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Synagogues Once Stood Here: A Tisha B'Av Exploration

Judah S. Harris

It’s Tisha B’Av afternoon and I’m walking through Harlem on my personal journey of mourning. I’ll traverse an entire region of abandoned shuls, silent testimonies to our exile — where even the most stable of structures are but fleeting memories.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

There are many ways of adding meaning and relevance to Tisha B’Av

Although Tisha B’Av is observed through fasting, expressions of mourning, and the recitation of Megillas Eichah and Kinos, in our times at least, communities and individuals often supplement these activities with additional experiences. How can we communicate added meaning and relevance to a day that has been with us for so long? I remember in the early nineties photographing the annual torch-lit procession that takes place the night of Tisha B’Av at Camp Morasha in Lake Como, Pennsylvania; I’ve attended day-long learning programs in Brooklyn; I’ve sat together with others in air-conditioned synagogue halls and multipurpose rooms watching films (often taped interviews) produced especially for the day.

Then one Tisha B’Av afternoon about two decades ago, just a few years after I had graduated college, I decided I would wander around parts of Harlem and look at the structures that used to be synagogues. My grandfather was born in Harlem in 1900. As a young child and then a young man, Harold Harris attended Congregation Ohab Zedek at an earlier location, north of where it is today. The synagogue’s full name was First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek. And Yossele Rosenblatt, as he always liked to mention, was the esteemed cantor.

My grandfather would proudly volunteer that information in the 1920s and 1930s during countless job interviews, when asked at some later stage of the meeting, after his credentials had been readily confirmed, “And, Mr.Harris, what church do you attend?” His response was always: “I belong to Congregation Ohab Zedek, Yossele Rosenblatt is the cantor …” I heard him tell this story numerous times, along with the same ending sentence: “I’m sorry Mr. Harris, but we don’t hire Jews.”

Decades after those rejections, I walked through Harlem on many Shabbosim and Yamim Yovim — probably more than 100 times over a number of years — trekking from my apartment in Washington Heights, where I was then living, to the Upper West Side — sometimes three miles, sometimes five, and sometimes doubling that with a return trip.

Once I even organized a final Rosh HaShanah minyan at a shul on 157th Street, after being inspired by a Tisha B’Av afternoon walk to see the synagogues that once were. I wrote an eloquent message and papered the walls of Yeshiva University’s main campus with photocopied signs inviting students to be a part of the last synagogue in Harlem’s very last minyan. In actuality the synagogue was just outside the boundaries of Harlem, two blocks north of the Hamilton Heights–Washington Heights border. It also wasn’t the very last synagogue in Harlem, but it was the southernmost of what’s referred to as Northern Manhattan. It had held on the longest and now with nearly zero congregants the shul was closing its doors for good.

 

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