“The building was my introduction to Judaism.”
Simon Horenstein: My father’s name was Isadore, my mother’s name was Etta. They joined the temple congregation about 1929. At that time, we had been living on Dudley Street in South Providence. We lived in a three-deck house, occupying the middle floor at 139 Dudley Street.
The neighborhood in which we lived was a little shtetl indented in South Providence. And in this particular area the population was almost entirely Jewish. There were numerous synagogues. My grandfather attended what was called the Robinson Street Shul.
When I was a little boy, I frequently went shopping with my grandmother. We would walk up Gay Street, which was the cross street between Dudley and Willard Avenue. There were mostly residences except for one large building which was the Bradford Soap Factory and it often was quite smelly around there.
Two blocks further up was Willard Avenue, and Willard Avenue was a little city. There were butcher shops, cobblers. There was a shop to buy religious articles.
The place I remember best, however, was the bakery, which was run by a man named Snell. Mr. Snell was a large man who was always in his undershirt. He had a big beard and a large dog. Each time we went in there, I was presented with a cookie for which my grandmother was of course subsequently charged.
The neighborhood ran its life on the Jewish calendar. Friday night everything closed for the Sabbath.
The rabbi when I was a child and first started there [at Temple Beth El] was a man named Samuel Gup. Rabbi Gup was a rather brawny man with a large, shiny, bald head and a mustache. He was a true Reformed rabbi. He would not wear a hat at services or in the cemetery. His sermons were largely on a secular subject.
On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I would go to the religious school and there we were taught Hebrew. And in addition on Sunday we learned history. Most all of the religious services were conducted in English, with relatively little Hebrew.
Rabbi Braude was about twenty-five years old when he arrived at Temple Beth El. The rabbi’s sermons were really quite thoughtful. Both the sermons that he provided for the children’s service at Temple Beth El, which took place on Saturday morning, as well as the sermons which took place either on Friday night or at the time of the High Holidays, were quite complex.
He was quite aware of what was happening in the world outside Providence. There was a balcony which was actually made available at the time of the High Holidays to people who could not afford to pay for membership in the congregation. And these were often older people. Many of them were refugees from Germany. They were allowed to sit upstairs without charge. Everybody who sat downstairs during the religious service had to be congregation members.
Starting in the 1930s, there was migration to the East Side, to the new portion of the East Side on the far side of Elmgrove Avenue. So that by the time I had any real awareness of what was in the neighborhood, there were relatively few Jewish people living around the temple itself.
Rabbi Braude saw virtually all of his congregation moving away from the temple and decided that if the Congregation of the Sons of Israel and David were to keep together as a group, that the building would have to follow them. Attendance at Friday night services and Saturday morning services was rapidly declining.
The rabbi wanted to have a building which did not look like a large Greek garage. He wanted to have a building which had a Hebraic theme to it.
The building was my introduction to Judaism. About the history of Jewish people, about the religion and what it meant, about my own responsibilities as an individual living in a world with other people.