THE shuls you go to as a child become a central part of your Jewish identity. The memories of the shuls that raised me are indelible. A lifetime of Shabbats add up to a big part of who you are.
For me it all started in The Tzrif, literally meaning The Shack, the neighborhood shul of Sanhedria Murchevet.
This Jerusalem neighborhood was a loop on a hill, and The Tzrif was all the way at the bottom of the hill, with a small additional descent leading to the shul.
It may have been called The Tzrif, but the funny thing was that the rav (rabbi) of the shul, Rav Noah Heisler, was a tall man of such serious and intrinsically dignified comportment that he may just as well have been walking into the Beit Hamikdash, the ancient holy temple. As he would descend the little hill, tall, bearded, with long gleaming Yerushalmi black frock, and usually a sefer (a holy book) in hand pressed against his chest, even if you had no clue who he was — a distinguished rabbinic judge (dayyan) in the courts, even before he opened his mouth, and even to my little child’s mind, it was clear he was “somebody.” He had that elusive quality of presence.
The same quality was true of his wife, Rabbanit Heisler, her fresh and pure makeup-less face wrapped in a high turban, her face always flanked by two flat gold-rimmed pearl earrings. This pair — they are Jerusalem rabbinic aristocracy, and everything about their formal yet warm aura, their restraint, simplicity, erect posture, personal graciousness and immense dignity, conveys it immediately.
The truth is, I was lucky. One of my mother’s dear childhood friends, Kendy Gross and her husband Henoch, randomly lived next door to the Heislers. So growing up, I got to know the Heislers personally and intimately as friends and role models of the noblest kind. Most of my memories with them are from their home and from their (no exaggeration here) tall, beautiful and righteous daughters: Baila, who was much older than I, whom I didn’t really know so well, Sara’le, who was just a few years older than I, and Shifra and Chaya’le, who were my peers and friends.
Many years later when, as a family mediator, I was met with Rav Eli ben Dahan, today a member of Knesset but then the administrator of the Jerusalem Beth Din, at the conclusion of our first meeting I told him I grew up in Sanhedria Murchevet and knew Rav Heisler, he said, “dayyan bechir,” a star dayyan.
So yes, the physical structure of the shul may have in fact been a shack of sorts. But to us, when we said and thought, “The Tzrif,” it was with love and reverence.
RAV Heisler was the neighborhood rabbi. His apartment was open certain hours every day when he, and often Rabbanit Heisler, his astute and kind partner, would meet with members of the Sanhedria Murchevet community. Then the community was a mishmash of veteran Israelis together with a new generation of post Six Day War immigrants from America, South Africa, Angola, Sweden, Holland and other places.
The Orthodox community of The Tzrif was somewhat diverse, mostly black hat, but also with knit kippa-clad members.
One was the passionate Reuven Miller, an American social worker and professor at Bar Ilan University. He later co-founded a religious Zionist yishuv, and was the first in Israel to set up a pioneer schooling infrastructure for adults to train and make a living within the haredi community (it was written up in the New York Times).
Another was the psychologist Dr. Avigdor Bonchek, now well known as the author of What’s Bothering Rashi? and then a student of Nechama Lebowitz.
There were many others:
Henoch Gross, of blessed memory, originally a New Yorker, always engaged the children in his warm sing song cadence. “How are you Tehillo?” (that is what he called me). Henoch co-founded and operated the Sanhedria Murchevet gemach, or free loan fund, meticulously managing the fund and taking care of the needy in the neighborhood. I don’t know whether he was officially the gabbai of the shul or not, but he was always running things, so to my mind he was.
Yaakov Petroff, of blessed memory — I had no idea until I was older that he held a Columbia doctorate and was a professor of classics, and that in addition to his native English he spoke Latin fluently. He was a gentle, devout, humble man, and was always with one of his many children, among them two sets of twins, devotedly studying Torah with them. In fact, some of his sons have turned out to be stellar scholars at various yeshivot in Israel.
Menachem Levy, like Rav Heisler, was another tall, distinguished, Israeli rabbi and scholar, whose warm countenance was so embracing. There were quite a few reddish bearded men in the congregation and he was one of them.
There was also Rav Heisler’s cousin, the jovial Moshe Meir Heisler, with blond peyos (sidelocks). He ran programs for the children. We would often be outside The Tzrif, with the open mountains behind us, the “vadi” (wadi) they called it. While we played, Arab shepherds in their kaffiyehs would pass through the vadi with their flocks. Moshe Meir’s father was shot to death while holding him, a baby, in his arms, during the 1948 war.
