former member of Shaare Zedek
“It was the place where I grew up…I wanted to see it stay in existence as long as possible.”
[NOTE: this interview was recorded in mono].
Mr. B: I lived on a street called Gallatin Street. In fact I lived two houses from Broad Street, which is the main drag there. I hate to use the word, but it was a Jewish ghetto where we lived. My aunts and uncles and grandmother and grandfather all lived within two blocks of each other. It was a very heavily Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhood.
It was all family-oriented, extremely. The community was all revolved around the shul. It wasn’t a temple. It was a shul! The holidays were big, important.
My family didn’t work on those days. They observed Shabbat in those days. My mother and her family, they didn’t turn the lights on Shabbat. They didn’t cook on Shabbat. They would have a piece of asbestos or something on the stove and they’d let it go all weekend or for all day Saturday, and they put a pot on it to keep things warm if they wanted to cook anything hot. But they never turned the fire, the gas stove on or off during Shabbat. They were a very observant, Orthodox, Jewish family.
When I was growing up, anything that was non-Kosher wasn’t called non-Kosher. It was called chazzer. That’s the Yiddish for “pig.” And if it was not chazzer, it was chazzerai, which means it was related to pig. So that was the all-important bad word when I was growing up.
There were four shuls, Orthodox synagogues, in South Providence. In the deep part of South Providence. One was called the Robinson Street Shul. I believe there were two on Willard Avenue, and a small shul, that – which was nothing more than a house, on Prairie Avenue. They were struggling, because the neighborhood was changing. Dramatically. Urban renewal came in, I’m not sure if it was state or federal or city, but they condemned the four shuls and they took them by eminent domain.
I was a member of the Robinson Street Shul with my parents, my family. 1955, after the merger, I went right into Shaare Zedek. I was fifteen years old at the time.
I remember distinctly there was a big parade. When they moved all the Torahs from those buildings, they put them in backs of cars or seats of convertibles. There were some Corvettes.
They had these Corvettes marching in a parade with people either walking holding the Torahs or riding in vehicles. And they moved up Glenham Street from Prairie Avenue towards Broad Street and they moved the Torahs into the building.
And I participated in that parade, I remember distinctly. And they were all the sports cars, the fancy cars. At the time, fifteen-year-old kid, “Wow! Look at these. These were Corvettes, you know? These were spectacular.” [Laughs] So it was a nice, happy day.
Nate Weisenberg: How did people feel about the merger?
B: They were very happy. I mean, they were very glad to get out of that area. They wanted – they figured Broad Street was more of an area for a synagogue. They just were happy about it.
You know, this was a long time ago, but I’m going to say the first five to six years the synagogue prospered, had a lot of people. And it was full. I mean, it was doing well.
I remember the first year or two, that those balconies were jammed with the women. And the sides were jammed with the women. I remember also – I don’t remember if that was right away, but one year they hired a rabbi and a hazzan [prayer leader] who came with a choir.
There was one year – and I can’t remember what year it was – but they had a choir there. Lasted one year. An Orthodox choir! Now this is unbelievable. They participated in the High Holiday service. No music, no organ, but a choir. They never came back. It was one time.
Then eventually, the neighborhood just kept on deteriorating and as people, children, grew older, they moved to the suburbs. I guess it was another Diaspora. They just moved out and Shaare Zedek just continued to decline over the years.
You could tell that the synagogue was losing members by looking up at the balcony up in front. No women sat over in the front anymore. They all sat on the side or the back. And of course, the balcony in back started emptying out, and the sides started emptying out. You could see where it was losing membership. It was very slow, but you could see it.
I don’t remember what year it was , but there was another very large synagogue on Prairie Avenue called Sons of Abraham, corner of Prairie and Potters Avenue, if I remember correctly. And then they decided it was time to merge, because their membership was declining dramatically, so they merged with Shaare Zedek and it became Congregation Shaare Zedek – Sons of Abraham.
I went there [Shaare Zedek] from 1955 until I got married in 1969.
If they [people] haven’t lived through it – they didn’t experience it – they would know nothing about it. That’s all I can say.
The late Joseph Margolis wanted to keep this place going as long as he possibly could and he did everything he could to the very end. Joe Margolis. He just would never let it go. It was a compulsion or a passion of his. He wouldn’t let it close. He wouldn’t let it merge.
Until he passed away he kept that place alive. And then when he passed away I guess they gave up.
It’s not a building. I mean the building is the material thing. It’s the intangibles that’s important, and those intangibles moved to another location, so I had to go with the flow. The building is only material. It’s sad, sad that it happened. But I was powerless to stop it. Everybody was. Even Joe Margolis, who stayed there to the end, was powerless to stop it. It’s the natural evolution of things.
I had an emotional attachment to it. It was the place where I grew up. My parents were members. And I would like to see it – I wanted to see it stay in existence as long as possible.
You got to remember, [I] came from an Orthodox stock. And that [pause] leaves remnants in you that are very hard to break.
You know the Hallel service – what you say in the High Holidays at the temple? Hallel? It’s a service. There’s a clause in there. There’s one paragraph, “Open the gates of righteousness.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. But that’s what Shaare Zedek – Shaare Zedek is right in that paragraph. Where it says you open the gates of righteousness to the nations? And every time I read that, I see the words shaare zedek. And it brings back memories.