House of IsraelHow I became the kind of Jew I am
Last summer I found a photo of the first synagogue I ever attended. I happened to pick up a New York Times Book Review in a doctor’s office, and there, in a review of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, was a picture of a crumbling brick wall. The caption said this wall had once been part of the Mach Zakai Torah B’nai David at 175 Hart Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The name didn’t ring a bell, but the address did. My mother’s parents once owned a brownstone whose address was 196 Hart Street. I remember holding Grandpa’s hand crossing the street. I remember walking with lots of other people.
But all I remember of the actual synagogue is the rows of seats that formed a horseshoe around a raised platform. I would sit on Grandpa’s lap as the cantor’s voice swooped out over these rows with words impossible for me to understand. When I got a little older, I realized that Grandpa took no notice of the cantor but went right on talking with the men around us, who also seemed to take no notice. Because they were speaking Yiddish, and because I couldn’t understand Grandpa even when he spoke English, I never knew what they were saying. It seemed like ordinary conversation. Yet every so often one of them would turn from the group, pull his white shawl over his head, and begin rocking forward and back, thumping his chest with his fist.
As I got older still, I noticed my parents never went to the synagogue with us. I began to feel that my mother was giving me to her father so she would not have to go, that I was some kind of pledge or bribe. Then the war came, and gas rationing, and we visited Hart Street less. I didn’t care. I was into air-raid drills, war movies, and newsreels. So when it was time for my bar mitzvah I wasn’t interested. They sent me anyway, to Temple Beth Emeth, a Reform synagogue with a huge dome over its auditorium. It’ll be easy, my mother said. You won’t have to learn Hebrew. I bridled. I’d seen friends’ bar mitzvahs and argued that in English it was worse than no bar mitzvah at all. Of course my new orthodoxy was a sham, but I got my way. I knew why, too: my parents really didn’t care if I was bar mitzvahed.
I can’t say my lack of a bar mitzvah had anything to do with what happened next. I turned fourteen, graduated from P.S. 139, and enrolled in Erasmus Hall High School. Erasmus had been built for six thousand students, but because the war had just ended and veterans were returning to school, that number was greatly exceeded. In the fall of 1946 the Brooklyn Eagle announced an enrollment of ten thousand. The student body had to be divided into shifts—juniors and seniors from six a.m. to noon, freshmen and sophomores from eleven a.m. to five p.m.
Not me, though. I was a good athlete and went to school early to practice with the freshman football team. Then in the afternoon, when I was supposed to be attending classes, I stayed on the field and practiced with the varsity B team. For almost the whole first term, I got away with it. That’s how chaotic things were at Erasmus that year. And when the administrators finally discovered what was going on, it was too late to make up the classes I’d missed. I was told I’d be held back. My parents, saying they could do nothing with me, decided to send me to Fishburne Military School, in Virginia. It sounds like a terrible punishment, but leaving home was just what I wanted. At military school I immediately straightened out, went to class, and made the football, baseball, and basketball teams. And by my junior year I was a squad leader.
One of my responsibilities was the Jewish squad, a group of four boys who every Sunday marched out to Main Street, halted, stood at ease, then put up our thumbs to hitchhike from Waynesboro to Staunton and a synagogue called the House of Israel. Usually we’d get a ride in the bed of a farmer’s pickup. We loved those rides, the wind in our faces, the odor of whatever they grew in those fields in our noses. Twelve miles later the driver would let us off in front of the Western State Insane Asylum. The inmates behind the iron fence would stare out at us and make noises, so we’d hurry under the steel trestle to Market Street and the Trailways bus station. Its café was the only thing open on Sunday. We’d buy Cokes and look at girly magazines. After about a half hour we’d make our way up North Market Street to the House of Israel:
I Googled it. There was a color photo of the synagogue. But the building shown didn’t seem familiar. Was it because in the photo the stucco walls are white? Were they white in my day? I didn’t remember, because at the time I couldn’t have cared less what the synagogue looked like. None of the Jewish squad did. The door was always locked. We’d knock, get no answer, knock again, then nod at each other and amble back down the hill, our blue-gray blouses unbuttoned in the late morning heat, our garrison caps tilted back off our faces. We’d done as we were told, gone to synagogue. Now we returned to the Trailways café and continued gawking at photos of females. We’d sit for another half hour, then walk back down to the asylum and put up our thumbs.
