From Factory Street To Marvel Road
My Religious Journey with Congregation Sheveth Achim
By Sam Dimenstein as told to Morton Horwitz (both authors are Kurenitz descendants)
It can be said that my introduction to religion and its practices began in the old Sheveth Achim Synagogue (1900-1951) on the top of the Factory Street hill. Actually, however, it was my first visit in the late 1920s which got me indoctrinated, not inside the shul but on its outside sidewalks. For it was there that I joined other small fry in running around even onto the street. Along with Hy Estra, Harold Rogoff, and the Levine and Lapides kids, we would chase paper-weighted balls as well as each other, except on Passover when our passion would turn to playing with little nuts right up to the synagogue's entrance.
Irving Faiman and the Friedland brothers mixed into the fun at their own risk what with Irving being the grandson of the shul's irreplaceable chazen, long bearded shochet, the Rev. Aaron Kurhan, the shamos, was the Zayde to the Friedland boys. All this going on during services was not appreciated very much by our fervent elders; so sooner or later someone would come tearing out of the doorway screaming "You bums you! Get back into the shul and daven, you bums you!" All of this would be in Yiddish, except for the bums part which we understood only too well. The enforcers could have been my father, or raspy voiced Meyer Rosoff, or some other one troubled during prayer.
Then we would duck our heads into the sanctuary for a minimum few minutes, and almost immediately escape down into the basement which served as an all-purpose room. There we could continue our mischief.
The trouble was that there was no junior congregation or other form of child care so we were expected to remain alongside of our male parent in the main sanctuary and pray even though we were not exposed to chayder as yet and could not digest Hebrew letters with any ease. So through the motions we went; bowing, swaying, standing up, sitting down whenever the congregation did the same. Naturally any wiggling was on our own. Before long, we became bored and began darting around again. Despite our young ages, our glanced too often went balcony-wise to spot any of the girls sitting among the women, all of whom stayed upstairs. It also wasn't unusual for the adults of all stripes to search for the pretty women in the front row up there. Then again, it was fun for us to gallop up and down those stairs leading to the balcony but all too often we had to make way for the elderly and handicapped ladies who were pulling and dragging themselves upstairs. Yet they, and all the others, climbed with nary a complaint. That is the way it was!
There wasn't much in the way of Hebrew schools to attend, so most of the boys my age-7 and up-had to turn to the melamdim, the individual providers of Jewish education and religious practices. The first of such teacher to tackle me was a Mr. Chaikind who simply was unable to raise a spark to my learning ability. So my father brought in Mr. Chidekel who had succeeded his father's position as the leading and most respected teacher when it came to home-bound instruction. But nothing could prevent my mind from wandering and my thoughts straying as through the windows I could spot my neighborhood shkutzim (wild ones) enjoying the open air. I resented killing an hour in the afternoon almost every day, at a time when I would just be recuperating from a full day at the Welch public school on the corner of Congress Avenue and Vernon Street.
Ward Street, which sat between Legion Avenue and Congress Avenue, was populated heavily by Jewish families during those early depression years, especially between Legion and Sylvan Avenues. Of course, many nationalities dwelt among us: Italians, Russians, Poles, Greek, Irish, and some Blacks you name it-a healthy mixture. Our family lived on Ward Street between Davenport and Congress which presented even more in ethnic combinations.
I was the youngest in a family of brothers. An older brother, Kathreal, had died during the flu epidemic before I was born. Then there were Bill, Irving, George, and Jack, all now deceased in 1995-while Hy and I survive.
Being the youngest son, it was natural for me to be the one to hold my father's hand as we walked to the shul on Shabbos or on holidays-no driving no matter the weather. It was so comforting to have that special relationship between me and my dad even though we seldom spoke on the way. At that tender age, how was I to know that not only would my father wind up as President of our synagogue; but that both Jack and I eventually would follow in his footsteps to that high office. However, by the, we two brothers would be commanding the combined might of Congregation Bikur Cholim and Sheveth Achim
To me, by the 1930s Congregation Sheveth Achim Anshei Lubavitch already seemed to be ancient. But it also was very impressive, being a synagogue soaked in Orthodoxy. Actually, it was not that old, having been built in the 1890s by a group of New Haveners who had been shlepped over by previous settlers originating from the general area of Kurenitz in the Vilna Gubernia (state) of what then was Russia. All of these related immigrants and landsleit had been anxious to continue their religious practices as followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which included praying in the nusach Sfard (order of services). Therefore they had gathered their resources and rallied to construct the synagogue on the top of the Factory Street hill. By the time I had become aware of all of this background, Sheveth Achim already was well established among the places of worship in New Haven.
