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Friday night the boys and I went to the Shul. I decided ahead of time that we would avoid the Young Israel. I haven’t yet gotten around to blogging about my experiences there as a kid. There were a few good things, more than a few bad things, but overall, the Young Israel was what I considered to be my Shul when I was growing up and becoming Orthodox. I learned to daven there, and had my Bar Mitzvah there. Over the years, as I came back to New York to visit my folks, I’d go in there to daven on Shabbos.
Considering how much time I spent there as a kid and teenager, I began to get upset at how nobody now would acknowledge my presence. No, “Hey Mark, how long has it been? Welcome back,” or “Where have you been all this time?” or "Wow, are all these kids yours?" Not even a “Who are you, anyway?” At first I thought it was just that people didn’t recognize me. After all, I’ve put on some weight, gotten older, grown a beard. But the people who knew me then still recognize me. And I always made it a point to go up to the Rabbi on Friday night and say hi, and he knew exactly who I was, since I had spent a year in his Shiur (class) at Yeshiva University. And we’d talk about my kids, and the Rebbitzen in Milwaukee (whom he knew from the old country) and sometimes about how the neighborhood had changed. Still, no welcome from the bima on Saturday mornings, no aliyah (calling up to the Torah) for the old-timer whose last aliyah was at his Bar-Mitzvah. And the decorum was just deplorable. From my seat in the back (I sat there to avoid reserved seats) all I could hear was talking and then the occasional “Shhhhhhhhhh.”
A lot of the familiar faces were gone anyway. And the ones I recognized didn’t have much connection with me. So I started attending the Torah Center. I remember the Torah Center when it was a little Shteeble which I would pass on the way to the Young Israel. It is half a block from my parents’ house. In the years since I left town, it has been rebuilt as a beautiful three-story Shul with a skylight (which still looks onto the house next door). The Shul has been repopulated with expatriates from the Young Israel, some of whom, like the fathers of kids I went to school with, are familiar. Also, I like the Rabbi there very much. His sermons are always thought-provoking, and not too long. So probably for the past 10 years or so, I’ve gone there to Daven once a year during my annual pilgrimage. Despite this, it seems every time I enter the place, someone asks me if I’m “new here.” You’d think by now they would recognize me from prior years. Am I that non-descript? I give them kudos, though, for asking, because at the Young Israel no one cared enough to ask even that.
I haven’t figured out exactly how to answer that question yet. The answer is “no”, I am not “new.” I’ve just been away for a while. But it does make me stop and think. Where is my home, anyway? I grew up a block away from this Shul, lived there for 20 years, and yet I don’t really feel at home there. My home now is Milwaukee, where I’ve lived for 14 years. So maybe I really don’t belong in Hillcrest anymore. Still, I’m not “new.” I tell people that I grew up there, but eventually moved to Milwaukee. This usually gets me a look like I’m some kind of a moron. As if I had said, “I grew up in Hawaii, but decided to move to Siberia.” Why would ANYONE want to leave the Garden of Eden that is Hillcrest? If they can get past that, we talk a little more. What’s really interesting is that I actually consider most of the people who ask me if I’m “new” to be “new” themselves. Most of them moved here after I left.
What I didn’t see is a lot of familiar people my age. I encountered four altogether, but one is actually and old friend from school who grew up in Forest Hills and moved to Hillcrest later on, so he really doesn’t count. Two of the others were single, one living with his parents. So where were the other married people my age? Moved on, it seemed. The consensus was, Garden of Eden or not, most of my peers couldn’t afford to buy houses in the neighborhood where they grew up. That’s just sad. But many other young families have moved in. I also saw quite a few more black hats than I recalled. The neighborhood, which had been a fortress of Modern Orthodoxy, is quickly slipping to the right.
The Friday night services took 40 minutes, including a 5 minute sermon. This is about half the time it takes to daven in our Shul in Milwaukee. My boys were astonished. They could barely keep up. An hour and 20 minutes is too long for Friday night services. But maybe 40 minutes is too short?
Saturday morning we had a decision to make. 9am Ashkenaz minyan, or 9:15 Sefard minyan? Both in the same Shul. The boys grew up with Sefard, but I have always preferred Ashkenaz. The Sefard minyan in Milwaukee is slow as molasses. And there’s no Ashkenaz minyan at all on our side of town. So we went with the 9am minyan. I really enjoyed the davening. It was fast, sure, but I kept up and actually got into the momentum of it, something that doesn’t happen at my own Shul. They even gave me an aliyah. Even the speech was fast. The guy actually said something like “there’s an interesting Rashi commentary on this; you can look it up on your own time.”
The Shul was not as full as I remembered it from previous years. It would be a shame if membership were declining. Maybe it was vacation time for the congregants.
Saturday night, we went out for pizza. We did pass the Coldstone Creamery (a scant 5 blocks from my house!) but the line was out the door so we didn’t stop. A nice little pizzeria had opened down the block, and we ran into some of the people from the shul, and believe it or not, they actually remembered me from the morning! There’s hope yet. We’ll see if they ask if I’m “new here” next year.
Sunday morning I finally gave in and we caught a Shacharis minyan at the Young Israel. It was another one of those “don’t blink or you’ll miss Shmoneh Esrei” minyanim that took 25 minutes, start to finish (and no one had to skip Tachanun). For my kids, it was like a ride at Disneyland. I have to say that while I generally prefer faster davening, I may have become a little too accustomed to the slow pace of Milwaukee davening. Something in between would suit me well.
One interesting thing: I did encounter an old friend who moved back into the neighborhood. He recognized me instantly, even though we hadn't seen each other in close to 20 years. He saw me with my 3 tall sons davening. He assessed the situation and commented to me about it. 4 men. One wearing a leather yarmulke, one with a black hat, and two with big felt yarmulkes. He thought it was significant. Vehamayvin Yavin.
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