When the authorities at Fishburne found out what we were doing, I was called before Major Brooks, the school’s athletic director, who ran the place on weekends. I liked Major Brooks. Short, thin, and dark, with light blue eyes, he had a bloodhound face full of downward wrinkles. I told him the reason the synagogue was locked was that Jews had their Sabbath on Saturday, that Sunday was a weekday.
“Saturday?” he asked. He seemed astounded.
“Can’t give you Saturday off,” he said. “It’s when we play football.”
He thought a moment, then dialed his phone, and from the operator got the number of the person who ran the House of Israel. Whoever it was corroborated my story about Saturday being the Jewish Sabbath. Then the person explained there was a weekday service we could hold, but added that they wouldn’t unlock the synagogue for just four boys. There needed to be at least ten. The major nodded, said good-bye, and hung up.
“He said you need a meen-yon.”
It was odd to hear the word minyan on Major Brooks’ lips. With his southern drawl, it seemed to take him forever to say it. And he repeated it as if he enjoyed saying it. Major Brooks liked us, and he was typical of the way we were treated in Virginia. This was 1949. The newsreels of the death camps were still fresh in people’s minds. Jews were objects of sympathy.
The major solved the minyan problem by calling nearby Staunton and Augusta military academies. Both were larger than Fishburne and said they could donate six Jews apiece. But there was another snag. At the time the House of Israel had no rabbi. There was no one to run a service, until an Augusta cadet named Noah volunteered. He was a senior, a cadet captain, and a star athlete. I’d played against him. When he took over, our Sabbaths got more interesting. For one thing, he was competent in an area where we knew nothing. For another, he had such a beautiful voice we loved listening to him. So it went well for two months. Then came Christmas break. When we returned, Noah didn’t. What happened? The other Augusta kids didn’t know. But he’d left word that he thought I’d be a good person to run the service.
I was shocked and asked the boys to bear with me. Then I sang the Sh’ma that I’d learned from listening to Noah. It’s an announcement to Jews: Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God! The Lord is one! But it’s in Hebrew. To my surprise, it came out clear and true, and everyone said I had a good voice. So from that day on, I led the services.
To tell the truth, it wasn’t hard. It was all there in the prayer book. Alongside the English was phonetic Hebrew. But we never read the Hebrew. We did the responsive reading that Noah had laid out for me in his notes. And there were selections from the Law and Psalms. There were even sermons with biblical texts as starting points, though I never gave a sermon. I just performed the necessary duties. That is, until we got to the Sh’ma. There was something about it, and I tried to sing it as clearly as Noah had. I still love it. Later in life, when I taught courses in the modern Jewish novel—Malamud, Roth, Bellow—I’d sometimes launch into it: Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
I think my students got a kick out of it. The words are haunting, though as the years have passed, I’ve had second thoughts about them. Can’t they be interpreted as saying that Jews worship the one and only god? And if you say such a thing, aren’t you excluding other people’s gods? But back then none of that occurred to me. All I knew was that I was singing something important and in Hebrew.
And it wasn’t the only Hebrew I knew. There was the Kaddish. When he was still there, Noah coached me. He must’ve known he wasn’t coming back. Though I don’t think I ever got it right, I knew enough. Any cadet who’d lost a beloved relative could mumble a few words with me and we’d both think we were praying.
When I think about the House of Israel now, what I remember most vividly is not the services themselves but the simple act of opening the synagogue. Noah had left me the key to the back door. It’s hard to describe the excitement I felt as I approached it. The House of Israel was surrounded by rosebushes, the smell of roses overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize the synagogue on the Internet. In the photo there are no rosebushes. But back then there were so many, and they were so overgrown, that I often got scratched opening the back door. Once inside, I’d stand before the sacred enclosure known as the ark with a handkerchief around my hand. I don’t know why, but those were the best moments.
Sometimes I’d pull back the ark’s curtain to look through its glass doors. Thanks to my early visits to Grandpa’s synagogue, I knew that the ark contained the Torah, and that the Torah was very important. But—can you imagine?—I didn’t know what was in the Torah. That was okay because I never had to take it out. Since none of us could read Hebrew, we skipped that part of the service. But not until I stopped bleeding did I pull the curtain closed. Then I walked up the center aisle to open the front door and let in the other cadets.