Of course, Sabbath services were well attended as certainly were all of the holidays. Particularly best sealed in my memory were the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. That is when the shul would be jammed to overflowing with standees stretched along the back wall. Everything was so holy, so awe inspiring, and so uplifting that all of this seeped into my blood. Much of those days still remain clearly within me. I continue to visualize Cantor Kurhan, flowingly bearded, davening before the Ark in the front of the shul, while other men in their white coats gathered on the bimah which was in the middle of the sanctuary. This was in the custom of "old country" architecture which also had all of the women peering down from their balcony perches.
Beyond this, it was the galaxy of personalities and back row characters which fascinated me. Up front were the powerfully built President, Harris Kasden and the sexton. Then there were the men who had pet names or were referred to by their occupations, many unique or now outdated. A few elite professionals were in their midst, but most worked in more pedestrian fields. Yes, there were lawyers like Max Alderman, Al Winnick, and Attorneys Alperovitz, Gitlitz, Chapnick, and Chaplowe; Doctors best represented by Harry Zimmerman, then at Yale; and dentists, of which Zelly Alpert stands out in my mind; Accountants Eddie Estra and Herman Alpert; Engineers Izzy Resnikoff and Irving Alpert, etc. But most made their living doing what most Jews did back then.
There was Abba der Butcher, Chaim der Shmitt, Mordche der Shamos, Mendel der Taber, and the one with the most intriguing nickname of all-"der Potatonick." These translated into Abba Alpert the Butcher, Chaim Winnick the Blacksmith, Mordche Alderman the Sexton, Mendel the deaf one who passed out snuff; and my favorite remembrance, Stolin the Potato Peddler. I still see them in my mind today. Tehre is Mr. Feldman, the bottle dealer, and Mr. Mershman marching around in his derby hat. I hear the bull tones of President Harris Kasden; the growling of Meyer Rosoff; and the gentle, courtly voice of Nochem Levine.
What a lineup they made! My father was a cattle dealer; Phil Perlman a custom tailor; the Narotskys were roofers; Julius Lyman in Insurance; Harold Singer a Tinsmith; Hy Cohen an Electrician; Sam Skolnick a Realtor; Nate Zudekoff a Haberdasher; and we even had a Sheriff William Alderman; and a Farmer Berel Zalmon Cohen. The Molsteins and Perlmans were Oil and Coal Dealers; the Kazdens and Alermans Junk Dealers; The Estras in Rags and Romer in Metals as was Hy Stolin. We had outstanding builders in the Labovs, Skolnicks, Rudermans, and Weismans. Sam Winnick's specialty was tearing buildings down.
There were store keepers of all sorts, from Zeidell's and candy stores, J. Dicksteins to Flederman's Lillian Fur Studio. There were of course, grocers Danet, Whitten, and Axelrod et al. Not to forget Gerald Yudkin with his Auto Parts and the Winnick Toy Store. George Gitlitz was a teacher as was ms. Deborah Himmelfarb. At-this point, I apologize for omitting women, but don't forget-they sat hidden in the balcony and played a life o second fiddle to their husbands as far as careers are concerned, that is unless one believes, as most people did then, that a woman's place was in the home.
Perhaps the most impressionable period of time for me at Sheveth Achim was during my growing-up years before World War II. That is when everything that happened moved forward slowly, even lazily, as fixed in my mind. In 1939, when the war in Europe started, this country moved into high gear and life changed dramatically. But until then I was not hurried by adult worries.
