Brooklyn Boro

So, who knew?

April 17, 2023 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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So, who knew? The answer is, “Not me!” How did I find out I didn’t know? Ah, therein lies the story. 

When one downsizes, one of the many distasteful decisions one faces is what to do with all the books that have accumulated over the decades. Some decisions are easy, like the worn, spine-cracked paperbacks read long ago. They go. We keep the schoolbooks and books related to one’s schooling, but we aren’t sure why. Mostly, everything before college goes. Usually, the hardbacks remain—because they are hardbacks. Remember, books never go into the garbage. Sell or donate them. Yet no matter how one keeps thinning the herd, there remains more than there is room for in the new digs, but also more than you can part with. These you tuck here and there in your new “happy place,” in different size bookcases, on nightstands, and on tables next to couches and chairs. Having done this, you settle in. Then eventually, they call out to you, “Hey, you haven’t looked at us since the uprooting.” Hmmmm. You confess…  “True dat.”

So, with some unexpected time on my hands the other day, I heeded the call. I found a book I’ve had since 2002, in mint condition, one of those books I’ve always meant to read. What a perfect fit to the current me. It’s “The Jews of Brooklyn” and ties together essays about the borough I love and even mentions the Brooklyn Eagle even though it isn’t a Jewish newspaper but is one that was read by a lot of immigrants and second-generation Jews. It was their window into the wider world. “Ahhhhh,” thinks me. “There’s an article, or many, between these covers.” This is one.

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I opened it up and gravitated first to my Flatbush neighborhood. Did you know that Coney Island Avenue began life as Coney Island Road and was a tollway?” “Not I,” said the little duck. And Ocean Parkway? Same deal, except it was a designated roadway to connect Prospect Park and Coney Island/Brighton Beach, hence the name. Five miles long, it had bridle paths and horse racing. Remember, we’re talking 1870’s. Now designated a landmark, Ocean Parkway had the first bicycle path in the nation.

I checked out Eastern Parkway because of today’s Grand Army Plaza changes. I thought learning a little about my childhood synagogue, Union Temple, across the way would be interesting. When kids go to an old building they assume it has been there forever and so I assumed the same for this older building. Forever is a long time, and for kids even longer. Most children around nine and ten can’t conceive of anything older than when their parents were children, and when they get a little older, they don’t care. It turned out that the building was only a few years older than my mother. I went to synagogue, had my rite of passage, the Bar Mitzvah, and like many in my generation, hardly ever returned. The book showed me the error of my ways. Not only was Union Temple not there forever, but in its beginning, it also wasn’t even Union Temple, no matter where it might have been.

The reality of today’s modern/Reform or Conservative synagogues is that they are the combination of several synagogues, all with declining memberships. They combined with others in the area that had the same problem. It’s called survival mode. The synagogue where my brother became a Bar Mitzvah is now the result of, I believe, three synagogues joining. Back in the 1800’s, when a Jewish presence in Brooklyn began to explode, synagogues combined for the opposite reason. Their buildings couldn’t hold everyone joining or couldn’t afford to service everyone joining. The Union Temple I knew was called Classical Reform. The Reform Movement thought that making synagogue worship as close to church worship, without Jesus, would lessen anti-Semitism. No one wore, and in many cases by the by-laws were not allowed to wear, the yarmulke (Yiddish) or kippah (Hebrew) head-covering. Nor the prayer shawl, the tallis or tallit. About 95% of the service was in English, and for a period of time, some congregations worshipped on Sunday instead of Friday night and or Saturday. Schooling, called Hebrew School, ironically, taught very little Hebrew, and also was on Sundays. Sadly, it was a seriously flawed thought.

Union Temple’s DNA, it turns out, was Orthodox, very. Its name, unimaginatively, and certainly not biblically, came from its coming to life from the union of other congregations. Hence—Union Temple. No need for the names or numbers, just know that Jewish houses of worship were popping up everywhere, sometimes several on one block. Like in a winning chess game, the stronger, larger ones took the smaller ones off the board.

Then a group that wanted to be less Orthodox and more situated in Central Brooklyn broke off and away from the Orthodox mold. It is neither easy nor cheap to start a house of worship. No matter their faith, anyone who has done it knows of what I speak. Sometimes God sends an angel. In this parlance, the word angel has the same meaning as it does for those who underwrite Broadway productions. No wings, just lots of money. This angel was named Abraham Abraham (that’s not a typo or a stutter, it is the man’s name). He’s the same guy who has one of his names on the famous Brooklyn retail giant Abraham and Straus. So, Abe, or Mr. Abraham, was willing to put up the money, but like many philanthropists, he had his “suggestions.” He wanted no trace of Orthodoxy in his house of worship. It would be a “thoroughly Modern Milly” version of Jewish worship.

There is too an interesting Brooklyn Eagle angle. After many a late-night meeting, a set of by-laws were agreed to, but with some heavy dissenters, most younger families. The incorporators gave their legal notice to the Eagle. The next morning the deal collapsed, quashing the publication in the Eagle. Pity the poor typesetters who had so laboriously set the type for this complicated notice—and then had to pull it. The year was circa 1890.

Union Temple has had a roller-coaster history. It has had as many as 900 families as congregants and as few as 250. Supporting the building built for the 800 by the 250 was a financial crisis. Then, after WW ll, it began to grow again. It hired a brilliant female rabbi, Linda Henry Goodman, the first woman to lead the congregation. She wanted a vibrant, socially conscious congregation. She went out and found the congregants she wanted to build around. Helped by the boom in Brooklyn real estate, we can say things were lookin’ good. But not good enough. After all, we’re talking about a six-story building that opened in 1929. So, alas, Union Temple is no more. While the building at 17 Eastern Parkway remains (it is the landmark cultural center) the congregation now worships nearby at Beth Elohim, Garfield, and State Streets. In this union, Union Temple lost its name. It is now Congregation Beth Elohim. A good sign is that when you call, as did I while writing this piece, a lovely, chipper voice answers with pride, “Good Afternoon, CBE. 

The beat goes on.

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