So military school was never a punishment to me. I’d grown up during World War II. Everything was military then. You wanted to be a hero. Even my older brother did. At sixteen, because of my mother’s constant nagging about his weight, he fled home to join the Merchant Marine and risk his life in the North Atlantic. Though he was never torpedoed, he did make two runs to the Russian port of Murmansk, delivering war supplies under notoriously hazardous conditions. He may not have been a hero but when he came home he was different. Not thinner, and not a man, but demanding and getting respect.
I was too late for my brother’s war, but there was another, lesser one going on. Israel was fighting for its independence. My ambition was to go to West Point, receive the best military training available, then be lent by the U.S. Army to the Haganah, the formidable Israeli defense organization, so I could lead my fellow Jews into combat. It was a kid’s dream, and as freshmen and sophomores we were still kids enough to play “Arabs and Jews”—that is, to run around the barracks balconies aiming our M1 rifles (sans firing pins) and clicking off shots at anyone with a towel over his head. I got you! we’d scream. You’re dead! All the lower classmen played it. The sophs were Israelis, the plebes Arabs.
By my senior year the game had lost its appeal. Israel seemed secure, and Korea had begun. And I had changed. While I still longed for maturity, for the chance to claim my place in the world, this desire seemed to be part of something bigger that stirred in me. At those moments before I let the other cadets into the House of Israel—after I’d walked up to the ark, pulled back the curtain, and glanced at the Torah in its blue velvet cover—I’d turn to the room itself, the eight rows of wooden pews, the center aisle, the dark wood floor, the stillness of the shadows, the late morning light pouring through the stained glass window. I’d close the ark’s curtain and stand there feeling . . . What? That I wasn’t alone? That something was filling the space? You might dismiss my feelings as random signals from some obscure part of my brain. On the other hand, I think I was ripe to learn something. Young people have an instinct for divinity, a hunger for it. Who knows how I would have turned out if the right person had offered a guiding hand.
But no such hand appeared, and the next fall I was off to Tufts College, as it was called then, where I was able to exercise my talent for stringing words together. My talent, however, didn’t save me from my severe lack of good sense. I was convinced I couldn’t face the world without a wife, that marriage would bring me the kind of safety and purpose I thought I had to have. At the beginning of my last semester, I met a freshman girl, Joan, who also wanted to get married. So after I graduated we did. And not knowing what else to do, I decided on law school and was accepted at Columbia.
We moved into a small Manhattan apartment on 110th between Broadway and Amsterdam, a block from Saint John the Divine. My time at law school lasted a month. Columbia used the case system to study law and I hated it. But I would have left no matter what system they used—I just wasn’t interested. I took a job in Macy’s advertising department. That lasted three months. Next came an ad agency, which I also hated. Finally, because I didn’t know what else to do, I asked my father-in-law for a job with the Perth Amboy Oil Company. Joan was against it. Getting away from her hometown was the main reason she wanted to marry in the first place. We moved to Jersey but she made me promise it would be temporary.
I did, but I’m not sure I meant it. The first thing I did was become an oil burner repairman, with a night school certificate from the Lincoln Technical Institute of Newark, to prove to my father-in-law I was serious. My workday began at seven a.m. I’d pick up my first call, get assigned a truck, and be out of the yard by seven thirty. Usually it was just a matter of cleaning nozzles, changing filters, or figuring out what control had gone bad. Sometimes I’d stand in for a sick driver and deliver oil, which was slow going, since I didn’t know the streets. Sometimes I’d get on the phone and dun people for their oil bills, which I hated. Then one day I didn’t get any assignment.
“Not much doing today,” said my father-in-law. “Hang around, see everyone gets off all right, then go have coffee.”
I was puzzled. What he was describing was his own routine. He’d wait around the office until nine to make sure everything was going okay, then head to the Busy Bee on State Street for coffee with the boys. His cronies were an illustrious crew: David Wilentz, the former New Jersey attorney general who had prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping case; Leon Hess, the founder of Hess Oil, which at the time was run by his sons; and Abe Sommers, the older brother of Sommers Brothers Construction, which was putting up tract houses all over central Jersey—seventeen hundred square feet for ten dollars a square foot.
“Where are you going ?” I asked.
“To the synagogue,” my father-in-law said.
“What are you doing there?” In the fall I’d helped put a new oil burner into the synagogue’s basement. Installation is easier than repair. It’s new and all laid out for you. Still, I wondered if something was the matter with it.