I admired the Rabbis of that period; they were shtut rabbis (without paid posts) and circulated throughout all of the Orthodox shuls with their sermons and services. Their all too meager income derived from performing weddings, funerals, personal donations, and above all, from the pennies accorded to them for shechiteh, the kosher slaughtering of chickens, cows, etc. by the shochetim. As a result of their continuing overall presence, my family, as others, got to know each rabbi on a more or less personal-basis.
Of course, some synagogues had a stronger hold on certain Rabbis than did others. For instance, at Beth Israel on Orchard Street, venerable, white bearded, soft-spoken Rabbi Abraham Flexer held sway. Rabbi Leizer Gorelik had a closer contact at our Sheveth Achim. Rabbi Yehudah Levenberg preached mostly at the stately Rose Street shul until he departed with his Yeshivah to Cleveland. He was followed at Rose Street by iron-willed Rabbi Aaron Shuchatowitz who also presided at White Street. Rabbi Sam Levenberg operated out of Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol, a large converted church on George and Dwight Streets. Btu all of these Rabbis were available for each and every shul, even the smallest ones.
Almost all of these shuls were within walking distance from each other in an area stretching from down-town westward to Orchard Street in the Legion Avenue area. Mishkan Israel, as a Reform temple stood off by itself on Orange Street. Conservative B'nai Jacob, directed by Rabbi Greenberg and Cantor Sudock, was situated smack in the middle of the Orthodox pathway on George Street. What a majestically impressive sight it was! One of the best experiences we youngsters had was to take a holiday stroll visiting one another at each and every synagogue. Certainly this would take place during leyning (readings from the Torah) or other rest periods as on Yom Kippur. That is, if our father's would let us escape from their sides. Friends thus were able to meet friends and say hello; and the teenage girls and boys were able to convene for social chats, outside the synagogue's doors, weather permitting
Factory Street was our start along with Bikur Cholim down the hill. A contingent from Rose Street would join and we would proceed straight along George Street where B'nai Jacob, with its high rising steps, dominated the much smaller Bolsheviki Shul, and those on the broad and York side streets. Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol was farther up George Street, and we would wind up at Orchard Street. Bubbling groups from White Street Shul in the Hill section of New Haven often would hook up with us at Orchard Street. For young Jewish people that was real togetherness.
Religious and depression racked adults did not have much in the way of diversion outside of synagogue functions. Mothers went to the movies once a week (was it Tuesday nights) to witness some ancient reels but mainly to get free dishware, and all for 10?. The "talkies" there at Mike's White way on Davenport Avenue also was a haven for the kids who could spend Sunday afternoons devouring double features, serial thrillers, cartoons, and dozens of coming attractions. Nor boredom there but what noise! Frank Blume's Plaza Theater on Congress Avenue functioned similarly for those nearer to downtown. So for the older folks, it was over to the Victory Theater on Legion Avenue, another one of Mike's downtrodden possessions, with its irregular staging of Yiddish Theater imported from Second Avenue, New York, which kept them entertained. And no one ate out as today, they did so either as a necessity for those without home-cooked meals, or a functions either in synagogues, halls, or at catering establishments.
So, to our folks, listening to dynamic speaker in Yiddish was an important part of the calendar. Sometimes I would shlep along with my parents to these types of outings; and because Yiddish was spoken in our household, I was able to digest and appreciate these lectures until I would fall asleep. Hearing a dynamic charismatic speaker like dark-bearded Rabbi Yehudah Levenberg left me with a good impression of his oratory. His droshes were so effective and effective that seldom would women leave the synagogue without a flowing of tears. The only Yiddish speaker who rivaled him, according to my limited capacity in the language, was the Magid Rapoport and he often held forth at Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol. Yes! Along with Rabbis and Cantors we highly ranked these Maggidim. I still can picture this Magid as he would pace back and forth in his Eastern or Oriental robes, emphasizing his points with body and hand movements while mesmerizing the audience with a loud, clear voice which needed no microphone to give resonance.
