During its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, the East Bronx was a dynamic Torah-based community with shuls and yeshivos galore
"The Bronx, No thonx.”
So reads the mini-poem by Ogden Nash, which just about sums up the attitude of frum Jews today toward the only New York City borough actually connected to the mainland US.
But during its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, the East Bronx (later given the sobriquet “Fort Apache”) — as distinct from the West Bronx (Grand Concourse and Yankee Stadium) and North Bronx (Pelham Parkway) — was a dynamic Torah-based community with shuls and yeshivos galore, including the Bais Yaakov of the East Bronx (Dr. Ullman, principal), and such yeshivos as Ahavas Torah, Chaim Ozer, Salanter, Torah V’emunah, along with dozens of batei tefillah and batei medrash.
But the shul that is the focus of my memories is the Zeirei Agudath Israel of the East Bronx. Housed in a converted silent movie theater, it catered to dozens of mispallelim on Shabbos and hundreds on the Yamim Noraim. Although 65 years have passed since I last davened there, the memories remain as vivid as ever. Located on East 169th Street between Tiffany and Fox Streets, it was the largest of three shuls on the block; directly across the street were Rabbi Moshe Bick’s shul and a storefront shtibel.
Now, 169th Street was a major east-west artery with trolley car tracks running down its center. On Simchas Torah, all three shuls emptied onto the street, dancing with sifrei Torah. Needless to say, this caused a major problem for the trolley-car operators, who could not maneuver around the celebrants crowding on their tracks. It usually took many minutes of clanging bells to get the circles of dancers to part for the trolley. Maybe it caused a chillul Hashem, but none of us thought so at the time.
People came from far and wide because of our rav, Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchok Piekarski, a great talmid chacham and a rosh yeshivah at Yeshivas Lubavitch. He accepted the position on the tenai that the nusach of the shul be changed from Ashkenaz to Sefard. (Most of us boys had a hard time trying to follow the nusach Sefard tefillos from nusach Ashkenaz siddurim.) Before Krias haTorah on Shabbos, the rav would ascend the bimah to give a ten- to fifteen-minute shiur in halachah, which even we boys found somewhat interesting.
Most shuls get their character from their notable mispallelim (also known as “machers”). The Zeirei was no exception. In addition to the rav, there were three machers who kept the shul running. One was the shul’s only president, from its inception — my father, Mr. Irving (Yitzchak) Schonbrun. A dedicated Agudist, he and several chaverim founded the shul as bochurim in the 1930s, and it became his “baby.” He worked tirelessly for its upkeep and enhancement, and would go on to be one of the founders of the Bais Yaakov of Queens.
(Because of his devotion to the shul, I was able to learn a few words of Hungarian. Whenever he left the house, my mother would call out, “Hava metz?” And as he opened the door, he would answer, “Templumbah.” I eventually figured out the dialogue meant, “Where are you going?” “To shul.”)
The two other machers both had the family name of Rosenberg. Mr. Nathan (Nachman) Rosenberg was the shul’s treasurer, but he was so much more than that. He was a Mr. Fix-It: his talented hands cut repair bills to a minimum. If anything needed repair, Nachman was there.
And then there was Isadore (Yisroel) Rosenberg, who was the best gabbai I have ever encountered. He had an encyclopedic memory for names, yahrtzeits, and birthdays, and he delivered the Mi Shebeirachs in an unforgettable mellifluous tone. Through the years, I have used Yisroel as a template with which to rate gabbaim at a plethora of shuls. He was the father of three sons, one of whom (Moshe) was a star counselor with me in Camp Munk, another (Abie) whom I will discuss later, and one six-year-old who loved to sing and would regularly regale us with the popular song “Night and Day.” That young singer, Yosi Rosenberg, is now renowned in the world of Jewish music.
And speaking of singers, there were our baalei tefillah, young yirei Shamayim with marvelous voices. There was Feivel Orzel, son-in-law of the Bronx’s favorite “seltzer man,” Mr. Abe Zagelbaum; Yankel Zimmer, whose death shocked the city when he was shot in cold blood during a robbery; and everyone’s favorite, Aaron Silbermintz, the least known of the Silbermintz brothers (Josh, head counselor of Camp Munk and director of national Pirchei activities, and Teddy and Seymour, choirmasters par excellence), whose booming bass voice thrilled the mispallelim when he agreed to go to the amud.
One other group of “singers” were part of the DNA of the shul: the Kohanim, mostly composed of my father and my uncles (I was too young to duchen), none of whom could carry a tune! Their “singing” during Bircas Kohanim was a cacophony no one could ever forget.
No history of the Zeirei would be complete without mentioning another young man who went on to be a major personage in Torah-government relations. Chaim Boruch (Edgar) Gluck split his time between our shul and Rabbi Bick’s, and at a very young age already showed signs of political savvy. For years now, Chaim Boruch has been a ben bayis in the Albany state house and the address for prevention of autopsies. He is also behind the “Minyan Place” on the New York State Thruway on the way to the Catskills.
And then there was our shamash, who, to supplement his meager shul income, would operate a “speakeasy” from the storage closet, selling shots of “Old Overholt” (or “Three Feathers” or “Four Roses” — who knew from Scotch?) to his special neighborhood customers for 25 cents each.
