Ask any Torah Jew from around the world what comes to mind, and he will probably mention the classic, standby halachah sefer written over 200 years ago. But if you ask a native Bostonian, you will likely be told something about the 116-year-old shul, presently on 77 Englewood Avenue, for decades a neighborhood anchor whose doors are open to anyone who wants to come in.
Chai Odom was one of the last shuls to vacate Dorchester, formerly a neighborhood home to thousands of Jews. The shul’s grand building there had a capacity of 900. As Jewish life migrated to Brighton, Brookline, Newton, and some smaller suburbs, Rav Shlomo Margolis ztz”l, a Novardoker talmid par excellence (and my uncle, I may proudly add), had no choice but to follow suit. The former Yeshiva Gedola of Boston had closed, leaving the rav, its president, and an old mansion, complete with beis medrash and apartments. Students of the many colleges in the environs would rent the apartments, and find themselves being dragged down to shul for the fledgling 6:30 Shacharis. Many of them eventually became baalei teshuvah and talmidei chachamim due to Rav Margolis’s old European charm and ahavas habrios.
At the shul’s 100th anniversary dinner 16 years ago, I was privileged to address the membership and share memories of my youth; the quintessential “Chai Odom boy,” I had celebrated my bar mitzvah and aufruf there.
My earliest memory dates back to 1967, when as fresh yesomim, my brother and I spent the Yamim Noraim in the old Chai Odom on Nightingale Street, under the watchful eye of Mr. Isadore Linsky a”h, who was not zocheh to children of his own. I would always be reminded that he made the fish for my bris, and his wife Sima’s teiglach, a Purim shalach manos staple, could certainly have served as a viable substitute for dental fillings. Mr. Linsky served with dignity as the anchor of the Chevra Tehillim that chanted the designated kapitlach every Shabbos after Minchah, and sponsored the Chanukah Melaveh Malkah each year. A Jew from a bygone era was he.
If my memory serves me correctly, my brother and I were playing finger baseball (ask your elders how to play it if you are not familiar), during Unesaneh Tokef, no less, and to my dismay my brother “hit” a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. I yelped in horror of losing when victory had been so close at hand; the entire cathedral-style building must have heard. But I don’t recall anyone rebuking me, just Mr. Linsky coddling me under his tallis, tickling my ear with his tzitzis. It was, after all, my loving home.
The Brighton shul was home to the entire spectrum of Yiddishkeit.
There was the elderly Zeidy Bramson a”h (he was everybody’s zeidy, as they were in short supply in the last generation), who never allowed any obstacle to prevent him from coming to shul, even covering his legs in garbage bags to navigate two-foot snowdrifts. He would walk hours to attend Rav Soloveitchik’s shiur across town on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and always arrive back in time on Leil Simchas Torah to outbid everyone else for Chassan Bereishis, even if by only a dollar.
Bidder One: “Hundred.”
Zeidy Bramson: “Hundred and one.”
Bidder One: “Hundred eighteen.”
Zeidy: “Hundred nineteen.”
And so it would go. His son-in-law and daughter, Rabbi and Mrs. Eli Dovek, perpetual pillars of the community, would give kiddush in their house Simchas Torah day, along with Reb Dovid a”h and yblch”t Daubra Rothstein. (Oh, those devil dogs!)
There were the “shul Yidden” who came an hour early for Minchah on a weekday, and the unforgettable Mrs. Kramer and Mrs. Sheal aleihen hashalom, whose kugels were always given honorable mention at every Shabbos kiddush. (I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Sheal’s grandson at a convention last year.)
I still remember the Jew who drove in from attending a ballgame at nearby Fenway Park to say Yizkor on Yom Kippur, quietly (but audibly to me) urging the rav to finish his drashah quickly. Yet he was still drawn to Chai Odom.
On the other end of the spectrum, Chai Odom was home and default vacation beis medrash to the bochurim home for bein hazmanim. The shul’s maggid shiur, Rabbi Yudel Dovek, filled the shiur room with the pure kol Torah of his Torah Vodaath chinuch. In fact, one of the students who rented an apartment upstairs was so inspired by the geshmak he witnessed in the boys’ learning that he left MIT and went on to become a talmid chacham of the highest order as well as a well-known mechaber seforim. The mizrach wall in shul was graced by two distinguished remnants of the previous dor dai’o, Rav Lipa Solomon and Reb Berel Chafetz zichronam livrachah, who, among their other qualities, had spent time in Radin at the yeshivah of the Chafetz Chaim.They were warehouses of stories and ideals from a bygone era. Just knowing them was an inspiration.
Rav Margolis encouraged anyone who would listen to make a seder in his bible of middos tovos, the Alter of Novardok’s Madreigos Ha’adam. One particular anecdote stands out in my memory, that illustrates the unique tovas ayin that Rav Margolis displayed toward everyone he met. There was a choli nefesh known only as Shimon who frequented the shul. One Erev Tishah B’Av, when all the bochurim were home for bein hazmanim, Shimon was suddenly niftar, giving all of us the opportunity to be melaveh him to his final menuchah after Kinnos. What does one convey at a hesped of this sort? The Rav said we could never know what was inside Shimon’s neshamah, but there was clearly a reason that hashgachah ordained that his funeral should be attended by scores of people. It was coming to him.
After Rav Margolis and his Rebbetzin Chava a”h made aliyah in the ’90s, he kept up his regular sedorim on the phone with various members. His son-in-law, Rav Dovid Moskovitz, assumed the mantel of leadership and still holds it today. Rav Moskovitz’s son-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Ochs, serves as the assistant rav, strengthening the strong bond of chut hameshulash lo bimheirah yinateik. Chai Odom continues to be a thriving beacon of Torah and mussar with programming for people of all ages and backgrounds.
I still get a thrill every time I walk through its doors when I have the occasion to visit my children in Brighton. Indeed, Chai Odom is befitting of its name, the address for all Hashem’s creations to live and grow. Nobody is forced to schlep Harvard students out of bed for the daily minyan anymore; daily Shacharis minyanim are reliably well attended, along with their Daf Yomi and plethora of services and classes. One hundred sixteen and still young.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 737)
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