“I’ll see you later,” he said as if it was one question too many, and left.
So I went alone to the Busy Bee, said hello to Bea at the cash register, and walked the length of the diner to the booth in back. I smiled and sat down.
“The boy with the beard,” Abe Sommers greeted me.
I don’t know why I’d grown a beard. The only people who grew them back then were beatniks, usually little scruffy things under their lower lips. A beard was seen as a criticism of society. Even in an Orthodox community like the one I was in, most of the men were clean-shaven.
“Can you read Hebrew?” asked Leon Hess out of the blue.
“Where’s your boss?” asked David Wilentz.
“He went over to the synagogue,” I answered.
“He said he had to fix something.”
“I don’t know. Some kind of repair work. He said fillings, I think.”
“What is he now, a dentist?” Abe Sommers asked, then burst out laughing.
“Sam’s laying tefillin,” David Wilentz said. “Say tefillin.”
“Tefillin,” I repeated. They were having fun teaching the college boy.
“C’mon, let’s go over and help him,” said Leon Hess.
I looked at them and wondered if I had a choice.
“It’s a nice day,” said David Wilentz. “We can walk.”
Yesterday I Googled Shaari Tefilo. That was the name of the synagogue. And there it was in all its Moorish Revival splendor: two large, round stained glass windows over the double-doored entrances; two thick towers in the corners and two more over the doors, all four topped with the usual cantor hats, which were themselves topped with Mogen Davids. It was much larger than the House of Israel, which had just two granite steps leading up to its front door. Shaari Tefilo had eighteen. The caption said Shaari Tefilo was destroyed in 1998 by a fire. Was it the oil burner? I felt guilty. On the other hand over forty years had passed.
Anyway, my father-in-law’s friends and I walked to the synagogue, then past it to the low building next door that housed Shaari Tefilo’s business offices, its Hebrew school, and its kindergarten. The only one without a hat, I pulled a yarmulke from the grocery bag full of them that sat on the metal folding chair by the door, put it on, and followed the men downstairs to the large all-purpose room where Joan and I had once considered holding our marriage supper. That was before my mother decided that the wedding had to be in Manhattan.
The room was barely lit. But I had no trouble recognizing my father-in-law. He was a handsome man. Now that I think about it, he looked a lot like his daughter Sandy, Joan’s younger sister. Sandy was very pretty and loved to laugh. But more than pretty, her face was kind. I think my father-in-law’s stern manner was a way to mask his innate kindness, a way of letting other men know that he was not to be taken lightly. One thing I observed was that he never laughed with his friends. He could make them laugh, but he never laughed. I sensed that if he let himself go, he might like me. Sometimes I even made him laugh. But he never really let himself go.
That morning I hardly noticed his face. Was it because he was standing to the side of us, with a prayer shawl over his head? Or was it because of the thing sticking out of his forehead? I felt suddenly ashamed that I should see him like that, and my eyes skipped down to his left hand, which was holding a prayer book. I saw that his fingers were wrapped in a black strap that wound up his bare left forearm to his elbow, where there was another black box like the one on his forehead. I looked away. It seemed this was something I shouldn’t be seeing.
“Tefillin,” Leon Hess announced.
And Abe Sommers was beside me with a box full of paraphernalia.
“Do you want to put them on?” he asked.
“I don’t know . . .”
“Lemme show yah,” he said. “First you put the shel yad on.”
He picked up one of the black boxes as if it were a delicate instrument. And I felt like I was at the doctor’s, relinquishing control of my body. I took off my jacket, rolled up my left shirt sleeve, and let him thread the strap around my fingers, then wrap it around my forearm to my elbow. He left the black box resting in the hollow there. I remember wanting to make a joke about my blood pressure. I didn’t. The cronies were wrapping themselves, mumbling in Hebrew, rocking and nodding. Be serious, I thought as Abe took out a second phylactery, slipped its loop over my yarmulke-covered head, and centered the attached black box above the bridge of my nose. He put a prayer shawl over my shoulders.
“With that beard he looks more Jewish than any of us,” said Leon Hess.
At least I look the part, I told myself.
“Like this,” said Abe and lifted the tallith from my shoulders and draped it over my head. Then we were each in our white tents reciting the Shacharit, the morning prayer. It might have been part of the same service we’d used in Virginia, and for a while I followed along in the prayer book they’d given me. It was like the Conservative one I used to run the service in Staunton, with the Hebrew prayers spelled out in phonetic English. They must have brought it especially for me, I thought. They were Orthodox and could read Hebrew. So I read the sounds for a while. Then my mind wandered, then my eyes. For some reason I got the feeling we weren’t the only ones down there.