Hagodol meant "the Large" and that fit Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol perfectly. It was huge in capacity, but having been converted from a church, it lacked the traditional structural ambiance of a B'nai Jacob, or of the Rose Street Shul, or even the synagogue on Orchard Street. These had nicely shaped balconies for the women and were outstanding in their architectural layout. Most of the smaller synagogues had balconies too, but those that didn't had mechitzehs to separated the men from the women. Seated downstairs away from the girls made me feel special as only a man could feel.
Sheveth Achim, (as I am sure with other synagogues) played a very important part in its congregation's daily life. Although membership dues were a prohibitive $10 a year for families, almost everyone generating from the general old home surroundings of Kurenitz made an effort to join. Not only did they join but there was heavy participation. Three days a year attendance for High Holiday services, for most, was not enough. Other holidays were well attended too, and the place was packed whenever Yiskor prayers were to be said. The Ladies Auxiliary, later the Sisterhood, staged many functions; and the men used any religious excuse to have a good Shaleshudes (third meal) before closing out the Shabbos with Havdalah. Indeed I remember favorably the visits of Sam and Eli Shapiro who along with their father, would spice up the proceedings on these nights with their whole-hearted singing of Z'miros, and religious songs.
Do I remember my Bar Mitzvah? I sure do! It was the peak of my childhood learning experience and I waxed triumphant with my chanting of the Haftorah. To reach this point of success had been quite a chore, considering the unprofessional teaching by the melamdim (learned teachers) of the day. The reigned in crude fashion before Hebrew schools and Yeshivahs blossomed forth. Rabbi Chidekel was the one who finally got me up to par for the Bar Mitzvah. Previously, a Mr. Chaikind had given up on me or more accurately, my father had given up on him.
What a great day that was, my Bar Mitzvah day! The candy rained down upon me immediately after I concluded my recitation. The kids had powerful arms then and very accurate, too. I was pelted freely with hard candy, much of it propelled from the balcony; but I survived enough to recite my Hebrew-Yiddish speech in a manner which is best to be forgotten. Then came the gala kiddush downstairs. Round kichel, schmaltz herring, lekach, sponge cake-all washed down with schnapps, bronfen, bootleg whiskey or whatever. For the women, of course, there was wine. Believe me, it was fit for a king! Don't forget, almost all of my friends had been catered to the same way.
The presents didn't exactly flow in, but there was a fountain pen which leaked, a wrist watch which soon gave up the ghost, a shirt which didn't fit, and other gifts less memorable. There were Mazel Tovs and handshakes from the men, smirks from the boys, and plentiful kisses from the ladies, but there wasn't even a wink from the girls of my age. Some of those from the girls came later-but not too much later. You see, I was married at 20.
On Rosh Hashanah, either in 1934 or 1935, all of the shuls seemed to empty out of young people at the same time, early in the afternoon nowhere near the finish of services. Why this happened was a mystery to the annoyed old-timers; but to those of the born-in-America generation, the reason was simple. Detroit was in the World Series of baseball and Hank Greenberg, the slugging star of the Tigers had been given permission by his rabbi to play. So from the neighboring synagogues there was a pouring out of baseball fans who headed at the same time either to Bruenig's Radio Shop where the play-by-play was being blared to those gathered outside; or to the old Journal-Courier building where the townies had bunched to witness up-to-date data being flashed onto the screenless side of the building. What did Hank do that day? He only hit two powerful home runs to win the game. Later on I found out that a Detroit daily paper had headlined the front page "L'Shonah Tova Hank". A Rosh Hashonah to remember, even though my folks didn't think so.
World War II, which started in Europe in 1939, brought about a hustle and bustle all over the country. It became even more so when the United States was forced to join the war in December, 1941. Everyone was busy as defense work and war spending increased the economic flow. Jobs were plentiful and businesses were prospering; but getting the goods was the main problem as shortages prevailed in every field
My apprenticeship in my father's business had changed with my marriage in 1941. Soon I became a full scale cattle dealer alongside my father. Even though dues at the synagogue were only $10 a year for a family, my wife and I did not join and become members until 1945. But even before then, we attended most of the holidays and functions. In the meanwhile, the ranks of the young men at Sheveth Achim were thinning out as the Armed Forces made the draft felt. A few of the men called from our shul, as I recall, were my brother Hy Horwitz, Dr. Zelly Alpert, Aaron and Hy Estra, and Sid Victor. I shall have to be reminded of the many more who served.