The most blazing red beard belonged to Rav Eliyahu Baruch Finkel. By the time he became a renowned, senior Torah scholar at the Mir Yeshiva, he had a long grey beard, but in his youth it was bright red.
THERE were different chazanim. Sometimes Yaakov Petroff davened. Sometimes it was Henoch Gross. For special occasions like the yamim noraim, the High Holidays, it was Holocaust survivor Chazan Gartenhaus. Out of his slight body came a powerful voice that held us all at attention. If you wouldn’t know what he looked like, you would think he was a large man, his voice was so strong.
At prayer services with baby namings, I remember people bending down, leaning on his shtender, whispering into his ear the name of the newborn, before Chazan Gartenhaus would loudly send the name out to the rest of us, the praying congregation — that’s how short he was. He had what people call “chein,” grace and charm. He was such a kind man.
But in my child’s mind, the most important man of all at The Tzrif was none other than Adon Eichler, Mr. Eichler.
With his salt and pepper beard and peyos (sidelocks) and long, black, Jerusalem frock, this silver haired man knew how to command a crowd. When he turned the corner on the street from around the shul wheeling a medal cart, he made a show of it gesticulating with his hands for the crowd to pave way for him.
He didn’t have to, though, because with just a few words and nudges on his part, we all instantly parted into two groups, splitting as cleanly as the Red Sea. You see, Mr. Eichler was in charge of the kugel on Shabbos He was wheeling the huge, tall, round, metal kugel pot containing the authentic, peppery overnight cooked and carmelized Yerushalmi noodle kugel that we would soon be eating in tall thin brown slices off of cheap white plastic plates, with a brined pickle spear alongside it.
As far as I was concerned he was the man in charge, an authority whose word was sacred and who could do almost anything.
ACROSS the street of The Tzrif was the Beit Hatalmud yeshiva, a more modern building with many windows. Often walking back from from The Tzrif we would stop off there (or maybe it was a shortcut to get home?). We knew some of the bachurim (students) there who had eaten at our house. From time to time, we would eat the third Sabbath meal (seudah shlishit) in the yeshiva as the sun was setting toward the conclusion of Shabbat, with the yeshiva student melodies; although we usually ate seudah shlishit in The Tzrif. This was a more casual shmoosy time, with everyone squashed in together along narrow tables dotted with brown malt beer bottles (beera shechora) labeled with the picture of an eagle whose wings were spread, and with translucent glass bottles of Goldson orange or grapefruit drink.
A creamy lace fabric separated the men and women sections. If you wanted to enter the shul, be it the men or women’s sections, you knew you had to tip toe and be silent. The people of The Tzrif, and their decorum in this grey stucco or cement shack, were serious, devout and imparted a true sense of awe and holiness, a true closeness to G-d. You just felt He was there, along with Rav Heisler and Rabbanit Heisler, Henoch and Kendy, Mr. Petroff, Menachem Levy, Chazan Gartenhaus, Adon Eichler, and Rav Finkel. And everyone else, of course. Even to a child, it was clear that in this Tzrif, you were in a special place.
THEN, in the sixth grade I moved to Denver. Our shul, EDOS, could not have been more different. And yet, the switch was seamless, as the core of the shul was the same.
EDOS was filled with many Holocaust survivors. Growing up a part of the EDOS community meant growing up with an intimate link to the Holocaust. To this day you can hear Hungarian spoken between Mrs. Jonap and the Mogyoroses, though our link now to the Holocaust is mostly through the second generation, such as Joy and Joyce Moskowitz.
The atmosphere at EDOS was one of family. Extremely close knit. Purim seudas were communal. Every simcha that came along, a bris, a kiddush, a Bar Mitzvah, were generously and lovingly arranged, cooked and baked usually by the triumvirate of Agi Fried, Meryl Jacobs and Susie Swinkin, with many other women pitching in to help. Mrs. Weisbrot was a regular in the kitchen back then; in fact one of the legendary snapshots in time of EDOS lore is of Mrs. Weisbrot cooking in the kitchen standing over a restaurant size pot that was bigger than she was.
The joke about EDOS is that it is a complete hospital staff. Pretty much every field of medicine is represented in one of the doctors in the shul, who are not just ordinary doctors, but often experts in their fields, and amazingly compassionate humanitarians known in the Denver community for their work and, more often than not, their many unknown kind and compassionate deeds as doctors and community laypeople.
IF you aren’t a doctor at EDOS, then you are somehow anyway connected to medicine, because of Bikur Cholim, which, along with Tomchei Shabbat, Mikveh of East Denver (MOED), the East Side eruv and DAT elementary school, were founded or co-founded by EDOS members.
