The Last Minyan of Shaarai Torah East, Part 1

For the past couple of months, writing this blog has been easy.  I skirted on the edges of my own personal narrative and mainly focused on the voices of others in the city.  Even though I have been writing in a more popular form, I still wore the cloak of a rational academic.  This post is different.  I am veering into one of my own personal Worcester stories. Putting myself out there in this way, takes courage.  It can be a mean world out there in the blogosphere, as we all know well here in Worcester, don’t we? 

 From 1996 to 1999, I dedicated a huge amount of time and effort to save Shaarai Torah East, the last remaining synagogue on the East Side of Worcester.  During that process, I got to know all the old men who were members of the last minyan there.  By the time I met them, they could barely make a quorum of ten needed to pray.  In time, I listened and recorded the stories of each man.  All the quotes peppered throughout this narrative come directly from those oral history transcripts.  In 1999, I wrote an unpublished book, The Last Minyan: A Lovesong to the Broadway Boys based on those final years of Shaarai Torah East.  It’s impossible to condense this whole story and convey the nuances of each man’s story in one little blog post. So, let me boil it down to this:  Once a beautiful building bewitched me and almost everyone who entered its doors.  I got to play a part in fanning the last flames and sparks of a dying community.  Most importantly, I got to make a good friend and his name was Jack Pearl.  Here is the story in two parts. It’s as “readers digest” as I can get!

Shaarai Torah East at 32 Providence Street

Shaarai Torah East at 32 Providence Street

Everything has a beginning and an end. In other words, there’s no Jews living on the east side. As much as I hate to admit it, there’s no need for a synagogue here.
— Jack Pearl

This is definitely going to be like the Peace Corps, I thought when I accepted the position to become Oak Hill CDC’s first Economic Development Director in 1995.  I truly believed I would live in Worcester for two years, try to do some good in the community and then move back to civilization (Boston!).   I knew nothing about Worcester when I arrived and I knew no one.  Our board president, Paulette Lacoste was gracious enough to invite me to stay in her house those first few weeks.  Within a month, I had moved into her old, vacant apartment on the third floor of a Worcester triple decker on Wall Street.  Maybe it was fate that brought me to live and work in this particular neighborhood.  I didn’t know it when I first arrived but Union Hill used to be ground zero for the Jewish community during the first half of the twentieth century. By 1900, over 5000 Jews, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, lived crowded together in this small neighborhood.  In his memoir, The Worcester Account, the famous playwright, S.N. Behrman described their shtetl way of life. 

“We lived when I was a child and until I left Worcester, in a triple decker tenement a quarter way up the long hill that was Providence Street.  The street belonged to a few Irish, a few Poles and to us….These triple deckers which straggled up our hill, were mostly in need of paint jobs and their mass of appearance was somewhat depressing. But in many respects, they were not so bad.  They had balconies, front and back which we called piazzas. The yards in the back had fruit trees – cherry and pear and apple…The contemplative and withdrawn could sit on the back piazzas and look at the fruit trees; the urban and the worldly could sit on the front piazzas and survey the passing scene.” ( Behrman, 37)

In its heyday, there was a synagogue on almost every street corner.  At one time, you could count seven in just a three block radius.  One afternoon, Benny Bailin, the youngest of the last minyan, drove me past Waverly Street where a mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, had once been located.  Kosher butchers and bakeries lined Water Street, the main commercial thoroughfare at the bottom of the hill.  

At the end of Shabbat after sunset on Saturdays, I was told that Water Street was so packed with people that one could barely move. Photo courtesy of Worcester Historical Museum

At the end of Shabbat after sunset on Saturdays, I was told that Water Street was so packed with people that one could barely move. Photo courtesy of Worcester Historical Museum

On Water Street at one time, it was all Jewish. There used to be two or three butcher stores, two or three fish stores, 2 – 3 poultry markets. There was foot traffic there like a parade in New York. Every Sunday, everybody would come down and go to Woodman’s Creamery to buy fresh creameries and go into the bakery to buy fresh rolls. I used to go to Slonimsky and Ritz to get a sandwich with my brother. One of the guys there that owned the place says to me, “I’ve got a girl in Boston that I would like you to meet. If she came to Worcester, would you take her out?” I says, “possibly”. Sure enough, I got a call from this guy that the girl was coming in. I took her out and I liked her.
— Milton Griff, member of the last minyan, on how he met his wife on Water Street
By the time I moved to the neighborhood in 1995, the Jews had already migrated to the west side and to outlying suburbs.  Only a handful of Jewish stores remained on Water Street.  There were little hints of the past though if one looked closely. Note the Hebrew lettering on this former synagogue in the neighborhood that had now become a church.

By the time I moved to the neighborhood in 1995, the Jews had already migrated to the west side and to outlying suburbs.  Only a handful of Jewish stores remained on Water Street.  There were little hints of the past though if one looked closely. Note the Hebrew lettering on this former synagogue in the neighborhood that had now become a church.

