Over the years, we’ve learned so much about the Eldridge Street Synagogue and its congregants from the Yiddish minute books in our archives, which contain records of meetings of synagogue leaders. Although the earlier years have been translated, much remains to be done.
Enter our summer interns: Emilie Amar-Zifkin is a Stage Management and Theology major at Fordham; and Rachel Wetter, who attends Rutgers University, is a History major and Jewish Studies minor. Together they’ve collaborated on translating a mid 20th-century minute book that casts light on characters and activities that took place at the Eldridge Street Synagogue during and right after World War II. Here’s what they have to say about their project.
Rachel: My great grandparents spoke fluently, but no one in the family has since. Then in college, kind of on a whim, I took an Introductory Yiddish class and was fascinated. Then I went on a summer program in Poland about Yiddish language and culture, and got hooked on the Yiddishist world.
Emilie: I went to an elementary school in Montreal that taught Yiddish as a language along with Hebrew, English and French, then worked for the Yiddish theater in Montreal for 3 years.
Have you met any memorable characters or personalities in the minute books?
Rachel: Moishe Groob! He’s the secretary who records the meetings. We feel we have gotten to know him through his writing style. He can be a bit haphazard with grammar, and with his handwriting, but he clearly takes pride in what he does. He has these sudden flashes of enthusiasm, like when his son gets married and when the synagogue pays off their mortgage, which are quite endearing.
Emilie: You can also tell what kind of accent he would have spoken with. For example “cash” becomes kesh, and window becomes “vindeh.”
And there’s Chaim Yosef Kahn — he is the Vice President from at least 1944 to 1945, except that he is hardly ever at meetings. A fixture of many of the minute book entries is that another member of the congregation acts as VP for the night and we have no idea where Chaim Yosef Kahn is during all of these meetings he misses. Another VP is voted in the next year. There’s one entry where a sentence starts with: “given that Chaim Yosef Kahn was indeed present at this meeting…”, so the rest of the board must have been pretty unamused by his constant absences. Chaim Yosef Kahn’s son Izzy ends up as vice president in the later years of the synagogue, interestingly enough.
Do women make an appearance?
Emilie: Not unless they are dead or buying graves.
Rachel: There are records of a ladies auxiliary, and that they played an important role in event planning, but they do not make an appearance in these records. They seemed to have operated behind the scenes. Occasionally they announce in the minutes that one of the high regarded women in the congregation has died, and they refer to her as Sister So-and-so.
Emilie: And there are records of women buying graves for family members; selling graves was one of the synagogue’s main sources of income.
Rachel: One particularly sad record mentions a woman buying two graves for her sons, one of whom is described as “already occupying the plot.”
Any favorite passages?
Rachel: Moishe Groob’s son’s wedding: it does not really merit a mention, it doesn’t have to do with the congregation (his son lives in Connecticut,) but he is clearly bursting with fatherly pride. Some members of the congregation are sent as a “committee to attend the wedding” and in the next meeting’s minutes Moishe reports that they enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
Emilie: On March 25th, 1945 – the congregation holds an event to celebrate the final payment of their 60 year, $50,000 mortgage. The event is described in great detail, various sermons are given “that were so great that everyone in attendance will not soon forget them.” The sheer excitement of finally being free of a 60 year debt is palpable in the entire entry. Multiple speeches are given, a famous cantor leads the prayers, folk songs are sung late into the night, and finally the mortgage is burned.
Do world events make an appearance?
Emilie: Strangely enough, not in the least. The synagogue board is overwhelmingly concerned with the minutia of the everyday running of the synagogue. They talk mostly about burials, the formation of committees, fundraising, and various congregants not paying their membership dues.
Let us know if you have any questions about what we are discovering in the minute books.