Over the years many lifelong friendships have been formed between EDOS families and out-of-towners who sadly needed to be in Denver for medical treatment. To this day, they make the effort to fly in for and be a part of one another’s semachot.
Heidi Tessler is that unconventional doctor who still makes house calls when you really need it. Ivan Geller and Paul Fishman are still doing that too, so devoted to the many elderly patients they care for, it is practically saintly. Of course when you meet up with Ivan at EDOS, you would never know any of this, with his goofy nicknames for each of us (Tehilla=Gilla Monster — a lizard of some kind?) and fun Yiddish nicknames.
One Purim, Freddy — our beloved Fred Englard of EDOS, Holocaust survivor, also like Chazzan Gartenhaus, a slight man with a booming voice, who for years prayed and cried and sang his way with tremendous, vulnerable emotion deep into each of our hearts — fell unconscious during the Megillah reading. Who should he be sitting next to him but Phil Mehler, an ER doctor, who literally on the spot in shul on that Purim night revived and saved Freddy’s life.
Englard prepared and taught all EDOS boys for their Bar Mitzvah, and when he could no longer do this Nahum Swinkin stepped in and did this same. Many of these boys went on to become “lainers” (regular Torah readers).
Reuven Rosen (another doctor) kept post-Bar Mitzvah boys motivated to lain by giving them an opportunity to do so from week to week.
Alex Jacobs (yep, another doctor) is the magic man, the most famous congregant of all to us children at the time, for the attention he lovingly showered upon us in the many games and magic tricks he patiently and playfully tricked us with.
Yossi Fried, an Israeli native whose sharp and hilarious sense of humor had us all rolling in laughter, basically ran the place. He would be there in shul early Friday evening before shul began checking on the cholent, lowering the heat to just the right temperature, plus who knows how many other million things in his several tenures as president of the shul. Now his son Shlomo is following in his footsteps.
WHICH brings me to the famous EDOS cholent. It is a secret recipe handed down from Motty Shames, a founder of the shul. And take my word for it, it seriously is, hands down, the best shul cholent you will ever taste. It is a hot layered spiced mixture baked in the oven for 24 hours of potatoes, meat, onions and lima beans. Unlike most other shuls who look for the cheapest meat to throw in, at EDOS it is nothing but the best.
When Menachem Leibtag began his internet parsha teaching, Irving Lumerman found out I was studying his sheets on a weekly basis. Not a Friday passed by without the printed sheets dropped off in my mailbox by Irving Lumerman. Whenever I leave any EDOS event, like a ritual, I am invariably walked home by Moshe and Marilyn Levy (currently Moshe — still another doctor — is president of the shul). And to this day I get lollipops from Chazan Koll.
The patience of Yitzchak Teitelbaum (yes, Dr. Yitzhak Teitelbaum) during his Purim Megilla readings with people like Steve Feldman (an animal doctor) and his animals sounds, or with my father, who takes Purim very seriously, and to many people’s delight used to show up in shul with his drum set and joyfully give a concert at Haman’s name — Yitzchak’s patience is legendary. In that vein, shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah at any other shul never feels quite right because Yitzchak’s shofar blowing is quiet and clear and powerful and haunting, like no other.
WITH all the EDOS doctors, there are of course other professions represented there too.
One of the senior members of our shul is a lawyer, Mr. Jack Greenwald. When I had first moved from The Tzrif to EDOS, little Israeli me, I was confused when I was introduced to him. Not just because I was accustomed to seeing men in shul in black and white and here was Jack in a flamboyant color coordinated tie, yarmulka and suit, but we had just been to Walgreens to pick up a prescription. Greenwald? Walgreens? It all sounded the same to my Israeli ears. And so Mr. Walgreens it became. I kept calling Jack Greenwald that, and through the years it stuck. As a joke we still keep this playful little joke up. I call Jack Mr. Walgreens and he tells me everything is going well at the drugstore.
Last year EDOS celebrated its jubilee milestone — a half a century of Orthodoxy on the East Side of Denver. And one founding member, Sam Burger, still leads the Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur! This week EDOS will honor Jeff and Mindy Hecht, as well as recognize second-generation EDOS members Avi Mehler, son of Phil and Leah Mehler, and Shlomo Fried, son of Yossi and Agi Fried, for young leadership.
As for The Tzrif, I think it’s time I stop by there on my next trip to Israel.
And you? Do you have any special shul memories?
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News