For us kids, the Zeirei was a second home. During the Yamim Noraim and chagim, we would daven in in the main shul with our parents, but during the Shabbosos of the year, we had our own morning Pirchei minyan, in addition to our afternoon groups. As the shul was a redesigned movie theater, it had a large room upstairs that had probably served as a balcony or a projection room, reached by a long staircase near the front entrance. This multipurpose room housed our Shabbos minyan. Under the aegis of Yosi Rosenberg’s oldest brother, Abie (now Dr. Abraham Rosenberg of Efrat) we boys learned how to be baalei tefillah and baalei kriah and to deliver divrei Torah on the parshah. We all took these skills with us as we grew up and went our separate ways.
This room was also used for the shul’s kiddushim and Melaveh Malkahs, as well as Pirchei game and movie nights on Motzaei Shabbos. The room featured an ancient stove, a barely functioning refrigerator, and a hand-powered Victrola (“His Master’s Voice”) on which we would play our 78 rpm records. On special nights, our Pirchei Melaveh Malkahs (besides good snacks) featured silent movies on a makeshift screen (a sheet tacked onto a wall) from my father’s 8mm projector. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and friends entertained us with their antics.
And this room (referred to in Yiddish announcements by adults as “the zall”) also housed the shul’s semi-annual Melaveh Malkahs and the meetings of the women’s Neshei groups.
And speaking of food, the shul’s Seudah Shlishis on Shabbos cannot be forgotten (unfortunately) because it was the same every week of every month of every year: challah rolls, matzahs, and — wait for it — tomato herring, along with seltzer (from real seltzer bottles) and celery soda. To this day I cannot bear to look at a can of tomato herring .
And, in a corner, alongside one of the tables on which Shalosh Seudos was served, sat a large, gleaming brass… spittoon! We all took this obnoxious furnishing for granted as a natural part of a shul, never imagining that years later it would be considered uncivilized. (For those readers who wonder what a spittoon is, kishmo kein hu; it was used for people to spit or blow their noses into. Yuck!)
I have always believed that the Zeirei shul existed in a spiritual vortex that attracted otherworldly visitors. Allow me to explain.
One of our distinguished mispallelim was a Rabbi Blumenreich, who had the reputation of being a student of Kabbalah. We boys were uneasy around him (despite the fact that his son Mutty was part of our pack), because he seemed to be only partly on this world. When we were up to Aleinu, he was still in the middle of Shemoneh Esreh; when he wasn’t davening, he was studying a sefer; and when he looked at you, you would lose yourself in his eyes.
One Rosh Hashanah, the davening was interrupted by Rabbi Blumenreich’s sudden prostration (not during Aleinu) on the wooden floor next to his seat, remaining there for many a minute. We had to wait until after Mussaf to ask him what had transpired. He told us that he had seen a malach materialize in front of him and thus felt obligated to prostrate himself in front of this heavenly visitor.
This was not the only such episode of spiritual mystery. Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when the chazzan began the tefillah L’Keil Orech Din, the sound of an old woman weeping, weeping would emanate from just behind the mechitzah. It began when the tefillah began, and ended when it finished. Year after year. Who was this aged woman for whom this tefillah resounded so intensely that it elicited heartrending sobs, weeping so contagious it shook us all to the core?
One year we got up enough nerve to sneak a peek behind the mechitzah, to see who was sharpening the kavanah of our davening. But there was no old woman to be found in that entire area! Just a few younger women scattered among the pews, and none sitting near the mechitzah. So, was this some spiritual essence weeping for the sins of the Yidden on these holiest days of the year? “Rachel mevakah al baneha?” It remains a mystery to me to this day.
We all loved our community. We had everything: shuls, yeshivos, kosher shopping on 165th Street, subway stations within easy reach. And the friendships we made would seemingly last forever.
But things began to change in the early 1950s. After several of us were mugged, we children began to fear walking to the subway in the early mornings and walking home in the dark. Bricks were thrown through the back windows of the shul. And our cherished neighborhood began to be known as “Fort Apache,” with the New York Times reporting that 19 out of 20 deaths in this precinct were not from natural causes.
The wandering Jews began to wander once more. First, Rabbi Piekarski moved to Rego Park and became the rav of a shul on Saunders Street. (And when the Bronx refugees moved to Kew Gardens, we all walked four miles to Rabbi Piekarski’s shul to hear his Shabbos Hagadol drashos every year.) The reins of rabbanus of the Zeirei were then handed over to Rabbi Piekarski’s protégé, Rabbi Yitzchak Hauben, who, along with his chaver, Rabbi Avrohom Respler, served as mara d’asra of the Zeirei for several years. Both of them later followed their rebbi to Queens, with Rabbi Hauben assuming a position at Yeshiva Tifereth Moshe in Kew Gardens, and Rabbi Respler, becoming menahel of Yeshiva Toras Emes in Boro Park.
The rest of the shul’s members also began their trek out of the East Bronx, relocating to the West Bronx ,Crown Heights, and Kew Gardens. Eventually, all that was left of the Zeirei Agudath Israel of the East Bronx were priceless memories .
Epilogue: After moving into Kew Gardens in 1956, my father, Mr. Irving Schonbrun, used the organizational skills forged in the East Bronx to help found both the Queens Community Mikveh and the Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens.
After retiring from 30 years of service as general studies principal of Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, Rabbi Schaye Schonbrun decided that retirement was boring. He returned to his first love, teaching English, at Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun, the high school affiliate of Lander College and Yeshiva Ohr Chaim, a seven-minute drive from his home in Kew Gardens.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 846)
Oops! We could not locate your form.