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November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev, 5776
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Lower East Side’

The Most Stubborn Jew I Ever Met (With Video)

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Shloshim for Benny Sauerhaft, Monday, August 13 at 7:00 pm

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.”


A Window Into The Past; A Lesson For The Future

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Earlier this month, members of the Toronto Jewish community were given a rare opportunity to be visually transported back in time. The film, filmed in 1922, is called Hungry Hearts, and is based on the short stories of writer Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish woman born in Poland in the 1880s whose family immigrated to New York. Many of her writings are centered on her experiences and those of other immigrants living in the Lower East Side. Like all movies made at that time, it is silent, with dialogue conveyed by cue cards.

The film was shot on location in the Lower East Side, and offered a unique, albeit brief glimpse, into the life of East European Jewish immigrants who had left “die alte heim” – and everything that was familiar to them – to journey to Amerikeh, spurred by the dream of improving their lives and those of their families in the fabled “goldene medina.”

The film, presented by the Toronto Jewish Film Society was screened at the Miles Nadal JCC, located in a part of Toronto that many decades ago, like the Lower East Side, teemed with the colors, smells and hustle and bustle of Jewish immigrants, many of them, like my parent, survivors of the Holocaust.

I had never seen a silent movie in an actual theater (and it had been years since I glimpsed one on TV), and I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing a movie the way people did 100 years ago – with written dialogue and musical accompaniment being utilized to heighten the audience’s awareness of the drama or comedy of the scene. (In this 80-minute film it was provided with great skill and endurance by Jordan Klapman, an accomplished jazz pianist, music director and arranger.)

What made the movie even more appealing to me was that it was atypical, in terms of it being about a Jewish family – with a bearded father and wig-wearing mother (as opposed to the ones I remember where a common theme involves a villain abducting and then tying a hapless female to the railroad tracks, while her hero/love interest desperately tries to reach her before the approaching locomotive does). The household is headed by a rav, who was threatened by the local police for running a cheder (teaching religion was forbidden in Communist Russia). Believing the boastful letter sent by a landsman (local boy) who had significantly embellished the success he has attained in the land of opportunity, the scholarly father uproots his family at the urging of his stoic, practical-minded wife and their shidduch-aged daughter who is imbued with youthful optimism.

Of course, life in America is not the piece of cake they thought it would be – the father preferred sitting with his face in a sefer rather than walking around with a pushcart, but after many trials and tribulations, the family does indeed achieve the American dream – especially when the daughter, Sara, catches the eye of a newly minted lawyer who saves the day when he defends his future mother-in-law in court against the evil landlord, who happens to be his greedy, bully of an uncle. Anticipating an engagement, she takes on back-breaking menial work to afford white paint that will brighten the dreary walls of their tenement, only to have the landlord, who is appalled that his nephew would deign to marry a poor “greena,” double the rent – already barely affordable as it is. In a fit of despair-fuelled rage, she trashes the place.

While the story itself was entertaining, especially when the actors’ facial expressions were somewhat exaggerated, as were their gestures and body language (obviously to compensate for the lack of dialogue) what captivated my attention was the history I was glimpsing; and the sobering awareness that while for me the events had taken place almost a century ago, for the individuals in that film, they were in their “now.”

It was as if a curtain separating today and a far away yesterday, had been momentarily pulled away, inviting us to view a slice of life that once had been someone’s today.

As the story unfolds you see hordes of people going about their daily business on the streets of lower Manhattan in 1922. You are drawn into their reality as you see pushcart peddlers hawking their wares, women picking up various fruits and vegetables with one hand, evaluating their freshness with a practiced eye as their other hand balances a baby on their hip.

Former Ratner’s Building at 100 Norfolk Sold for $8.8 Million

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

The website Bowery Boogie reported that the building at 100 Norfolk Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, has been sold for an all-cash sum of $8.8 million (6% above ask).

