Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, Moishe Oysher and the First Roumanian (a little late…sorry)

10 Oct

Yom Kippur (pronounced “Yum Kip-per” or “Yun Kip-peh” and not “Yom Kip-pur”) is the holiest day of the Jewish year; just thought I should explain, I don’t want to under or overestimate my readers’ knowledge.  It’s the Day of Atonement, which closes the ten beautifully named Days of Awe that begin with the Jewish New Year (“Happy New Year to Everyone“), when Jews fast and atone for their – “sins” is too Catholic – for their moral failures, let’s say.

Kol Nidre, the first few words of which are heard sung by Moishe Oysher in the clip from “Overture to Glory,” (see Kol Nidre) is sung on the eve of Yom Kippur.  “All Vows” in Aramaic, the prayer, which in many ways has become the center of the day’s observance, asks God for release from any promise or oath that one will make in the coming year.  Controversial even among Jews at certain periods in Jewish history, in the Gentile world the prayer has generated volumes of anti-Semitic garbage, along the lines that one can imagine: sneaky Jews starting their year off with a legal loophole, etc.  What Kol Nidre asks of God is understanding for the many ethical obligations that an honest man knows he will not be able to completely live up to in the coming year; it’s not a request for a moral pass or a license to lie.  It’s an expression of terrible honesty, in fact.

Moishe Oysher (click)

Moishe Oysher was a Moldavian-born star of Yiddish theater and cinema, first in Europe, then mostly in the Americas, who almost accidentally stumbled into the real-life role of cantor at the First Roumanian Shul* on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side.  His powerful voice, entertaining and dramatic style (disliked by many purists), and movie star looks made him, and the First Roumanian, a sensation in the 1930s and 40s when he sang there, apparently increasing the congregation’s size to overflowing.  “Ooooh yeaaaah….” the ancient caretaker who showed me and a friend the decrepit interior the one time I was in there in the early 90s, “Moishe Oysher…they say he really packed in the gallery [where the women sat] in those days, he he…”

Unfortunately Oysher died young, at 51, and unfortunately the First Roumanian Shul (see below) was torn down or — like used to happen to “landmark” buildings in Greece — allowed to collapse in 2006.  It wasn’t any stunner of a building, but it was a historic center of Jewish New York and it had some of the best acoustics of any interior space in the city.  Its congregation was tiny at that point and only used the basement, even on Yom Kippur, but it could have easily been used as a concert hall or musical venue of sorts like so many houses of worship in the city whose demographic environment has changed.  In fact, it was in the process of being designated a landmark when, under shady New York real estate circumstances that may have involved the leaders of the congregation itself, city money for repairs was delayed for so long that the roof collapsed, the building was declared irreparable and the shul was demolished a few months later.

Like so much of the neighborhood, once the site of terrible poverty and the greatest population density of any equivalent set of square miles of urban space in history, but the wellspring of so much of New York’s historical and cultural and political life, the shul’s space is now occupied by a condo, with the old yeshiva side-door set into the glass façade in one of those contrived architectural pastiches that only add insult to injury for me, and Rivington Street no longer echoes to the booming voices of cantors on the High Holy Days but the screeching of drunk white girls pouring out of its series of identical bars at closing time.  At least Katz’s can still make a living.**

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*Shul: “school” literally, in Yiddish, is the traditional Ashkenazi term for “synagogue,” a Greek word which means roughly the same thing: a place to come together and pray and study (“train,” if you like, for those that recognize the second half of the word from “pedagogue” — or the movie 300…  Venetian Jews called their synagogues “scuole.”  Oddly enough, I don’t know what Sephardim call theirs.)  I don’t know where American Reform and Conservative Jews got the, frankly, sacrilegious idea of calling a “synagogue” a “Temple.”  There was only One Temple to the One God in the One City; you can’t rebuild one in Great Neck or Forest Hills.  I cringe whenever I hear it.

**Katz’s is a delicatessen on the corner of Ludlow and Houston, literally around the block from where the First Roumanian used to be.  Like most Jewish businesses on the Lower East Side by the 1980s, it was sliding downhill and hanging on by a thread, when the sudden explosion of the neighborhood (starting with, and especially, Ludlow Street) into the center of under 35 nightlife in the city gave it a new lease on life.  It’s now on every New York tourist’s itinerary and is open twenty-four hours a day, packed when the bars close after 4:00 a.m.  It has decent undistinguished pastrami, but nothing there is especially good.  A better post-bar munchies choice is Bereket, down the street on the corner of Orchard, the Turkish place that has a variety of meat-kebab-doner choices and zeytinyagli-ladera-vegetable dishes, but you have to deal with vegans there.

There’s still excellent pastrami to be had in New York around the clock, but I’m not telling where.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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