More than 40 years ago, a Ramaz high school boy living near the Parkchester section of the Bronx received a telescope as a present. He discovered that if he aimed that telescope just so out of his bedroom window, peering over the cement backyards and black-tar garage rooftops, he could see the Parkchester elevated train station as if it were some distant star.
Now deep into middle age and living in the Midwest, he remembers that in the darkening Bronx afternoons, through the round lens he could see what looked like a toy train, the subway doors opening to reveal brightly lit interiors while out stepped the silhouettes of so many of the Jews he knew ó fathers coming home from work, yeshiva classmates carrying briefcases
ó stepping onto the platform and into the night.
To the people exiting that train, nothing could have been drearier than to be on that subway platform, but through that distant lens the view was spectacular.
Thereís not much left of Jewish Parkchester, and few residents probably ever thought they were particularly historic, but to Jeffrey Gurock, a Parkchester expatriate and professor of American Jewish studies at Yeshiva University, the view of the old neighborhood is spectacular when seen through the lens of old shul bulletins and journals that are being collected in the YU archives.
History, Gurock says, sometimes can best be understood from the bottom up, and the simplicity of these old documents reveals a street-corner neighborliness whose loss can only be hinted at in the cold numbers of the recent UJA-Federation Jewish Community Study. The study reports that the Bronx Jewish population has dropped 45 percent in the last decade alone.
Gurock, who collected the bulletins and shul publications when the Young Israel of Parkchester sold its building earlier this year, noted that modern synagogue bulletins often are not mailed, nor are they a half-dozen glossy pages as they were 25 years ago. These days, shul bulletins increasingly are little more than one-page flyers, left in the lobby, containing perhaps a timetable for prayers and brief scheduling advisories.
Not so in old Parkchester. Before the bulletins were packed off to the YU archives, I found myself amid the synagogueís cobwebs and, leafing through the strewn papers, discovered bulletins that left me feeling like I was leaning against a half-opened Dutch door getting to know the neighbors.
March 1969: Harry Brooks is ìstill recovering from a most harrowing experience of being stranded on the parkway for 18 hours in the blizzard.î
Happy birthday Milton Skulnik (March 29), and you, too, Helen Winkler (March 24). That March there were greetings for 53 birthdays, 14 wedding anniversaries, information that surely launched conversations on the sidewalk outside shul.
Sadye Levine, who plays piano for the Womenís League, writes that ìAl and I are looking forward to our trip to Israel and Europe with the Cantors and the Nussbaums.î
ìSophie and Irving Coe will spend Passover in the mountains.î
The Womenís League fawns over Ann Hurwitz for giving a book review with ìher usual excellent oratory and gracious manner.î And at the Sunday Brunch Fashion Show she ìnarrated in her own inimitable way.î
At an evening for shul women, ìFay looked like a queen, and to our delight and surprise, made the shortest speech of the evening.î
The annual dinner had just been held at the Concourse Plaza, when it was still a first-class hotel. Julie Horowitz was toastmaster for ìthe largest [dinner] in the history of our congregation.î The ìfood and service were superb,î and Stanley Langer ìpointed out that Torah learning is the very basis of Judaism.î
But some news that March hinted of the neighborhoodís decline: ìWarning: There is no bakery in our borough of the Bronx that bakes properly supervised kosher cakes, cookies or macaroons for Passover for retail consumption.î
And there was one more forgettable incident, as ominous as a single drop of rain. One shul bulletin was stamped ìreturn to sender.î Synagogue member Milton Skulnik, even as the bulletin greeted him with a ìHappy Birthday,î apparently had moved away from Theriot Avenue. ìNot forwardable,î stamped the Post Office. ìAddress Unknown.î
There was one less Jew in Parkchester.
The times were still happy-go-lucky. The synagogueís sisterhood probably would have written Milton a farewell song if they knew he was leaving, perhaps to the tune of ìJamaica Farewell.î To the Parkchester women, it seemed there was no thought that couldnít best be said by song, as in 1982 when they serenaded Shirley the secretary to a parody of Irving Berlinís ìAlways.î
ìWe are thanking you, Shirley
For the things you do, Shirley
... bazaars, posters, phone
We never leave you alone,
But remember that we love you, Shirley.î
By 1990 the bulletin was no longer glossy and was published less frequently. The ìmembership fee is nominal,î but in December there was only one new member, a dentist who didnít move to Parkchester but listed his office as his membership address.
There were still ìBest wishes and felicitationsî ó Happy birthday Lewis Bernstein (Jan. 9); you too, Ted Buchsbaum (Jan. 10) ó but more goodbyes. In September/October 1993, Sylvia Libert thanks everyone ìfor all the cards, calls and gifts I received when I moved to my new apartment in Flushing.î
The many departures leave neighborhood shuls so depleted that the Young Israel and Beth Jacob on Leland Avenue join together for services, says the bulletin, with alternating weeks at the otherís building.
By 1993, Rabbi Seymour Schwartz writes, ìOur outlook is rather bleak due to the dwindling Jewish population in our area.î Nevertheless, ìNo greater joy can be found ... than the satisfaction in knowing that we have persevered, overcoming what may be insurmountable odds in continuing our holy work for this community.î
The 1992-93 Yizkor pamphlet notes that Irene Horowitz said Yizkor for Julie Horowitz, the toastmaster of 1969. Florence Maslow said Yiskor for Leo Maslow, Menís Club treasurer and 1982ís guest of honor at the shulís dinner at Leonardís of Great Neck on Long Island.
There are no bulletins in 2003, just an item in a community paper, the Bronx Times Reporter, that reads like an obituary: ìAssemblyman Peter Rivera, Congressman Jose Serrano and Congressman Joseph Crowley announced the purchase of the Young Israel Temple, at 1375 Virginia Avenue by Neighborhood Enhancement and Training Services (NETS).î
The Young Israel, it was reported, had seen ìa gradual decline in use, eventually leading to the sale.î Rivera said he appreciated the ìconvenient location and the buildingís large size,î adding that the ìrenovation of Temple Young Israel [for the new owners] is another step in continued efforts to revitalize the Bronx and build better lives for the residents of these communities.î
It was good for the neighborhood. As it was 60 years before, buildings such as this would revitalize the Bronx, just not the way that the old Jews would have imagined.
The Young Israelís Yizkor book, now in the YU archives, tells its own sad epitaph: ìLife is but a passing shadow, the shadow of a bird in flight. The bird flies away and there is neither bird nor shadow.î
And yet, in those archives, the ephemeral will be bound and catalogued for scholars to muse about. A shadow remains, a bird and a neighborhood in flight.
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