My mother always hoped that someday I’d catch religion, but I guess she died disappointed in that respect. She hoped that as I aged, or I became really old, I would somehow catch the religious thing, but alas. . . I had a fairly bad start at religion anyway, being first exposed to Orthodox Judaism and then Roman Catholicism, with an interleaving of Nazi anti-Semitism at a very early age. And it isn’t as if my mother was a really religious person. She went to the temple two or three times a year, abstained from pork, and that was it. But my Uncle Nuhim, he was different. Judaism, going to the temple Friday evenings and Saturday mornings was an important part of his life, although Aunt Paula had to stay home because of Lily. There was just no way the two of them could get her and her wheelchair down and up those stairs.
While I was never an enthusiastic temple attendee, I did go with my uncle Nuhim on several Saturdays, and in the process caught a glimpse of a world that was fast disappearing. By-the-way, I’m using the word “temple” deliberately, as the word “synagogue” has to my ears a whiff of anti-Semitism about it. Its Greek root suggests an assembly of elders, when in fact it is an institution that welcomes all Jews, whatever their ages, not just a bunch of old guys with beards. The temple to which my uncle took me was a classic, painted white with golden hi-lights, a raised dais in the center and a curtained cabinet for the Torah scrolls at the front. The large room was entered from the rear. The men stood and sat all around the dais, at which presided the rabbi and his several assistants, one whose sole function was to yell, “Shah!” periodically, during services, when the private conversations became too loud. The men all wore either yarmulkes or black hats, and soft with age, silver trimmed, prayer shawls.
The women, of course, sat upstairs in the balcony. This was very useful because on certain holidays (and possibly some bar-mitzvahs, I just don’t remember) they threw candy and nuts downstairs in the general direction of the dais for the kids to go scampering after. And, of course, there were certain holidays when trestle tables were set up at the back of the hall, and covered with little paper cups of “bromfen”, a serious and delicious liqueur, and coffee cake. And that too was available to the children, although bromfen intake was limited to one cup.
I don’t think anyone ever thought of setting up a program for the children, and there was no way that the children were going to stand or sit for all the hours of the service. So, we ran around the building like young savages, disturbing the serious scholars in the Shtibel, a room full of shelved books, with some books opened on a central table, around which debated young men dressed in black. Only the most devout gathered here, dividing their time between prayer, debate, and study. In some ways my visits to the temple, although often resulting in considerable trouble, are still in some ways, golden memories, and I know that my Uncle Nuhim would have liked me to remember them as such. A few of the people attending services and studying in the Shtibel would survive, but most of them would die in the Nazi death factories.