My grandfather’s shul in Pelham Parkway in the Bronx smelled of sweat, mink coats, herring and kichel. Every 10 minutes the train rattled overhead and the bathroom “door” was a curtain that I would hold tightly in place. I loved that shul. My cheek ran across the mink as my grandfather’s friends would ooh and ahh over us.
In Cleveland Heights, we belonged to Young Israel, which met in my school, Hebrew Academy of Cleveland. As a little girl, I would go with my father to Kabbalat Shabbat and run among the men’s legs as we played. I liked the singing and my friends.
But my favorite shul growing up was Golf Manor Synagogue, where we’d visit my grandparents in Cincinnati. The seats were plushy; the bathroom, modern and updated; the kiddush room was vast and the singing was so beautiful.
I was entranced by this new species of shul: materialistically and aesthetically pleasing. It wasn’t something I was familiar with. To my young mind, the soaring ceilings and stained-glass windows were a thing of beauty – although I wasn’t able to fully process why this was so important to me or how it contrasted with my shuls back home.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we went somewhere entirely different: Telshe Yeshiva, of which my father was an alum, in Wickliffe. Many of the former rabbinical students would return for the High Holy Days with their families to recapture the magic of this place. Its roots are in the disciplined study halls of Lithuania’s rabbinical centers.
The place was spartan. The mechitza was simple. There was absolutely no chit-chat. No fashion show whatsoever. These people were here for one reason only: to pray. They did so with soaring passion, with tears. As a young teen, I was deeply moved by this experience, yet still missed the lack of plushy seats and carpeting. The need for these material comforts at shul embarrassed me – but there it was.
Now my husband runs services at congregation JFX. We rent the former Temple Emanu El in University Heights. My senses – now that I more fully understand them – are tantalized by the magnificent acoustics and the beautiful woodwork.
I am surrounded by friends and loved ones. The singing is magnificent. Although the building is dated, it carries that Golf Manor grandeur. I miss the holy elderly Holocaust-survivor generation at Telshe – the ones who prayed with tears all day. I miss my grandfather and all his friends from Pelham Parkway. They are all gone now.
It’s sobering to realize that we are now the adults creating new impressions in the minds of the children of our congregations. How we relate to our synagogues is what plants the seeds of identity in their minds. Each shul experience has added a notch to my understanding of what I need in a shul. Passion, check. Sincerity, check. Plushy seats – yeah, that’s important to me and that’s OK. Beautiful singing, check. And most importantly, the desire and the will to pray.