Sunday, May 3, 2020
Strange interlude 2003: Synagogue symbol of a larger ruin
Several times over the years I searched for this unsettling column, but couldn't pull it out of Nexis. It had simply vanished. Then, a few months back, I tried a different system, and found it. But I still wasn't ready to post the column. I knew I had taken a photo of the moldy, rotting books, but couldn't lay my hands on it either. It was taken back in the day of film, and wasn't on my computer. I figured, "Wait." Then Thursday, I was pulling down some books in my office, and this picture was, for some unfathomable reason, in a stack of photos tucked between the books. I'm glad to finally be able to share it, after 17 years. I think the reminder is timely at this political moment: others can't hurt us as badly as we can hurt ourselves.
The floor crunched. Each footstep made a sickening noise, like treading on masses of broken eggshells, the sound of crushing crumbled floor tiles, shards of fallen plaster and pieces of collapsed ceiling. There were enormous Rorschach blot patterns of black and brown mold all around, delicate, almost beautiful curled sheets of peeling paint clinging to the walls, and a wide greenish puddle in the center of what was once Rebecca Kranz Crown social hall. It was chilly and dark, and the air had a fungal smell.
Each room had a fresh horror. In the kitchen they had left the food, in the cupboards, in the refrigerator, to suppurate for years. I gingerly touched a blue canister of salt that was puffed up on the counter. It was soft as a sponge.
This was Congregation Beth Sholom of Rogers Park, or at least had been, once, before it was abandoned nearly five years ago. My brother-in-law, Alan Goldberg, a community activist, had mentioned he was trying to save an abandoned synagogue, and I asked to see it.
I like old synagogues. They're hard to find. Chicago Jews did not invent white flight, but they mastered it, and most of the grand old synagogues in the city have been converted to churches or schools or torn down. When East Rogers Park "changed," Beth Sholom's future lit out for the suburbs.
"The membership literally died out," said Joseph Gold, whose father was the rabbi there from 1958 to 1975. "There were not enough younger families moving into the neighborhood. It used to be a very viable congregation. They had a bowling league, and a men's club, and a ladies' club. Over the course of time, the young people moved away, and they weren't replaced."
When I suggested a visit, I anticipated a musty old building, dim and dusty and enigmatic. I hadn't expected a ruin. I didn't expect dissolving books. I didn't expect a ruined sanctuary, with its rose walls and cream plasterwork of lions and pillars, the cushions of the maroon plush seats rotted away, exposing skeletal coils of rusty springs. The thick velvet curtains, embroidered with gold, were still hanging. Books left on the seats, as if people had rushed away, mid-service, were turning black and melting. In a small room off the pulpit, a once-fine upright piano had warped itself to pieces, the keys shedding their ivory, swelling together, crazing like a mouthful of broken teeth. I tried to tap one, and it didn't move.
Parts of the ceiling came down in the heavy snows of 1998, and water rushed in like a pack of vandals. You could hear it everywhere, even though it hadn't rained for days, dripping and plunking, like muffled drumbeats. Most of the books were protected, sort of, in cabinets, piled by the dozens. Prayer books, Torah studies, but a few historic books. I picked up a yellowed thin volume, in Yiddish, a book published in Vilnius, Lithuania, in the 1920s, Various Important Prayers for Women Written by Women. Think of the inferno this volume escaped, to come here to die in the damp in Chicago. Why?
"Unfortunately, a couple of years ago we had an unscrupulous rabbi who wanted to sell the building," said Lynne Bloch, president of the board of trustees, such as it is. "He actually sold the thing--imagine the chutzpa of him--and it was a whole big fight."
That didn't make sense--rabbis are the employees of their boards. They don't own buildings and can't sell them, not without committing fraud. Slowly, I teased out a tale of a conflict on the board-- some wanted to sell the building, others to keep it. It seemed quite beside the point. How could they leave the books? How could she let this happen?
"Believe me, I called people," she said. "I didn't wait. I tried all along, but I myself didn't know anyone influential."
There was an inertia that disgusted me. A waiting on rich people, on people of "influence," to ride in and save the day. You didn't need Jay Pritzker to gather up the books and take them somewhere dry. You didn't need Lester Crown to spread plastic tarps over the seats in the sanctuary. It would have been an hour's work for two people.
I asked to talk to other members of the board, and she put me in touch with her daughter, Helen Bloch, who denied being on the board--worried about liability, she said, since the building has no insurance--and shrugged off questions of ownership and legality.
"I never really thought about it too much," said Bloch, a lawyer for the City of Chicago, who advised me not to get "bogged down in legal details" and instead focus on the possible redemption of the synagogue--as a place of worship, or perhaps as a Jewish center.
A nice thought. I don't want to fault the Blochs too much. It seems they have, in their own limited way, been trying to keep the building alive. And who knows, perhaps the community activists gathered by my brother-in-law can perform a miracle. He's saved other buildings in the area that were overrun with drug addict squatters and stray dogs.
But this would require a miracle, and miracles are in short supply of late. The chill gloom of the ruined synagogue stayed with me for hours, for days. I feel it now. No marauding enemies did this. This was a self-inflicted wound. As bad as the decay was, worse was how it, to me, symbolized a larger spiritual ruin. The demographic time bomb of half of all American Jews marrying outside their faiths, producing ever-more casual semi-believers in a gradual decay that threatens to eradicate the religion with an efficiency the Nazis could only dream of.
Outside, in the parking lot, one of the men I was with produced a prayer book and turned to the special prayer to be said upon viewing a destroyed synagogue. Of course. We would have such a prayer, wouldn't we? History demands it. The prayer was the standard blessing, beginning "Blessed art thou, Lord our God, king of the universe . . ." the benediction that could veer off into wine, or bread, or whatever else was needed blessing. Just as the Mourner's Kaddish never mentions death, so the prayer for destroyed synagogues never mentions either destruction or synagogues, but merely praises God as a true judge. That, to me, was the coldest realization of all--not the rotting books, not the molding walls, but the understanding that this loss was deserved. A self-inflicted wound. I'm certain of that. Whether the enormous effort needed for redemption will take place is another matter. But I have a hunch.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 18, 2003