I thought I must be the only Jew here left living in this neighborhood in 1995. I didn’t know that there was a small group of men who refused to admit that it was time to move on.

Earth Day 1996.  For our neighborhood clean-up, I had paired up with three young people who lived in a triple decker at the bottom of Providence Street.  The children wanted to plant seedlings in their own yard so we were heading in that direction, right in front of Shaarai Torah, a rather nondescript three story brick building.  I noticed the sign posted, “All are invited, services daily” with Jack Pearl’s name and home phone number.  The downstairs door opened at just that time, a small group of old men exiting the building.  I spoke to Barry Jaffe that morning.  He was still wearing his kippah[1] from his praying and a business suit.  It was the end of tax season and Barry was an accountant.  He must have been going back to work then.  I could not believe that there was an actual synagogue in operation in this neighborhood.  Barry told me that they had a minyan[2]every Saturday and a brotherhood breakfast every Sunday, but the person I should really talk to would be Jack Pearl. So, I did. I called Jack.  Jack was the one who first showed me the inside of Shaarai Torah East.

Ah, but before I tell you about my first time, here is a bit about the history of this building:

Shaarai Torah East[3] was the synagogue of synagogues on the hill.  In 1904, a group of men accompanied the architect Edward T. Chapin to survey Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City as a model for the new building.  The sanctuary became the crowning glory – huge arched windows pouring in light, pilasters holding up a women’s balcony that could seat 340.  The balcony railings were later decorated with seventeen different landscape scenes of Palestine before the modern state of Israel was established.  Chandeliers hung down from the ceiling and the bimah where the men read from the Torah was situated smack in the center of the room. This downstairs part of the sanctuary could seat up to 470 men.[4]  Then, there was that stained glass window with the Star of David that poured yellow light pooling on the floor below. 

An interior shot of the holy sanctuary of Shaarai Torah.  Courtesy of Worcester Historical Musuem

An interior shot of the holy sanctuary of Shaarai Torah.  Courtesy of Worcester Historical Musuem

In my life, I’ve fallen in love with a handful of men.  I never had the experience of falling in love with a building!  But that is what happened that first day when Jack walked me through Shaarai Torah. How can one explain the feeling of climbing a mountain, walking in a vast desert alone or basking in the afternoon light shining through that stained glass window of Shaarai Torah?  I never met a person whose breath did not momentarily stop when they climbed the stairs to reach that sanctuary. 

Aahh... that window and how the light shone through it pooling its yellow on the floor below.  Photo courtesy of Worcester Historical Musuem

Aahh... that window and how the light shone through it pooling its yellow on the floor below.  Photo courtesy of Worcester Historical Musuem

There’s a certain feeling when you walk in there upstairs in the main sanctuary. At the tip of the day (are you familiar with the stained glass window?), the sun would be setting in the west and that was the direction with the star so the light was coming into the synagogue. Everything was lit up by the sun through the stained glass window… just a tremendous site, a tremendous feeling to be there.
— Joel Shaw, member of the last minyan
I give lots of tours (here). People will ask me, ‘What are they going to do with the building?’ or ‘they can’t let this go’ and I always say, ‘who is this ‘they’?’ There is no ‘they’.
— Jack Pearl, the day he first showed me Shaarai Torah
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to come here in the middle of the night. I’ve found eggs thrown at the stained glass window. Once, they stripped the copper pipes in the basement. The worst time was when they came, took down the mezuzahs and stomped on them. And do you know what? I got calls from the priest across the street and many Christians. They asked, ‘can we help?’ but not one call from any other Jews.
— Jack Pearl, that first tour
Jack always held court at the table to the left of the front door of the Broadway.  Egg beaters was his usual breakfast and he mourned the fact that he could no longer partake in the cholesterol laden Sunday breakfasts.  He cooked them but for his health, he no longer ate them. 

Jack always held court at the table to the left of the front door of the Broadway.  Egg beaters was his usual breakfast and he mourned the fact that he could no longer partake in the cholesterol laden Sunday breakfasts.  He cooked them but for his health, he no longer ate them. 

Jack and several of the men from the minyan actually spent more time down the hill at the Broadway on Water Street than at the synagogue.  Every weekday morning, they all converged there to have breakfast, read the paper and throw out a piece of gossip.  It was down at the Broadway that I really got to know some of the characters of the last minyan.  One of the most colorful had to be Irving Yarock, better known as “the colonel”, a man who never married, dressed up in fine suits and sported a soft, silky smooth bald head.  He was a tough, old guy.  In 1941, he entered the army and climbed the ranks to colonel.  He must have had nine lives,  having been captured three separate times during the war, even enduring a 27 month stint in a German camp.  At the advice of an Italian priest, he didn’t write down his religion on the papers his captors made him fill.  He took his chances, surviving a forced 360 mile march across Poland in the winter.  Though the commanders finally ordered the guard to shoot the prisoners, luck was still on Irving’s side and the guards refused to obey the orders.  That’s the story Irving told me one morning.

