When I finally sit down at my computer and begin writing a column that’s been germinating in my mind (see “Leave Mind Reading to the Mentalists”), I’m careful to quickly save it to my Jewish Standard folder. I’m therefore forced to give a title to an unwritten idea that’s very far from being fully formed — a tentative title of course, though more often than not it’s the one used in print.
But not always. And this is one of the “not always” times. I had saved this under “Haunted by my past,” until I realized, midway through writing, that haunted is off the mark; it connotes spooky, sinister, or troubled, and none of those words comes close to how I remember my youth.
As I’ve mentioned previously, from when I was 5 until I married when I was almost 23, I lived in Far Rockaway, Queens, once nicknamed “Torah Suburb by the Sea” since it also sits on the Atlantic and has a beautiful beach. It borders Lawrence and is the sixth — and once the most prominent — of the Five Towns. Though I haven’t lived there for 52 years and have rarely visited since we sold my parents’ house after my mother died in 2007, I still often bump into my Far Rockaway past.
Sometimes it happens almost out of nowhere. I’m paying a shiva call and Vivian, an elementary school classmate who lived directly across the street from me, happens to walk in a few minutes later, and in our conversation with the mourner the name of another classmate crops up. Or my Facebook feed includes pictures of the swearing-in ceremony of Deborah Lipstadt, the new State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. She too was a classmate and continues to be a friend today. And yes, we knew back in elementary school that she was a star and thus aren’t surprised by her numerous achievements.
Which brings me to the first reason that makes Far Rockaway so special to me — the eight years I spent in HILI (Hebrew Institute of Long Island) under the educational leadership of Rabbi Harold I. Leiman, with a singular group of friends whom I’ve written about before (see especially, “The memories are still green” and “A rainbow in someone’s cloud”). So many of us have continued our friendships for decades, though separated by geography and sometimes ideology.
This came to the fore personally in three of the comments (two emails and one overseas call) from Far Rockaway buddies to my cri de coeur about the probable overturning of Roe v. Wade (“Wading into dangerous waters”). They all essentially said the same thing, which was summed up in one of the emails’ subject line: “Wonderful article — irrespective of my opinion.”
Yup, all disagreed, but who cares? Here we are, still friends more than 65 years after first meeting, living in four communities in two countries, and still talking, agreeing, disagreeing, sharing news about children, grandchildren, and — for Lloyd, Mendy, and Shelly — great-grandchildren, (the boys) recalling each other’s bar mitzvah portions, and swapping stories as only people who knew each other at 10 and still do at 75 can. While we don’t see each other nearly enough, when we do meet in person the sparks fly and laughs and “do you remember when we…?” predominate as the decades (though not the gray hairs) fade away.
The second of the two foci in my Far Rockaway ellipse is Congregation Kneseth Israel — affectionately and widely known as the White Shul. Someone recently asked me: “Do you know that the White Shul got its name because the previous shul building was painted all white?” Suppressing a “duh,” I replied: “Oh, you mean the building in which I had my bar mitzvah?” Yes, I knew.
I grew up in that building and learned to daven in its beit midrash youth minyan. It’s where I chatted (often with Michael) in the back, played chumash with friends during layning (too complicated to explain here), took peeks at the girls sitting in the balcony, had chicken fights in the basement during shalosh se’udot, watched older men grab a smoke on the front steps during a yom tov break (yes, they did that back then), sweated profusely through slow sweltering summer services in those pre-air conditioning days, and began to appreciate the impact a rabbi’s sermon can have when delivered with the eloquence and erudition of Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz. Yes, I knew.
All this came flooding back when the White Shul recently celebrated its 100th anniversary with a gala dinner, and my friend Alan sent me the 10-minute video they played that evening. There were interesting talking heads, including Richie, now a gray-haired former shul president whom I remember asking to take a break from the youth minyan I led because he was talking to his friends too much; Noah, one of the shul’s young Turks when I was a kid, who is now a great-grandfather; and Shirley Pelcovitz, still the rebbetzin par excellence and epitome of grace and dignity. Even more interesting were videos of activities taking place in the shul building that I still think of as the new shul though it was built, in my father’s presidency, almost 60 years ago.
But what fascinated me most were the still pictures, interspersed throughout, of the men (and a few women) who formed the backbone of the shul when I was growing up. And I not only recognized almost all but I remembered most of their names (in no particular order): Jack Bluth, Bernie Gross, Bill and Faye Ciner, Walter Berger, Srulie Upbin, Sol Septimus, Itchie and Anne Goldberg, Sy Hammer, Mordy Sohn, Lou and Evelyn Schreiber, George Blumenthal, Louis Newman, Rabbi and Frumie Pelcovitz, Jerry Rubenstein, Henry and Reba Benn, Asher Fensterheim, Joe Hagler, Louis Glick, Abe and Estelle Feder, Joe and Miriam Weissman, the Neustater brothers, Marvin Hershkowitz, Leo Rosen, and, of course, my father Simon Kaplan. (I apologize to those I may have left out.)
As my daughter Daniele observed when she read a draft of this column, writing these names builds upon last week’s column, where I discussed, in another context, the importance of saying out loud the names of those no longer among us (“The graveyard in my mind”). She also brought to my attention the quote, attributed to many, that “You die twice. Once when you stop breathing, and the second when somebody mentions your name for the last time.”
Many of these shul names haven’t come out of my mouth in more than 50 years, yet they popped into my head almost immediately. I’m certainly not alone in mentioning these names, which tells me that they’ve died but once. It’s also telling— though I’m not sure what it tells — that I could never do as good a job of putting names to faces of those I daven with now as I did with those I davened with in my childhood.
As a college math major (oy), I know an ellipse has only two foci, but my Far Rockaway had a third — Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the rabbi of Congregation Shaaray Tefilah, the “other” shul in which my family did not daven (unless, of course, we were invited to a simcha). But during my high school and college years, I spent almost every other Friday evening or Shabbat afternoon at a Mizrachi HaTza’ir group whose every meeting R. Rackman devotedly attended. He taught us how to think for ourselves, how to discuss important issues seriously and disagree civilly (even with him), how essential it was to follow the Jewish/Israel news, and how we teenagers were right that our socializing after the formal meeting was as important as the meeting itself.
And so I was blessed by my past. Blessed to grow up in a town with such a school and shul and friends and rabbis and leaders and mentors. And doubly blessed by warm memories and the continuing influence of those no longer here. And triply blessed by the presence in my life of so many of my cohort, still deeply meaningful today as well as a concrete reminder of what I once had. Blessed, not haunted, indeed.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.