The unconfirmed buyer, believed to be Brooklyn-based Urban-Scape, negotiated air rights from adjoining buildings and will be constructing a 44,000 square-foot condo (12 stories).

The previous owner of 100 Norfolk was Ratner’s, the world famous Kosher dairy restaurant which went under a decade ago.

The Twelve Tribes At The Bialystoker Home

Thursday, March 15th, 2012

A quiet monument to the courage and determination of hundreds of thousands of Jews sits vulnerable on the Lower East Side of New York City at 228 East Broadway. This location was the former home of the Bialystoker Center, built in 1931. For many years it was primarily operated as the Bialystoker Home for the Aged that finally closed in November 2011. In its heyday it was one of the most important Jewish benevolent societies, a landsmanschaftenfor generations of immigrants from Bialystok. A groundswell of protest has arisen over the proposed sale of the building to a luxury residential developer with the possibility of its demolition. They are harnessing support to appeal to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to save the historic façade that boasts an Art Deco gem, roundels representing the 12 Tribes of Israel under the proud Bialystoker name.

Bialystoker Center Building Façade (1931); Henry Hurwit, architect

While initially easy to miss, especially since it is now partially covered with scaffolding, the façade leads to significance in two different directions. First it testifies to an enormously important aspect of Jewish immigrant history and secondly reflects the complex relationship between tradition and modernity, still playing itself out in the 21st century.

New York City, and specifically the Lower East Side, was in 1910 the largest Jewish city in the world. Moreover, the Lower East Side was arguably the most densely populated place on the planet. These facts alone set the stage for a momentous transformation of the downtown Jewish population. The predominately Jewish Bialystok suffered terrible depravations and violence during the Russian Revolution, World War I and subsequent upheavals. Therefore a mass emigration occurred both before and after WWI that resulted in a diaspora of Bialystoker Jews in Chicago, Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Tel Aviv.

The first Bialystoker landsmanschaften was established in 1886 and the Bialystoker Center in 1919. The current building opened to great celebration in 1931 with the Forward declaring, “Bialystok is now on East Broadway.” As the Bialystoker Jews banded together they offered services and collected money – not only to help their brethren here in New York – but also to help rebuild Bialystok in what is now Poland. This strong sense of identity, “forever a Bialystoker,” entered the complex immigrant mix in 1920’s – 1930’s Lower East Side. Many Jews resisted American values and assimilation and did not even become citizens or learn to speak English. They dug in and lived as if they had never left home, while others attempted to adjust to modernity, sometimes even completely abandoning Jewish life. It was complex and bewildering for thousands of immigrants and their descendants and the Bialystoker Center was at the center of much of it.

Bialystoker Center Doorway with 12 Tribes Roundels. Henry Hurwit, architect

The façade of the Bialystoker Center expresses much of this complexity. The grand doorway boldly proclaims “Bialystoker” in Hebreicized English lettering. The pride of Judaic-Polish ancestry is proclaimed simultaneously as the English language, and all it implies, is asserted. Above the entrance doorway the stone façade is capped by a grand balcony. Art Deco stylized reliefs ascend between the three central windows for the eight floors of golden brick. In its time it was one of the tallest and grandest buildings on the Lower East Side. It is clear the architect Henry Hurwit wanted to send as inclusive a visual message as possible.

The recessed doorway is concise, assertive and revealing. The 12 Tribal symbols flank the doorway: 4 on the right, 4 on the soffit above and 4 on the left. The images are ensconced in roundels that approximate a Hebraic formulation (right to left) of Jacob’s “blessings” found at the end of Genesis. They start on the right with the first born, Reuben, travel up, cross the transept and down the left side to the final child, Benjamin.

Bialystoker Doorway Soffit. Henry Hurwit, architect

The exact order and most of the images actually follows the Midrash Rabbah on Numbers 2:2 that expands on the arrangement of the tribes around the Tent of Meeting in the wilderness; “The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of their fathers’ household.” This midrash codifies the information from Jacob’s blessings (Genesis 49) and Moses’ blessings (Deuteronomy 33) into a blueprint for the color and image for each tribe’s flag or symbol.

