The shulls I davened at while growing up on the Upper West Side

As a child my family went to the Carlebach shull, recently I found out that the wedding singer at my parents wedding was Reb Shlomo himself- I found this odd because my father is not exactly what you would call a Carlbachian. So any way, in the early 90s we suddenly switched shulls, which on the upper west side of Manhattan is not that weird to do. People usually choose the shull they daven in by the Kiddush or the Kiddush club for that matter.

My father chose this shull for different reasons. You see he never liked being holed up in shull for 3 hours and yes all the shulls on the upper west side like to take as long as possible on shabbos day. He always complained about the lack of walking space in Carlebach and the lack of a place to sit and read the newspaper. I know what your thinking, who comes to shull to sit and relax with coffee in hand and the paper in the other. This might be where I get my shull impatience from, I also cannot sit in shull for mush longer then an hour, I need a good sefer, one of those emails that come from some random place in Monsey that someone distributes on the tables or a place outside of shull to go and tone down.

So we suddenly found ourselves in the West Side Institutional Synagogue. Long name amazing results, well not really, I would venture to call this the reject shull of the upper west side. When we got there, it was just on its way down. It was steadily losing members and the people who did go there were characters, to say the least. The famous Baba Shalom who is a good friend of my dads from the old days- used to tell anyone willing to listen what their fortune will be. He was and still is one of the upper west side characters, a staple, like good old Charlie Buttons- who has long since left the upper west side and now hangs out in 770.

You know what was amazing about WSIS, there was so many things for a young dude like myself to do and break. First of all, directly across the street was a basketball court and school yard. So during laining we used to play ball, flies up, kick ball- whatever. Then upstairs, there was the ball room on the third floor that had seen better days especially when us kids were through with it. The 30 foot high ceilings were perfect for football although we broke many of the crystals off the chandeliers.

Then upstairs there was this whole day care complex that on shabbos became our playland. There was tons of those portable play things that you could move around. One time we had a wooden block war. We built forts and just threw these little wodden blocks at each other. Of course someone got hurt, my old man came up and beat the crap out of me and my brother. There were actually lots of beatings in my shull. We all got beat up, by each other or our parents.

I remember one time we were playing soccer in the ball room and I kicked the ball and it broke the largest window in the shull. It was about 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and boy did it make a noise. I could hear my dad yelling expletives as he ran up the stairs, he knew it had to be one of his kids. I ran from him, his talis waving in the wind as he cursed and screamed and said he was gonna kill me.

Then there was the yertziet lights. This is probably one the stupidest things that all of us kids did, and it was my idea. We went into the small weekday shull and we unscrewed hundreds of those little light bulbs that they use for yizkor days. Then we went out to 76th street and lined them up in the street, every time a car ran over them, they exploded. Sometimes the driver would get out and start screaming that we popped his tires, those were good times, and no ones parents ever realized.

Our shull was also known for its all inclusive Kiddush club. I grew up thinking that everyone in all shulls were invited to the Kiddush club. In WSIS everyone came to the Kiddush club including the Rabbi once in a while- if the shull had one. Women, children, old men everyone- it wasn’t just the arrogant power broker types who sneak out of shull and enjoy single malt scotch and herring. Our Kiddush club was the real deal, basically a full blown scotch and herring Kiddush sponsored by the president of the shull. I was never drinker and I would get hassled when I was in my teens by my father and his friends calling me a fake Jew because I didn’t take down 8 oz shots of vodka and scotch. I did rock the herring though and it was all from Williamsburg- so I did grow up on good herring and garlic tam-tams. Everyone hobbled back into shull pretty drunk and musaf was always an interesting affair. Drunk weirdoes make for great shull experiences.

The shull was basically an excuse for a bunch of divorced and widowed men to drink, tell fart jokes, and scream about the Democrats. Someone was always cursing about politics, my father the right wingest of them all always got into screaming matches at the normal Kiddush- and the response was something of the “your out of your f—ing mind”, and cursing was allowed too- it was kind of weird because everyone would speak Yiddish half the time.

I think it was just one big festival of everyone trying to be like kids. Even when I was 15, 16 years old everyone would run out to get candy during the uf-ruf or bar mitzvah candy throwing times. In our older years we all still played out in the school yard and hung around outside shull. Looking back I never even thought about the orthodoxy level of the shull, everyone loved gemara, but then again you could walk into the women’s section during shull and that wasn’t weird. In fact until I spent simchas torah somewhere else I thought in all shulls the women danced with the torahs.

The problem with the shull was that we never got any new members. When the main Rabbi left, the shull became like an Elks Lodge or something. All the men shooting the shit and having drunken Kiddush clubs. Trying to get events like Piamenta to try and bolster crowds. The biggest problem was they were trying to compete with the Jewish Center and OZ, but they were in the wrong neighborhood. When I grew up the biggest Jewish area was in the mid 70s, as an adult it became the mid 90s.

They used to have these singles parties around simchas torah and have free sushi kiddushes. I was like 16 or so watching all these shallow singles pushing each other over for the last sashimi- it was quite an amazing experience. Like the grapevine had heard free sushi and all of the sudden there were all these singles who I always wondered why the women only wore black and they were talking very loudly over drinks and sushi. No one would even step foot in the sanctuary for services. They came, they ate and they left. And most of them probably would never have stepped into an orthodox shull had it not been for free food. I have always known that the answer to assimilation was free food- it keeps us Jews together.

My father has something against paying membership dues to shulls. He feel that his maisser money and tzedaka of which his give generously should be counted. He just hates the whole theory of paying to daven. So with that he left, after years of getting drunk with the boys donating Highland Park single malt and Belvedere vodka and his Rush Limbaugh commentary he up and left. You know where he went, right back to Carlebach. And once again resumed his role as a regular, which in Carlebach there aren’t too many.