The shull that I grew up in was not the shull I attended most often, but rather it was the shull attended for most of my youth during shabbosim and holidays. Like most shulls, my shull was a mix of characters that were the essence of the shull, without these characters we might as well have davened at home- for these people were the biological makeup of the shull.
“So you’re a member of the mens club eh?” Asked the old man in the beige suit, with those elastic khaki pants that only folks who drove Buicks and lived in Boca could actually get away with such unfashionable articles of clothing. He said the same thing every time I asked him for a piece of candy, and every time I probably had the same response, “can I have a red or orange lollypop.” He would sit all the way on the other end of the shull his hand always hanging over the end of the bench, a sign of sheer comfort, I rarely saw him have his siddur open, but us kids would flock to him around the time during the chazzans repetition of the shmona esray, then of course I would leave shul right after, sucking gingerly on my candy despite my fathers screaming at me that I ought to wait for Kiddush.
In the early years of my shull, I hadn’t realized that the entire population of the shull was in this obscene power struggle, only after did they overthrow the Rabbi by offering him upwards of 150,000 bucks did I realize the insanity of the entire situation. In fact I thought it was one big happy family, a cliquey one at that. All the men who were cool enough to be known as regulars, and since it was a sort of reject shull for folks who just couldn’t stand the snobbiness of other upper west side establishments, regulars were pretty hard to come by. Our shull was like an asylum for those who had tried Lincoln Square and found it to be to claustrophobic, and those who disliked the slow pace of the shteebles, and of course those who felt too old for places like the Jewish Center and OZ.
All of these fine folks who had been rejected or felt rejected flocked to West Side Institutional Synagogue on 76th between Amsterdam and Columbus with the hope that they could schmooze, daven and drink their single malt scotch in peace, and that did in fact happen. Even though my father left for political reasons (he does not believe in the concept of shull membership- he will donate the money as tzedaka- but the concept of paying non-tzedaka to daven is preposterous to him, and my father sticks very strongly to his ideals.) He still complains whenever we are in shull about the lack of pacing space, interesting books to read, lack of newspapers and the lack of hot water and coffee- which is always his biggest complaint.
Aaron became the shull president through some sort of power struggle to which I am really privy to. All I know is that one shabbos a man named Richard Wiggler- “no joke” the father of my buddy Mark who continues to go to WSIS as it is so fondly called was replaced by one our shulls best known characters, Aaron. Aaron is a big guy who talks like a Italian mobster and has this long snaking pony tail. He is also a boxing promoter and has is own talk show albeit I think it may be one of those late public access deals wedged in between Robyn Byrd and some commercials for Asian prostitutes ahem…escorts. Aaron is an upper west side staple by the way and you cannot miss him with his sneering smile and “hey buddies” talking to everyone he sort of knows. You may even be able to call him a hocker or macher, because he appears to know everyone.
Then there was David, I think David was responsible for a lot of the politics in the shull in the first place. Personally he was the guy that was buddies with everyone, yet talked behind everyone’s back. Of course no one could complain because David provided the weekly all inclusive, almost communistic Kiddush club with a plethora of fresh herring, garlic tam-tams and single malt Scotches- so we kind of shrugged off the whole back stabbing thing. After all free food is the Jewish rectifier for all that is wrong in the community. Dave was another long time friend of mines dad, actually I can attribuite most of my first utterings of curse words to Saturday mornings at their house watching HBO and MTV.
His son and me would skip out of davening to hang out at his grandmothers house where she inundated us with fresh cold cuts, pickles and yiddush phrases like, “oh Heshy your getting so big.” Then we would go to his hous where I learned who Annie Lennox and Kurt Cobain were, actually as I recall we were sitting around watching something when Kurt Cobain killed himself, I of course acted like I knew who he was, because as a 10? year old I didn’t want to be laughed at. I found out later on, that he was the dude from the Heart Shaped Box video that was all the craze in those days.
Shalom Shulevetz is hands down the most famous upper west side character and we were proud most of the time to have him as a member of our shull. He would sit near the candy man on the opposite of the shull, mind you the shull was enormous for an orthodox shull, and until they started taking benches out in a ill attempt to make the dying shull look full there were upwards of 740 seats in the men’s section.
Shalom is best known for his palm readings, he is this thick accented sphardi man who wears the weirdest outfits, kind of like red and paisley bekishes with weird hats. He always says your name as loud as possible, but his voice always sounds like a dying cow, it is almost painful to hear him speak- but of course he just keeps on talking. I could never figure out if anything he said was true, how he was rich and got all the ladies and drove around Ferraris. After all he was married and his wife was unseemngly rich having made millions in the real estate market. Actually the interesting thing was, most of the shull was rich folks who didn’t appear to be. Most of them were self made, it was not like the fancier shulls where everyone is a doctor and Lawyer, here it was real estate and business owners- the real smart folks in my mind.
Then there was my father, best known for slumping over the bima and arguing politics. I think every shull needs a politician that yells and curses and wont listen to a word you say. Oh and he was so right wing that he offended folks who considered themselves conservatives. Racism, bigots and homophobes were the rules of my shull. Liberals felt terribly out of place and considering this was the center of the best known east coast bastion of liberalism, it was a pretty big deal.
I can remember heated arguments, half of which became yelling and cursing matches until they switched to Yiddish, folks with half eaten pieces of herring sticking out of their mouths fumbling around with those small plastic shot glasses complaining constantly about Bill Clinton. In fact his impeachment was time for celebration, as was Rabins assassination and Baruch Goldstein’s attempt at Jewish Jihad. To say the least it was quite extreme. My father was always happily yelling at someone, with a big cup of “wodka” or Scotch in his hand.
The Kiddush club was great, because kids were encouraged to drink. The famous like that it “would grow some hair on our balls” was constantly evoked. Kiddush clubs included those few brave women who actually came to shull, and no one was left out, besides for the folks gathering around the bima to hear the haftorah. To say the least it was not the norm. In fact nothing was the norm. The people, the way they conducted themselves- you could almost say that my shull was like this perverted club that somehow passed as a shull.
I haven’t been back in quite a while, but I have heard that it is still fledgling, other problems include the fact that in recent years the shift of the Jewish population center went from the 70s to the 90s- which is totally odd, because when I grew up you never walked past 96th street.