High Holiday Journey

Written by Gil Gordon. Gil Gordon has served as a Museum at Eldridge Street docent since 2010.

In 1934 two young men, cousins, leave their shtetl in Białystok, Poland, to begin their journey. Their final destination is not clear but they know that Białystok no longer offers them a livelihood and opportunity. Several months later they find themselves in Berlin. Terrified by what is unfolding in Germany before their eyes, they stay for only a short time. Unable to agree on their next destination, they bicker and go their separate ways. One begins a journey that takes him to the port of Tel Aviv. The other takes a boat in steerage class and finds himself at Ellis Island.

At Ellis Island, the young man is placed in a holding section and told he will be returned to Europe. Somehow word reaches his only American relative, Jacob Parness, the shammos (caretaker) of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Parness reaches out to Samuel Dickstein, Congressman of the 12th District. Dickstein assures Parness he will take care of the matter and soon afterward the young man sets foot on the Lower East Side and moves into his uncle’s small apartment near the synagogue. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, the young man stands in the back of the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s magnificent sanctuary. He grips the prayer book his parents gave to him on his Bar Mitzvah day. As he hears the familiar chants and prayers of his shtetl synagogue, a feeling of comfort and warmth envelop him. He knows he will make a home in this strange city.

* * *

Eighty years later I enter the same synagogue toward the close of the Yom Kippur evening service. With me are my son-in-law and two young grandchildren. The last great Shofar blast reverberates through the sanctuary, and I think of these two young men from Białystok – my father and my second cousin.

As final prayers are completed and happy holiday greetings are shared with those around, the sanctuary empties quickly. With my son-in-law and two grandchildren in hand, I mount the steps that lead to the ark. I gently touch the ark and we move through the aisle, past the door down ten steps to the street below. We pass my father’s former apartment and walk quickly through the eerily quiet streets of Chinatown to my home. There we join the rest of the family for our break-the-fast meal.

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