At the base of each side panel there are stylized representations of the Temple Menorah superimposed over a Star of David/pyramid design anchored by schematic sunrises. These images link this building on East Broadway with both the ancient Temple and the growing Zionist movement in Palestine. Reuben’s mandrakes, a gift of fertility for both his mother and Rachel, effectively sidesteps Jacob’s stinging castigation. Simon is represented by a massive city gate, alluding to the city of Shechem, while Levi gets off scot-free with a depiction of the High Priest’s breastplate, the Choshen HaMishpat that contained the Urim and Tumin. The right side panel is then completed with the Lion of Judah confirming Jacob’s blessing of kingship to his fourth born son.

Where’s The Outrage?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

When the disproportion of terrorist acts committed by Muslims – and the resulting hordes cheering the carnage on the Arab street – lead clear-minded observers to conclude that jihadism is the dominant strain in the Islamic world, we are accused of painting with an unfairly broad brush, discounting the silent (and invisible) majority of Muslims who oppose violence and crave peace.

I am ashamed at how fitting the comparison is to the current behavior of certain haredim in Beit Shemesh and parts of Jerusalem. Harassing women, terrorizing schoolgirls, assaulting police officers and journalists, vandalizing property—the so-called Sikrikim seem to have styled themselves after the Iranian vice squads. It matters not whether the perpetrators of these acts constitute 5 percent or 25 percent of the haredi community. Because all we hear from the background is a deafening silence.

There have been no public statements or rallies to oppose this outrageous behavior by those who claim to speak for them. In fact, the only rallies by haredim have been to protest the way they are being victimized by the media and Israeli authorities – including a huge rally last week in Meah Shearim featuring men in yellow “Jude” stars and children dressed in concentration camp uniforms. A handful of haredi rabbis have spoken out against the Sikrikim, but most have not, choosing to reserve their public pronouncements for other matters.

This can only lead one to conclude that a large number of haredim agree with the viewpoints espoused by the activists – even if they do not condone their tactics. They share the worldview that, as one man interviewed at the aforementioned rally was quoted as saying, “there’s only one Jewish way.” If you are not like us, you cannot profess to be frum, to love God and fear Him, to deserve basic human dignity.

Such an exclusionary – dare I say hateful – way of thinking is totally antithetical to Torah and many of its most foundational teachings: “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” (Love your fellow man as yourself); “V’halachta b’drachav” (And you shall walk in His ways); “D’racheha darchei noam v’chol nesivoseha shalom” ([The Torah’s] ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace); “Derech eretz kadma laTorah” (Human decency comes before Torah). . . .

Why has the haredi leadership taken such a passive stance on this cancer metastasizing in their midst? It pains me to say this, but their silence – and that of their followers – is not surprising. The most consistent, persistent message that the extremely right-wing religious leaders send out to their followers, at least publicly, is not ahavas Yisrael, achdus, or continuous introspection. Instead, it is “Banned!” “Treif!” or “Anyone who does [X]or uses [Y] is not worthy of respect.” Whether it’s the Internet, digital cameras, smartphones, music (even by frum artists), public transportation, clothing that offers a hint of femininity, or stores with any percentage of non-mehadrin inventory, the circle of exclusion is forever expanding.

As a result, more and more people – regardless of whether they are indeed shomrei mitzvos and yarei Shamayim – fall outside the parameters of toleration. Holiness equated with quarantine will naturally give rise to disdain for anyone perceived to be “less than.” And so, I believe, this “cheirem culture” has created a monster: a society where it is seen as acceptable to lash out – physically, verbally, or otherwise – at fellow Jews.

What about the rising wave of anti-haredi – and indeed, anti-religious – sentiment in Israel, which has also given way to incidents of real harassment? Of course it is wrong. Completely indefensible. There is no excuse for attacking others (physically or verbally) who have not lifted a hand (literally or figuratively) against you, just because you find their lifestyle, or that of others who look like them, unpalatable.

