Back in 2005, my daughter and my wife discovered the Stanton Street Shul. They spent a holiday service there and came back with the news that, at last, there was a shul on the Lower East Side tailor made to my needs.
You should know that on the Lower East Side people move to a new shul by slamming the door behind them on their previous shul. I had been davening in a Chassidic hole in the wall on East Broadway, where the nicest and sweetest people were engaged in very deep and serious spiritual pursuits while espousing the most repugnant politics.
My friend who shared that shul’s benches with me said that he only listens to what these people say in Yiddish. When they switch to English, he switches off.
Perhaps this wise policy should be embraced by all Jews, modified for different places and languages, of course.
After more than ten years in that sweet and odd Chassidic shul, I was ready for a change. But unlike the proverbial Lower East Side shul shopper, I didn’t slam the door, only kind of slipped away.
Stanton was such a cool place at first sight. For one thing, jeans was encouraged. Davening was in my kind of Hebrew, the lazy, one-sound-fits-all speech I had grown up with. There were women in the crowd at the Stanton, seated behind a “bikini” mechitza. In my other shul, women were an afterthought, stuck in an altogether separate room.
But Stanton was also a shul out on the borderline between the Lower East Side and the East Village. Back in 2005, it was populated mostly by folks from the co-op buildings on Grand Street and the occasional local Jew. Making the minyan was a daily existential issue, obviously. It’s not easy for any Lower East Side shul these days to make a minyan – but when you’re out in Yehupitz, you get “not easy” only on good days.
Unless you had Benny Sauerhaft in your arsenal.
Every weekday morning, Benny, then already in his early 90s, I believe, would go downstairs to where he had left his Saladin green Dodge Swinger circa 1970, with bumps that made it look like part of the terrain of the moon, if the moon came in Saladin green, with a ceiling that was attached to the roof with all manner of duct tape and electrician tape—and still sloped down with a belly that sagged on top of Benny’s passengers’ heads.
His reputation with local cops was so solid as the old man you don’t want to start up with, that I suspected Benny enjoyed parking in all the many illegal spots the rest of us mortals craved with our eyes on our daily quest for a place to leave our cars. There was so much spirit inside this old man, it was scary to imagine what he must have been like fifty years ago, with his body and his hearing intact.
Incidentally, I always suspected Benny’s hearing impairment thing – it was always a little too selective. I firmly believed that Benny simply tuned out that which he didn’t value, but was absolutely keen on the stuff that was worth listening to.
And Benny was tenacious. Each weekday morning he’d drive along his route, picking up shul members. Rain or shine. On those late fall mornings, when Jewish men go out for the morning prayer in a pitch black world, riding in Benny’s backseat could be a harrowing experience. Benny had this left stigma, you see, or maybe it was a right stigma, but he drove so close to the line of parked cars along Grand Street, we, his passengers, would gasp and occasionally yell out: “Veer left, Benny! Left!”
From day one I had no doubt that Benny was happy to have me around. Mostly because he told me so. He grabbed my hands in his and said, his eyes welling up, “I heard good things about you, I’m happy you came.”
No one was more stubborn than Benny Sauerhaft. I’ve lived through two different rabbis who divided up their time more or less 50% tending to all the congregation needs and the other 50% dealing with Benny. He was opinionated, blunt, unabashed, strong—physically and mentally—and he was shul president.
Ah, yes, his stubbornness also saved the Stanton Street Shul from being sold to members of an alternative, though monotheistic, faith. He got help, for sure, but at some point the future life of the shul came down to one last obstacle, the edifice was all but a memory, the contracts were all but signed, the checks all but cut – and a short, stocky Jew in his ninth decade blocked all that and started pushing back.
My daughter, Yarden Yanover, shot a marvelous little film (under 15 minutes) about Benny and his minions, titled, appropriately enough, “Benny and the Gang.” I believe if you never met Benny Sauerhaft, you would understand a lot from this film about why so many people loved him.
And don’t miss the part where Benny cuts a stack of Styrofoam cups the way you cut a Challah on Friday night, and when he inspects a container of tuna fish salad that was left outside in an un-air-conditioned sanctuary overnight, sniffs it and against a torrent of protests from fellow congregants declares: “It’s good.”