Saturday, October 4, 2014

Not only do you fast at Yom Kippur, you pay for the privilege

     Five years ago, at the height of the recession and feeling a pinch ourselves, it seemed apt to write about the economic jolt that Yom Kippur can deliver to the faithful. What sets this column apart is the extraordinarily tone deaf, tetchy and charmless response by the executive director at the Free Synagogue in Evanston, which I've appended below. 

     Chicago doesn't have a proper Jewish deli. Some will grumble at that statement, will point to Manny's on Roosevelt Road. But Manny's serves cafeteria-style, so it doesn't count -- cafeteria-style deli is like take-out French: the food could be wonderful, but the format undercuts it.
     I'm also biased against Manny's because I was first taken there years ago by Dr. Robert Stein, the Cook County medical examiner, for lunch after a long morning spent watching him perform autopsies. That tends to put off your appetite for a place, forever.
     Upscale delis like The Bagel certainly try, and their food is fine, I guess. But they're too clean. You want a deli to have a certain dingy, loud, shut-up-and-eat quality, not to be a bland plastic place. You want your waitress at a Jewish deli to be some harried Eastern European woman in her mid-50s with flabby, flapping biceps and a look of sour forbearance etched into her face, not a perky part-time aerobics instructor brightly suggesting you try the Chinese chopped salad.
     Of course, now that I ask myself what, indeed, I consider a real Jewish deli, I realize I'm thinking of Corky & Lenny's, in Cleveland, with jars of sour pickles on the tables and big baskets of fresh bread and chocolate phosphates slopping down the glass as they're slapped down before you. Of course, were I to go there now, I'm sure I'd find it doesn't compare to itself in memory either.
     Not that Chicago is without Jewish culinary institutions. There is, for instance, Romanian Kosher Sausage on Clark Street—everyone simply calls it "Romanian." The odd thing about Romanian is: Though I never think about it when it's not in sight—I never say to my wife, "Hey, let's drive to Romanian!"—I don't believe I've ever passed by without stopping in. 
     Because you can't get this stuff just anywhere—the best kosher pastrami, salami, garlic hot dogs, chicken, kishke—all of which we piled into a basket after Romanian's irresistible pull forced us off Touhy last week and inside. How can you not? People journey there from Indiana, from Wisconsin. They place enormous orders and drag them back to Jewish communities stranded in Iowa. The guy in front of me bought $445.58 worth of meat to take back to Michigan.
     "We get people from St. Louis," said the clerk.
     A bold sign in Romanian orders: "Get your Rosh Hashanah and Sukkoth fresh meat order in your freezer now!! DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE. AVOID HIGHER PRICES AND SHORTAGES."
     I admire the severity of that -- given the perils facing Jews, you really have to drive home a threat to catch our attention. This is a time of heightened alertness, because it's now September, the High Holidays loom, and they inspire a certain frantic, musical chairs angst -- the song stops Sept. 18 for Rosh Hashanah, and if you didn't plan ahead, you have no brisket. A week later, the needle is lifted for Yom Kippur, and if you weren't careful, you have nowhere to stand and beat your chest.
     Even the most casual, ham and cheese Jews like to visit a synagogue on Yom Kippur. The way to guarantee a seat is to join a congregation -- some don't let non-members in. But only 40 percent of America's ebbing Jewish population belongs to a temple, and the 60 percent who don't belong sometimes have to scramble.
     For synagogues, the High Holidays present a dilemma. On one hand, you've got all these twice-a-year Jews traipsing through -- what better time to put out the Welcome mat, wrap your prayer shawl lovingly around their shoulders and draw these strangers back toward the comforts of faith?
     On the other, the synagogue needs a new roof, you've got customers eager for what you're selling, and what better way to fill the empty coffers than to charge admission?
     On the Chicago Board of Rabbis Web site list (at, High Holidays ticket prices range as high as $500; Evanston's Beth Emet The Free Synagogue charges $400 -- ironic, given the name.
     Many synagogues will waive fees for students and the indigent. With the economy still in the toilet, others are scrapping tickets altogether.
Makom Shalom, a renewal synagogue in the South Loop, doesn't sell tickets and instead asks for donations.
     "People are under tremendous economic pressure," says Chava Bahle, rabbi at Makom Shalom. "The pay-to-pray model is not appealing."
     As uncomfortable as the topic is, touching on old slurs about Jews and money, it is also a significant issue in a faith that risks evaporating into the anything-goes polychromatic wasteland of American culture. A lot of American Jews wouldn't enter synagogue if you paid them, so the money question is one that synagogues are grappling with as they try to rally the tribe while there is still a tribe to rally.
     "Almost all congregations these days are really sensitive to economic realities," says Rabbi Michael Balinsky, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. "People have to understand, it costs something to do services -- rabbis have to be paid, rooms have to rented, synagogues have to pay their electric bills and water bills. That's the reality. Everything costs."
     AND YET. . .
     "The last thing we want to do is have people feel they can't come to services," he continues. "We want everyone to be there who wants to be there, and no one is going to be turned away for financial reasons." 
                                                                  —Aug. 31, 2009
     The scorched-earth rhetoric that passes as political speech infects our daily conversations. People express disagreement by blasting away with both barrels. No one is mildly miffed -- it's always full-blown, quivering outrage.
     But to what end? The reason for complaint should be to get a point across, perhaps even change minds, and here a bit of sugar does wonders. You can insult or you can persuade, but you can't do both.
     Early last week, I ran a column that began by claiming there are no decent Jewish delis in Chicago, then shifted to the topic of synagogues charging for tickets at Yom Kippur. I expected to hear from delis, honked off at being overlooked.
     But the delis were very polite, and two had a point. Kaufman's on Dempster in Skokie sent a puzzled note. I wrote back that I've been patronizing Kaufman's for 25 years but didn't consider them because, in my mind, they're not a deli, but a bagel bakery that sells cold cuts. A fine distinction, perhaps.
     Max & Benny's, the Northbrook institution, also cleared its throat. I overlooked them because they're right under my ample nose. But space is tight, so we'll save them for another day.
     As for the tickets, Chabad, the ultraorthodox group, pointed out, in their characteristic friendly, upbeat fashion, that their services are always free. I've gone to Chabad services, and they are lively, if heavy on the Hebrew.
     In fact, the only real nastiness I got was from Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, aghast that I would make a pun about them.
    Here is the offending line, in its entirety:
     "Evanston's Beth Emet The Free Synagogue charges $400 -- ironic, given the name."
     I won't bore you with the full response from Bekki Harris Kaplan, Beth Emet's executive director, but it includes the words "angered" "obnoxious," "upset," "sarcasm," "character attacks" and "saddened."
     She said she wanted dialogue, so I wrote to her:
     "If you truly want dialogue, two questions: 1) Why is listing the $400 fee OK on the Board of Rabbis Web site, but a 'slam' when I include it in a column on the challenge of both welcoming Jews to synagogue and paying for services? 2) If I wrote, 'I was in the free weight room at the East Bank Club, which is ironic, because it costs $200 a month to use it,' I bet the general manager of the East Bank Club would be smart enough not to send me a starchy note. Why aren't you?"
     Alas, she did not reply, which makes for a very one-sided dialogue. In case she's moved to dialogue now, I'll add a third question: "How can anyone purporting to represent a people so rich in humor, irony, wit and whimsy collapse into a moaning heap of complaint when her own ox is nicked?"