But for the haredi community to cry victim – without in the same breath disavowing the actions of those who claim to represent their values – is nothing more than a red herring. The anti-haredi incidents are a backlash, and there would be no backlash had no women been heckled out of their seats on a bus and no little girls terrorized as they tried to make their way to school.

There surely are many haredim, whether in Beit Shemesh, Beitar, or even Meah Shearim, who abhor what is happening. But according to Chazal, silence is tantamount to acquiescence. So silent majorities are no bulwark at all – they are simply passive enablers of a grave chillul Hashem.

Ziona Greenwald is a full-time mother who has worked as a court attorney and magazine editor. She currently does freelance writing and editing from her home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Occupied Territory

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Ever since a light bulb went off in Yasir Arafat’s head and the idea of a Palestinian people was born, Israel has become known to the world as an “occupier.” The narrative of occupation, despite being a complete fiction, has turned the founding of modern Israel from a miraculous story of Jewish rebirth into a sordid genocidal project.

Language serves as one of the Palestinians’ (I use the term for convenience only) chief weapons in their war against the Jews.  The word “occupation” is supposed to conjure images of an arrogant colonial power, hungry to amass land and wealth regardless of who might be trampled upon like scrambling insects.  It paints in black and white:  one party as perpetrator, the other as victim.

Interesting, then, that the hordes of squatters who have, since September, been camped out in Zuccotti Park at the bottom of Manhattan have chosen to call themselves “occupiers.”  The Occupy Wall Street movement portrays itself as representing the victims in this country’s economic downturn, the poor grasshoppers whose rights and interests got squeezed out in the government’s bailout of big financial institutions.  (The gripe about the bailout is but one item on their motley list of grievances, and one of the only coherent ones.)

To me it seems clear that the makeup of the OWS crowd is overwhelmingly liberal, lefty, even a smattering socialist. The same elements who are the first to criticize Israel for every move it makes, to demonize the Jewish state and its supporters and swallow every lie that comes out of the Palestinian propaganda mill, are now raging against the American capitalist machine.

Thus, I find it curious that the protesters adopted for their movement the same pejorative terminology used against Israel.

Any connection here?  I doubt that Israel or the Palestinians were on the protesters’ minds when they hatched their ragtag operation.  Not consciously, anyway.

But I think there’s a notable irony.

This movement is grounded in an entitlement mentality that promotes self-pity above self-sacrifice.  The attitude is: We’ll stay as long as we like, we’ll appropriate the space and resources we need, and we’ll conflate activism with proactivity.

There are many things wrong with OWS—a lack of clear goals, a unified voice, a determinable endpoint, a hodgepodge of complaints as loosely related as Obama is to the pope. But what stands out most, and especially rankles me as a resident of lower Manhattan, is the utter disregard for the rights of others whose daily lives, routines, quality of life, and even livelihoods have been upset for nearly two months.

Police barricades, as well as offensive odors, require pedestrians (not to mention motorists, who are already under assault in Bloomberg’s New York) to reroute themselves, or avoid the area altogether. The already strained NYPD and FDNY, which have suffered diminishing ranks as their budgets continue to shrink, have had to allocate their scarce resources toward protecting the protesters and maintaining some semblance of order and safety in the area.  And local businesses have suffered severe downturns.  The months-old Milk Street Café, a huge, upscale kosher eatery that was drawing both kosher and non-kosher crowds, has already laid off more than 20 employees, and its owner has said he may have to close.

The rapidly growing OWS movement—last I checked, copycat groups had sprung up in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Sacramento, Toronto, Denver, Chicago, Atlanta,  Minneapolis, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Nashville, Oakland, Montreal, Vancouver, and many more – has spawned violence and vandalism, all in the name of peaceful social protest.