But the days of the shul were numbered. Already the center of Jewish population was moving westward away from Oak Street towards Legion Avenue, Whalley Avenue, and the Beaver Hill sections. The war had cut into repair work what with a shortage of supplies and manpower, so the synagogue's facilities not only were too small but also rapidly becoming outmoded. In fact weddings involving members of our congregation had to be held elsewhere. The kosher caterers had access to the banquet halls at the Hotel Taft and Seven Gables Towne House on Crown Street. Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol later became the first synagogue with adequate space for such functions. And don't forget it was a blatant "no-no" to entertain guests in non-kosher restaurants.
So it wasn't until immediately after the war that the realization came that it was time for Sheveth Achim to move. My father, Louis, was a leader in the movement efforts. In fact, he had become president in 1946. I was proud of my father and also of my mother's involvement with the Ladies Auxiliary. Yet she did not neglect to complain, especially after my father became president: "Du hust gornisht for tzu ton, nor tzu arbeiten farn shule! (You have nothing else to do but only work for the shul!) Meetings, negotiations, routine supervision, all became more and more parts of our lives.
On March 7, 1948 Congregation Sheveth Achim Anshei Lubavitch held its Golden Anniversary dinner dance. I was there with my wife at the Seven Gables Towne House in what was to be a last "hurrah" for the shul. My father was still in office and I remember that in his speech he preferred to refer to our affair as "a Victory Banquet." He mentioned the return of soldiers and sailors and welcomed them back home. In addition was his call to celebrate 1948 for the United Nations which had granted the Jewish people part of Palestine. I have in my possession the advertising booklet handed out on that special occasion. I sometimes like to look back at the booklet because of its lists of the dedicated machers of that period. The officers listed were, along with my father, the President; Harris Kasden-Vice President; Nathan Levine-Treasurer; Louis Winnick-Secretary; and Trustees, Hyman Witten and J.S. Zimmerman.
President committee members were Harry Labov, Maxwell Alderman, Israel Resnikoff, Boris Svirsky, Saul Levine, Nathan Feldman, Cecil Svirsky, S. Sitten, Morris Romer, William Alderman, Edward Estra, J. Zimmerman, Meyer Rosoff, Sam Winnick, Herman Stolin, Isaac Weissman, Harold Singer, Hyman Cohen, and Dr. Zelly Alpert. The catering was done by Mrs. Wixman with music by Freda Svirsky.
What a cast of titans this was, and it is pleasant to have known them all!
MEMORIES OF OLD SHEVETH ACHIM - DONALD DIMENSTEIN:
In 1948, my family lived on Circular Avenue in Hamden. To prepare me for my Bar Mitzvah, which was scheduled for later that year, my father retained the services of Rabbi Benjamin Lerner.
year, my father retained the services of Rabbi Benjamin Lerner. Rabbi Lerner was affiliated with the White Street Shul, so every Sunday morning my father drove me to the shul or to my grandmother's home on Scranton Street for my lessons.
In August, I read my maftir from the Bimah at Sheveth Achim Synagogue. My father stood on one side of me and Mr. Louis Levine, who my grandmother had married several years after the death of her first husband, stood on the other side.
After the services, a kiddush was held at my grandmother's home for family and friends.
RUDY GREENHOUSE - My father Zalman Greenhouse was a member of the synagogue from way back, but I wasn't involved much until after I was married to Helen in 1937. So it will be 60 years since our wedding which took place in Silverberg's Restaurant on Crown Street. Rabbis Schuchatowitz and Gorelik performed the ceremony, Rabbi Leizer Gorelik having Sheveth Achim as one of his home bases. After my father died, and I began saying kaddish, that is when I really took an interest in the shul and its activities. It was Leib Dimenstein, father of Sam and Hy, who persaded me to become the first treasurer at Congregation Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim on Winthrop and Derby Avenues. Mr. Dimenstein who was the last Sheveth Achim president from Factory Street simply walked over to me, handing me the books and saying "you're an accountant so you're the new treasurer". Walking to shul with Max Alderman remains a pleasant memory for me; he, living on Goffe Terrace and I on Anita Street.
