadway. Rabbi Kret's birthday was on the fifth night of Chanukah (or as he said it the fifth likhtl) and this was also the yarhzeit of the mother of our VP, Jonathan. One year, when Rabbi Kret was already in his late 80s, we had a party or a kiddush on the fifth day of Chanukah, and this party was in honor of Rabbi Kret. He spoke from the bimah and said, with some embarrassment, that Jews don't celebrate birthdays. After all, the only person who has a birthday party in the Torah is Pharaoh (in Parashas Vayeshev. And what does the Pharaoh do to celebrate - he frees one person and executes another). Nevertheless, Rabbi Kret was pleased that a party was made for him by the shul and said that despite the fact that it wasn't really a Jewish tradition, all the congregation was invited anyway.

Monday, December 7, 2009

When Avraham Avinu Visited

A year or two ago, when Chaim L was in, visiting from Israel, he told an unsual story. He recalled from his childhood in the shul, that on Friday nights it was sometimes difficult to make a minyan. Often the eight or nine men who were there would have to wait a while before the tenth showed up. On just such a night, Rabbi Kret, ztz"l explained that if a minyan is worthy, HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself will send Avraham Avinu to make the minyan. Soon afterwards, it was a Friday night and nine men were waiting for the tenth for the minyan. It was getting late, it was raining and it was cold outside. All of a sudden, the front door opened, and a tall, thin Jew with a long gray beard walked into the vestibule. He asked Rabbi Kret where he could sit, and was directed to the front. Surprisingly, the man stepped up onto the bimah and sat down in the high backed velvet chair to the left of the aron. The man had such an austere look and a dignified face that nobody bothered to tell him that he was sitting in the president's chair. After the davenning ended, and everybody started to prepare themselves to go back out into the cold, someone asked the tall, elderly man where he lived, and, inexplicably, he pointed to the north. This didn't make sense because the nearest Jewish community to the north was several miles away. Was he really coming from that direction? After the man left, Chaim said that the congregants discussed who he was, and came to the conclusion that he must have been Avraham Avinu.