Just last week in Oakland, riot police arrested dozens of demonstrators who had started a fire on a downtown street and threw chunks of concrete and metal pipes – this after the group had managed to shut down the nation’s fifth busiest port. Even right here in New York, over 800 people have been arrested, most on charges of disorderly conduct.

Max Miller’s Kaddish: A Year’s Journey In 50 Shuls

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street, New York, N.Y.;   (212) 294 8330
Exhibition Sponsor: New York Foundation for the Arts 
Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.;
$8 adults, $6 children, students & seniors
Until August 16, 2009   



To make a pilgrimage is to travel far and participate in something holy, singular and transformative.  Upon the death of a parent, Jews make a pilgrimage thrice daily to a synagogue to participate in the same ritual, the Kaddish said over and over.   It doesn’t have to be far or near.  It simply must be a place that Jews have decided is holy.  And if we open our hearts, it is always transformative.  That is what Max Miller discovered and documented in the year he said Kaddish for his father, Murray A. Miller.

“Final Mourner’s Kaddish: 333 Days in Paintings by Max Miller,” at the Yeshiva University Museum until August 16, 2009, is more than the 50 brilliant watercolors of the shuls Miller visited to say Kaddish.  Each painting is accompanied by a textual comment on the synagogue, a personal mediation on what happened there that day and what impression this place of Jewish holiness made upon him.  With this text in hand, which is the only way this exhibition should be seen, suddenly a random selection of images becomes a hymn to American Judaism, a celebration of its diversity, complexity and most of all its warmth and kindness.

The geography of Miller’s synagogue pilgrimage was diverse; his journeys through Brooklyn, New York, Miami and Coral Gables, Florida; Burlington, Addison County, and Middlebury, Vermont; Columbus, and Bexely, Ohio and finally Baltimore, Maryland, were driven by the vicissitudes of earning a living and familial obligations. By memorializing a watercolor image of the shul in which he said Kaddish, he made each trip precious, effectively creating a pilgrimage site.

The visual diversity is truly amazing – constantly shifting his focus from details of an aron, the paroches, a glorious ceiling, stained glass window, a modernist façade to the jumble of men davening, a view from the pews to a view of an entire interior.  Each image is different, unique and, once seen in the context of the text, amazingly personal.

The artist, along with curator Reba Wulkin, has meticulously grouped his shuls to create mini-narratives highlighting the contrasts between communities and his experience of them.  An excellent example is the coupling of the Bialystoker Shul on the Lower East Side, a busy bright image of the ornate aron, contrasted with a plain image of the simple wooden aron set in the corner of the Hillel space in Middlebury College in Vermont.  The Bialystoker recalled for Miller, his maternal grandparents who lived on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago.  Saying Kaddish there immersed him in the religious and traditional world of his ancestors.  In a contrast, both visual and emotional, the Hillel aron in Vermont exposed him to a younger generation that embodied tradition by the conscientiousness of the students and Rabbi Ira Schiffer making sure he had a minyan during his teaching stint at the college.  “The students were right on it, helpful.  I was thrilled, impressed, and amazed.”




Chabad, Burlington, Vermont (2006), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist


Miller, evidently not a frequent shul-goer in the past, was abruptly thrust into a complex and diverse world when he took on the responsibility of saying Kaddish for his father.  But the experience quickly became a source of constant surprise and comfort.  He relates that in the Chabad in Burlington, Vermont, he is immediately welcomed and given a cup of tea, especially welcome since it was 20 degrees below zero at the time.  And of course, Kiddush and lunch are offered.  Similarly at the B’yanah Shul on the Lower East Side he is hugged and greeted warmly on a Shabbos morning.  His reaction is grateful, “In the past, this would have seemed to be a community from which I was worlds apart.”  Now he is welcomed as a friend.



Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami (2005), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist


In his wanderings he discovers many things.  First in some shuls he stumbles upon unexpected connections; a friend of his parents helped found one, a student tells him she had her bat mitzvah in another, and still others uncover surprising links to a whole host of family and friends.  The Jewish universe starts to seem more intimate. 

