Saul Turteltaub, who is perhaps best-known for producing such popular television shows as “Sanford and Son” and “Kate and Allie,” is also the author of a warm, affecting, funny, and as-yet-unpublished memoir of Cong. Ahavath Torah. Called “The Old Shul,” it is a treasure house of nostalgia and wry and poignant insights about his family and community.
|The Old Shul as it looked in the early part of the 20th century.|
The “Old Shul” of Turteltaub’s manuscript is not the mansion on Broad Street that has been demolished to make way for the new Ahavath Torah, but a building on Englewood Avenue between Armory Street and Bennett Road.
And according to Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the congregation’s current religious leader, there was a still-older shul, built during the summer of 1895 at 33 Humphrey St. in Englewood. “Before that they davened in a home on Liberty Road,” Goldin said in a telephone interview on Monday. “The Humphrey Street lot was bought as a result of a campaign that collected $200.” After 15 years, the congregation moved to the Englewood Avenue site, the “Old Shul” of Turteltaub’s memoir.
“My father, Ben Turteltaub, was president of that synagogue,” Turteltaub recalled last week in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, “and I was bar mitzvahed there.” (See related story.)
The memoir, which he shared with The Jewish Standard, reconstructs – or reimagines – the board’s discussion about leaving the old shul and building “a modern synagogue”:
“What’s a ‘modern synagogue,’ asks member Moish Horowitz, “except all of a sudden it’s called a ‘synagogue’ and not a ‘shul’? It has more commandments? … A modern synagogue we have in this town. It’s where the goyim go on Tenafly Road.”
Turteltaub explains, “He was referring to Temple Emanu-El, the house of worship for Conservative Jews. To Moish and many of the old-timers, a person was either an Orthodox Jew or a goy. And someone who considered himself a Conservative Jew was worse than a gentile. He was not merely the enemy, he was a traitor. The Reformed? Mishugenas altogether.”
The old-timers lost, and the mansion, on the estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn, became “the New Shul.”
“It’s very hard to give up your old shul,” Turteltaub writes. “It is a vault of memories of the strongest and deepest kind.”
It had a gymnasium, he recalls – “not because the elders were such sports fans, because they weren’t, and not even so much because they thought the children should have a nice place to play…. Basically, they built it because the Catholic Church had one and they wanted to keep up.”
The New Shul did not have a gymnasium, but, writes Turteltaub, “was the most modern and beautiful house of worship in the entire county” – except that “it didn’t have tahm, a Yiddish word meaning ‘the taste.’ Not ‘taste,’ but ‘the taste.’ For instance, when you are looking for the beef and barley soup that reminds you of your mother’s beef and barley soup, you are not just looking for it to have taste, you are looking for the taste.”
The New Shul, he writes, “tasted like a shul. It had a Torah, a prayerbook, separate sections for men and women, but for those of us who grew up in the Old Shul, it was missing the taste, and that taste for the most part was the flavor of poverty.”
Turteltaub’s mother, Anna, died of a stroke two years and three months before his bar mitzvah, and he noticed, before he was called to the Torah, that his father’s eyes were filled with tears – “I believe it was because he was thinking how terribly wrong it was that poor Anna Turteltaub had died before this day.”
“Benny’s Famous Delicatessen in Hackensack supplied the food and soda, and the wine and schnapps came from Grusky’s in Englewood,” he recalls. “Pop knew nothing about whiskey. To him liqueur was how the gentiles pronounced liquor. So when he learned he could get a dozen mixed bottles of liqueur dirt cheap in 1945, when liquor was hard to get, he took them all. The schnapps at my bar mitzvah included apricot brandy, peach brandy, and a bottle of plum brandy called slivovitz, from Yugoslavia.”
Years later, long after his sons Adam and Jon were bar mitzvahed, he still had the bottle of slivovitz on his shelf, with perhaps a drop in it.
The rabbi at Turteltaub’s bar mitzvah was named Pincus. He was succeeded by Rabbi Bernstein (their first names are lost to history). Bernstein, writes Turteltaub, “didn’t have a chance. He was single. Why he was hired no one knows, but for an Orthodox rabbi with a pulpit to be single is out of the question…. The problem with a rabbi being single is he would be called on in the normal exercise of his duties to be alone in a room with a female member of the congregation.”
This, Turteltaub observes, “makes for an intolerable situation for everyone other than some unhappy married or single women.”
Bernstein soon left to attend medical school, and Turteltaub stresses that “there was never any suspicion of hanky panky” during his tenure.
Then came Rabbi Moshe Gold, who died in his early 40s of a heart attack. He “apparently did kill himself from screaming all the time,” Turteltaub writes. “[H]e thought people should pray during a prayer service. He didn’t agree with three-quarters of the congregation who looked forward to the … services as a great opportunity to kibitz with each other….”
Gold was followed by Rabbi Nussenbaum and then by Rabbi Benjamin Walfish – who officiated at the wedding of Saul and Shirley Turteltaub – and then by Rabbi Isaac Swift.
Swift, Turteltaub notes, “remained in the pulpit of the Old Shul and the New Shul from Rosh HaShanah 1960 until just before Rosh HaShanah 1987, when he retired.”
Turteltaub was “immediately impressed by his appearance. He was well over 6 feet tall, thin, approximately 45 years old and bearded. His prayer shawl was not only wrapped around his shoulders but it was draped from his head, giving him the appearance from the back of a very tall candle.”
But more impressive still was his dramatic – and effective – demand that chattering congregants be quiet. (Ben Turteltaub, his son recalls, summed up their response: “Hooha.”)
“Of all the memories I have of the Old Shul,” Turteltaub writes, “I think the warmest and happiest were those following the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service. It seemed everyone in the shul was filled with love for everyone else. And why not? We had all just spent a full day asking forgiveness for the sins of pettiness, haughtiness, evil thoughts, and evil words…. [W]e kissed each other, shook hands warmly, and wished everyone a happy and good year. The first kiss, of course, was between my father and me, and it was a good and warm one. Then we headed to the back of the shul and down the stairs into the street, where it had become dark….”