I caught sight of a group of five men standing off to our left across the room, also wrapped in tefillin and praying. We’re part of a minyan, I thought, and noticed that one of the men, taller than the others, had a dark beard and an alert tenseness to his body. I kept my eyes on him. I’d never seen anyone who looked . . . I had to look away. It was that movement that confirmed I was looking at myself in a mirror. I hesitated, then turned my head to see my image as it turned to look at me and saw I wasn’t the young man who’d come in from the street but a bearded grotesque with a horn growing out of his forehead, a horn he was trying to hide beneath a white scarf.
For the first time in my life, I was a Jew in public. Before, being Jewish had been an accident of birth, a box checked off on application forms, but now I was wearing my yellow star. I was making a statement. Then the question was, Did I want to make such a statement? Did I want to look like this? Did I want someone putting words in my mouth? No. I didn’t. So I stopped praying, and Abe Sommers, perhaps thinking I’d lost my place, poked the page with his forefinger. But I just stood, every so often glancing at myself in the mirror, my heart pounding. When it was over, and everything put away and we were alone, my father-in-law asked me if I wanted to do it again tomorrow.
“I’ll think about it.”
“What is there to think about?”
“I’m not sure I believe in it.”
“You don’t have to believe in it,” he said. “You just have to do it.”
This conversation or something very like it took place fifty-five years ago. Even at the time I think I understood what my father-in-law was trying to do. I certainly understand it now. In his gruff way he was offering a guiding hand, a hand I might have welcomed when I was seventeen. But six years later in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, it was too late. Too much had happened. By the time I married, I’d gone through too much English and American literature and European philosophy, too much Joyce, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Melville. I’d taken my education seriously and already saw myself not as a Jew but as a Jewish American, one whose forebears included not only Abraham, Moses, and David, but also Locke, Jefferson, and Spinoza, who’d said no to his synagogue and begun the Enlightenment.
Or perhaps not. To do what he did, my father-in-law must have seen something in me. Had I in some way signaled that despite my education I was interested in what he had to teach? After all, why had I insisted to Joan that we come back to her hometown? Why had I gone to Lincoln Tech and learned to repair oil burners? Was there in the back of my mind the thought that I could have the kind of life my grandparents had, a life in a small community where people knew each other well and believed in a deity who told them right from wrong? A life in which I could walk together with my fellow Jews to worship in our own synagogue?
Back then, if I considered it at all, I didn’t linger over this possibility. The conclusion I came to was that my father-in-law wasn’t really so much teaching me as strong-arming me. Worse, I thought, he was insulting me, repudiating my assimilated ways. I closed my mind to him. This is what you let yourself in for, I told myself. You are just drifting. You’re not doing what you want to do. In college I’d found I was good at reading and talking about literature. I’d written stories people liked. Yet here I was in a place where I might never do any of those things again. If you don’t get back to school, I warned myself, you’ll forget all you’ve read, all you’ve learned. You’ll spend the rest of your life forgetting.
So I told Joan I was ready to leave, applied to the Ph.D. program in English literature at Harvard, and wrote to my old teacher and adviser at Tufts, the Elizabethan scholar Kenneth Myrick, asking for a letter of recommendation. He agreed, and when my acceptance came, Joan and I were overjoyed. That summer we left Perth Amboy for Cambridge. Thinking about it now, though, I feel that I somehow missed a chance.
For I truly was drawn to Judaism, and in my heart I never rejected it. The House of Israel, with its smell of roses, the silent emptiness that seemed so full, the joyous shout about the oneness of God—though it all happened sixty years ago, it’s always there somewhere in my mind. Even the picture I have of myself with the phylactery growing out of my forehead. It’s not nearly as outlandish as it once seemed.
Ah memory. It’s the humanist’s only miracle .
Brooklyn-born EARL GANZ, A55, taught creative writing at the University of Montana for thirty years before retiring in 1996 to write full-time. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Animal Care (Lynx House Press), and a novel, The Taos Truth Game (University of New Mexico Press), and is currently at work on two novels, a memoir, and a stage adaptation of Chaucer’s narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde.