Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.
I say this not to be clever but because it is profoundly true. Let me explain. During davening on Rosh Hashanah, I was overwhelmed with a very specific form of nostalgia.
When I was a kid in the West Side, there were three shtiebels that we would go to. One was right below our building in the home of a very respectable yekke rabbiner. We'd go there only on weekdays when they couldn't manage a minyan and would SOS my father to come down and bring me with him. I was often the tenth even though I was nine or ten years old. (I'd hold a sefer torah.) The only other memorable thing about this minyan was the Rov's son who was a bit of a character who'd spend all of davening pacing in the (empty) women's section. He later moved to San Francisco and word was he was acting strange. He sometimes sang.
On Shabbos, we'd walk to another shtiebel in a brownstone on 91st Street. While there was an interesting cast of characters there too, my most vivid memories are of walking with my father up Broadway. We'd guess the temperature which was posted on a big electronic sign on the corner of 86th right next to Golding's deli. Sometimes my father would let me flip over the Daily News on the stand in front of the candy store near 83rd Street to check what the Mets did. (Once it revealed that Dick Rusteck shut out Cincinnati 5-0 in his first major league start; my spine still tingles.)
Before I start sounding like Arnold Fine, let me get to the point (if I can still remember it). The shtiebel that evokes the strongest memories, and for which I inexplicably hankered on Rosh Hashanah, is the one that belonged to a Major Polish Chassidus (MPC) on 101st Street in the home of Leibel C. My grandfather davened there and we'd walk up for yontif and other occasions. I couldn't possibly understand the subtexts of all the goings on there at the time, but it's astonishing how much can be reconstructed in retrospect. Most of the people there had families before the war and began fresh after the war. They had been full-blown MPC chassidim -- beards and spodeks -- before the war, but now only Leibel C had a beard. The rest of the Leibels and Itche Maiers were left with only gartlech.
There was a dumbwaiter for lowering kiddush materials from the kitchen upstairs to the shul. If women ever bothered coming, they'd just hang in the kitchen. In general, the attitude of the women to the whole business was something like that of Alice and Trixie to Ralph and Norton's Raccoon Lodge. It had very little to do with them.
These were people with significantly fractured lives. They had to be loyal to the destroyed world but could certainly harbor no naive belief in the bashefer's benevolence. It was shver tzu zein a yid but unthinkable to be a goy. Elie Wiesel and AJ Heschel would sometimes come in to daven. Wiesel wasn't a big shot then and the kids used to give him a hard time. Wiesel's most affecting true camp story was about Shimon Z, who also davened there. (Shimon used to say, "I made Wiesel!")
It was the older kids, the ones born shortly after the war, that bore the brunt. They were the ones who were expected to replace those that were taken. So many of them just checked out and became total goyim. (My friend Avrum Mordche (what else) had an older brother who worked at a national magazine where a friend of mine got a job. I asked my friend if he knew Avrum Mordche's brother. He told me he knew him well but had no idea he was Jewish.) The younger kids, my friends, suffered less and they were the ones who eventually went back to spodeks and bekeshes.
I was a bit different because my father's family had left Poland for Belgium before the war and my parents were kids during the war. I was that rare lucky person with grandparents and with parents young enough to be a bit more Amerikanish than my friends' parents.
So why is nostalgia not what it used to be? Here I am, the first generation in my family in probably two millenia to be a free Jew in Eretz Yisrael, waxing nostalgic for a grimy little shtiebel tief in gulos, populated by the most tortured souls on earth. And what were these souls thinking about on Rosh Hashanah? You can bet they were waxing nostalgic for their lost families and lost communities in Zelev and Belchetev and Amshinov and hundreds of other extinct shtetlech outside Warsaw and Lodz.
Now that is nostalgia. May no more Jews know from it.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.