     Postscript: A ticket to Beth Emet now sets you back $500, a 25 percent increase in five years, according to the Board of Rabbis web site. And yes, Ms. Kaplan is still the executive director of the Free Synagogue, no doubt using her charm to draw the faithful through their gates. I never did hear back from her.


  1. I'm glad you rerun some of your old columns. I regard myself as a daily reader, but have evidently missed quite a lot of great material over the years.


    1. It's easy to do, especially when they're coming at you four times a week. I figure, if they're germane, and more than five years old, they're worth a second look.

  2. Even as a kid, decades ago, going down Ridge & seeing a sign calling it "The Free Synagogue" baffled me.
    I guess it meant something different before the 1950s, when I first saw it.

  3. I live in Racine. We go to Chicago once a year for a Cubs game. Kind of a family outing. It is probably the one time of the year that both of our boys are home at the same time. We have been going to Kaufmann's for years for corned beef sandwiches to take to the game. Imagine our surprise when we saw they were closed a couple of years ago because of a fire. Some how I missed that news.

  4. don't know if you'd consider the old Jerry's on Grand Avenue a proper Jewish deli, but at its height it sure had that "certain dingy, loud, shut-up-and-eat quality" down pat.
    gut yontif.

    1. Never heard of it. Is it still there?

    2. Jerry's is long gone. It was on Grand, just east of Lower Michigan.
      Check out YouTube to see if any of the TV news reports done from there are online.
      It was a madhouse run by a madman, Jerry, who yelled at everyone & was always telling his countermen to do it faster.

    3. when i worked at various ad agencies in the neighborhood, it was universally known as "screaming jerry's."

  5. We have "pay to play" in politics, so I guess "pay to pray" in religion isn't unespected..

  6. This is why at Shir Hadash, we offer High Holiday Memberships, not Tickets, the membership is good for the whole High Holiday season (about a month) we encourage everyone to try out a class or two, come to other services, especially Sukkot and Simchat Torah, we unroll the Torah around the room and Rabbi Eitan shows off interesting calligraphic high points as well as stories. The kids march around the room with flags and toy Torahs, and everyone gets Affy Tapples. We also only ask $54 per person if you have never joined with us before and $250 if you have. Some people are so moved as to become full time members. (We would love to have you guys back)

  7. I have had some personal experience meeting Bekki Harris Kaplan in her role as executive director of Beth Emet. Suffice to say that her response to you, and her lack of response when you opened the dialogue that she supposedly asked for, does not surprise me in the least.


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