REYNA HARRISON - I cannot think of Sheveth Achim on Factory Street without thinking of my grandfather, Sam Winnick. As a child, running up the narrow staircase into the women's balcony and then peering down; I was fascinated at seeing my grandfather sitting behind his shtender (bookstand). There he was near the Bimah which was in the center of the room with all the men gathered around it, each covered by a big tallis. I remember yelling down to him from the balcony and him shushing me back to be quiet. In those days the women dressed up, especially for the holidays, and they all wore hats. And on these holidays we walked all the way from Day Street, where we lived with my grandfather. My father Louis also was active in the shul as were Izzy and Hymie Jacobs and Louis Dimenstein. What I really didn't like about that old shul was that the bathrooms were all the way down in the basement and I hated to go there alone. Of course, I remember, and treasure, much more about the early days on Winthrop and Derby Avenues. I, from Sheveth Achim and Ken from Bikur Cholim, were married there by Rabbi Lebor.
IDA SENDEROFF - My father was Abba Alpert, the butcher; and he would open up the Sheveth Achim synagogue twice a day. So, of course I have many memories of the shul. We then lived on Dow Street so it wasn't that far to walk with my mother to services every Shabbos. My brothers Joe, Morris, Sammy, and Louis came too, as did my sister, Molly. There was a lot of activity in the shul in those years and the women were very busy. Some of the women I found worthy of admiring were Mrs. Romanoff, Mrs. Perlman, and Mrs. Dickstein.
GOLDIE GOLDBERG - I was a little girl when Sheveth Achim was at its peak on Factory Street. My father Eddie Estra was involved in many ways with the shul. He attended the minyonim twice a day. He would walk from Sherman Avenue to Factory Street to be there early and my mother would go much later. But I wanted to be there too, so Uncle Ari (Aaron Estra) would walk to "pick me up" from the Boulevard and we would walk together down George Street. My ten steps to his one, as he was 6 feet tall. I went to the evening minyonim too, mostly because George Gitlitz took his daughter Susan so his mother could "rest," and so I would keep Susan company. Susan being a little older than I was the "ring leader" and we used to get into trouble a lot. Our big treat came on Shabbos Shaleshudes when we indulged in herring with onions and lots of soda.
Also, during the high holidays and Shabbos I would go upstairs with my mother and grandmother, Rashka Estra, who always sat next to friends in the last row, namely Rashka Estra, who always sat next to friends in the last row, namely Bryna Cohen, mother of Eddie Cohen, and she would always make room for me to sit. However, the best seat was next to my father as I tried to play with his talis tzitzes.
Bar Mitzvahs times were best, as we sat in the first row of the balcony looking down to throw the bags of candy at the Bar Mitzvah boys, but as I got older, I decided to keep the candy since by the time you reached downstairs to fetch the "prized" candy, the boys took them all and of course, never gave you any of theirs.
MORT HORWITZ - What I remember about the old Factory Street shul doesn't differ too much from what Sam Dimenstein has been relating in his memories. It pains me a little to think of my own Bar Mitzvah there because I screwed it up when called for the Maftir. The scene on the Bimah in the middle of the room reminded me so much of a "talking" picture I had seen, that I pretended that I was a young Al Jolson, and I skipped the opening brocheh. I knew my Haftorah by heart and made excellent speeches, both in Hebrew and Yiddish, although I did not understand a word of either. Mr. Olshinsky, my teacher, had drilled me well. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I can recall that there were many men lined up along the back wall because there was standing room only. And once my father pointed out one of those men lined up saying, "Look at that Gveer (wealthy man), he makes $35 a week and he still can't afford to buy a decent ticket."
[Editor's Note: These chapters were reprinted from the Bikur Cholim Bulletin, issues August 1995-July 1996. The Bulletin was published by Congregation Bikur Cholim Sheveth Achim, New Haven, Connecticut. Editor - Morton Horwitz.