And funny.  He walks into a synagogue in Miami Beach.  At first there are only two people there.  “More come in.  Someone comes up to me and says, ‘Excuse me, you are sitting in my seat, would you mind moving?’ Someone else comes up to me and I say ‘Hello.’  He says, ‘Excuse me, you are sitting in my seat .’ After a few more encounters ‘At this point I’m pretty flattered as everyone is speaking to me.  I move 15 times for 12 people (some of them ask me twice.)”  The game of Jewish musical chairs plays on.



Congregation Derech Amuno (Charles Street Shul) (2005), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist

It is the poignancy and familiarity of these stories that transform his lively watercolors from a visual feast to a rich banquet of Jewish experience.  One can see the subtleties of these experiences in many of his images.  Chabad in Burlington, Vermont, sports psychedelic color, both on the walls and in the tallis of many the daveners, alluding to the fervent spirituality of Lubavitch Chassidim and those drawn to them.  And yet there is a figure on the extreme left in a plain light-colored jacket without any tallis at all.  Is that perhaps Miller, still feeling a bit apart from the minyan, even as he is embraced by the color and structure of the shul, not to mention the cup of tea?

Frequently Miller evokes his memory of the shul with the use of light as a metaphor for warmth and welcomeness.  Charles Street views the sanctuary from the vantage point of the women’s balcony, the lights casting an eerie glow on the supporting poles and ceiling above.  The chandelier seems to float suspended like an internal moon, further illuminating the reader’s desk and distant aron. On Shabbos, Miller was welcomed by “Herman, who is in charge ” and went back to sample Andy Statman’s klezmer music later in the week.  One could imagine the shimmering lights as visual echoes of the soulful music played there over the years.



Agudas Achim, Columbus, Ohio (2004), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist


In an early watercolor Miller depicts Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio.  Soon after his father’s death, it was one of the first shuls where he said Kaddish while visiting his mother in Columbus.  It is a stark, arresting image; the rows of comfortable blue seats in profile contrasted with the walls pierced by brilliant stained glass windows.  On an intense coral-colored wall an object floats, perhaps another stained glass window, perhaps a large wall hanging.    It is a disturbing presence, almost a tinted ghost, that reflects his uneasy state and, as he discovers later, a shul riven with controversy – about to change from an Orthodox to a Conservative synagogue.  Its uneasy change seems to reflect his personal turmoil in mourning.

The pilgrimage is one in which the seeker doesn’t know either where he is going or what he will find.  And yet for a year, he continues.  Miller finds himself in Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida.  He was entranced by the blue stained glass behind the bimah and was informed it was from the original Morris Lapidus design.  Suddenly he remembers that his father, an architect, admired Lapidus; “He would have loved Temple Judea.”  The pilgrim has found, quite by accident, that which he seeks – a connection and a memory of his father.  And yet, his image of it is quite different, a single panel of abstracted glass locked in a grid of translucent glass.  And yet, one clear pane looks out on the palm trees outside, a perfect vignette of the inside/outside conundrum the mourner is forced to traverse.



Temple Judea, Coral Gables, Florida (2005), watercolor on paper by Max Miller; Courtesy the artist


All 50 of Miller’s watercolors are part of one complete and complex work of art.  It is homage to a year spent in transformation – in art – a memorial to his departed father, celebrated through a son’s creativity.  He started as an outsider and has now made us all insiders.

Max Miller has accomplished something quite moving for us in his pilgrimage.  He has shown us the breath and depth of American Jewry in the multitude of shuls he visited.  His year of mourning and saying Kaddish could only have been done with his fellow Jews in their sacred spaces, each different and yet sharing a bond of holiness.  The ultimate unity of the Jewish people is found in these remarkable works.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/max-millers-kaddish-a-years-journey-in-50-shuls/2009/04/22/

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