Every morning, I read the obituary. If my name’s not there, I come down (to the Broadway) for breakfast.
— Irving Yarock, member of the last minyan

Irving had a wicked, irreverent sense of humor and he thought religion was just a total scam.

All of those old timers who went to shul three times a day, they were pretty good drinkers. If you had a yahrzeit, you brought stuff, raw 180 proof type of stuff cause there were a lot of bootleggers in those days during Prohibition, sure. Ah, these guys would take a water glass of whisky, just take it down in one swallow. Burn your throat all the way and they would shake their head and say, “Oh, that’s good!” The rawer it was, the better they liked it, the more it burned.
— Irving Yarock and his wicked sense of humor

So, why would Irving be a regular of the minyan if he saw the hypocrisy of religion?  Simply put, he had to go because Jack needed him to be there.  If he did not roll himself out of bed around the corner from the shul and get his ass in there, they couldn’t pray.

Quite often, they didn’t make the tenth. When they were counting up, they always counted me in. They’d say, ‘You’re coming, aren’t you?’ and I’d say, ‘ok.’
— Irving Yarock on why he attended the last minyan

Irving always cracked me up and I got to know these men really well over the years of breakfasts at the Broadway. I began to become a regular fixture at these breakfasts starting in the spring and summer of 1996, trekking down to the Broadway at least two to three times a week.  The first time I tried to pay for my breakfast, Jack yelled at me, “put your money away.” For all the hundreds of breakfasts I ate there during those years, I never once paid for my own.  Austin Kennedy once turned to me and elbowed my arm, “You see that guy,” Austin eyed over in the direction of Jack, “he’s a Jewish Santa Claus.”  Jack ran his own construction business even though at age 74, he didn’t do actual pick and shovel work.  Subcontractors stopped in and out of the Broadway. He’d open his wallet full of cash to pay them for jobs.  One morning, a woman came into the restaurant and told Jack her boyfriend was not feeling well.  He took out a wad of bills from his pocket and handed them directly to her.  “I’ll never see that again,” Jack shrugged his shoulders.  But that was Jack.  He constantly gave to others.

The talk around the Broadway breakfast table at the time I began to join them was around the Second Baptist Church’s upcoming move to Shaarai Torah.  Displaced by the urban renewal land takeovers for Medical City in downtown, the Second Baptist congregation had negotiated a deal to take over the synagogue.  Reverend Hargrove had personally purchased the adjacent lots to turn into parking and the church had paid the building insurance that past year.  But something was wrong.  As the summer of 1996 progressed, Jack and the other congregants who were a part of the Broadway crowd, become demoralized about the property transfer to the church.  The Reverend no long returned Jack’s phone calls.  One morning, Jack showed us an article in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette about Reverend Hargrove negotiating to purchase another building for his congregation.  Here was proof that the deal with Shaarai Torah had fallen through.  Jack teetered between anger and worry that morning.  “What’s going to happen now? Now, what are we going to do?” Jack moaned.  He blamed the church for “putting me out of business” because in anticipation of the building transfer that past year, he had canceled the daily morning minyans. I opened my big mouth that morning and I promised him I’d “do something.”

Here’s the little “something” I did.  I asked my two bosses, Joanne Foster and Harriett Lebow, if we could organize a visit to the synagogue to see how Oak Hill CDC could work with the congregants to figure out what to do about the building.  The congregants courted our little group on the day we arrived to meet.  They had hired someone to de-weed and nicely mulch the outside front yard.  The interior had been tidied and vacuumed and most of the men of the last minyan – Milton Griff, Eddie Smith, Syd Yaffe, Barry Jaffe, Rabbi Fisher, Henry Shapiro, Benny Bailin, Irving Yarock and of course, Jack, were all there to hear our offer.  There was no offer of course.  We were there to help them figure out the next steps.   Henry Shapiro, one of the oldest congregants in his nineties, leaned over to Milton Griff and whispered, “I see, they don’t have any MONEY!”  Henry might have thought he was whispering but his words echoed throughout the room. We all nervously laughed.  Joanne proposed that Oak Hill help organize a committee to explore options for reuse. 

TO BE CONTINUED IN THE FOLLOWING POST

 

 

 

 

[1] Head covering worn by observant Jews

[2] Observant Jews require that ten men, ages 13 and older, be present in order to pray the full service.

[3] In 1957, Jews who had migrated over to the west side of Worcester founded Shaarai Torah West, its counterpart on the other side of town.  Jack used to brag that Shaarai Torah East had two daily minyans for many years, something that never happened at Shaarai Torah West. 

[4] In orthodox congregations, men and women sit in separate seating sections.

[5] Prayer shawls

[6] A burial space reserved for holy books and papers that contain the name of G-d.