Tag Archives: Congregation Temple Beth El

For My Grandpa, Being a Kohan Was His Joy and Duty

27 Jun
Inside Shul in Kauneonga Lake

My Cousin took this photo from the women’s balcony, at least 30 years ago. My Grandfather is standing on the right, walking away from the bima.

My maternal Grandpa was a Kohan, a descendant of the Priests of Israel.  Even today, Kohanim have roles and duties that are part of their lives.  Grandpa was born in Galicia, an area of Austria/Poland that often changed borders.  He came to the USA in 1920.  And eventually owned his own kosher bakery in New Jersey, as well as a small bungalow colony in the Catskills.  But he always kept the rules of the Kohanim.

Grandpa often served as the Kohan during the Pidyon ha Ben ceremony.  This ceremony is also called the redemption of the first born.  In biblical times the first-born child, if it is a son, of an Israelite family had to be given to the Kohanim.   The family needs to present five silver coins to a representative of the Kohanim.  My grandfather was often asked to serve as this representative.   He would lead the ceremony and take the silver coins, which he kept until the boy was bar mitzvah, when he would return the coins as part of the child’s bar mitzvah gift.

I remember as a child being at a Pidyon ha Ben service.  I was so intrigued by the ceremony.  But I think more by the money.  I asked what Grandpa did with all the silver coins.  My Grandma told me that Grandpa did not use that money.  He saved it in a special place to return to the boy when he was older.

I wonder how they could keep track of that money.  But then my grandparents owned a kosher bakery, and my grandmother saved every silver coin that came into the store.  When she died, we found 900 silver coins, from dimes to silver dollars.  They were divided up so that everyone one of their descendants had some.  I still have mine.

Grandpa rarely went to a cemetery.   In fact, I don’t remember him ever going to a cemetery. He always paid shiva calls, but not the funeral.  Kohanim do not go near the dead. He did not go into a service until my grandmother died.   Kohanim do not go near the dead.  In fact, some Jewish funeral homes are built with two foundations, so that Kohanim can stay in the outer area during a funeral. There but not in the same structure.  I can still see my Grandpa during my Grandma’s funeral, even though it was almost 40 years ago.

Grandpa went to services on Shabbat.  He made so many Kohan aliyot at Shabbat services.  When they moved to the Catskills full time.  He was often the only Kohan at shul.  It became his responsibility to go every week and be the Kohan.  He took this honor seriously.

When he was in his later years, over 80, he would drive partway to shul and then walk the distance that he could walk.  Although he was brought up not driving on Shabbat or working, in the 1980s at his shul in Kauneonga Lake, people drove to services, even parking on the grounds of the shul, Congregation Temple Beth El. But not Grandpa.  He would park by Sylvia’s clothing store, up the hill from the main part of Kauneonga Lake and easier for him to walk.  I once asked him why he didn’t just park at the shul.   His response, “I walk as far as I can, because I can do that for Shabbat.”

On the high holidays he was often the only Kohan at the Kauneonga Lake shul.  On the high holidays he would sit in the men’s section with his tallit wrapped over his head covering his eyes.  When I was little my favorite time was sitting with him in shul with his tallit covering me as well.  He kept his hands over his eyes under the tallit as he davened.  His emotions during the high holidays was overwhelming.  My sister said it was her strongest memory, how upset and emotional he would get them, as Grandpa usually had a great sense of joy.  But then as an adult she realized that the pain of the Shoah came to him then.  He was the only one left of his family.  All perished in Europe, while he was already in the USA.

Sometimes he was the only Kohan at shul to perform the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessings.  Grandpa had a beautiful singing voice.  He often sang to us in Yiddish. During the Priestly Blessings, he sang for everyone and blessing the entire congregation.  At times there were other Kohanim present, especially if the holidays were early in September.  Then Grandpa would be joined by others on the bima.

At some point, another Kohan moved to the Kauneonga Lake area and also went to services.  Grandpa was thrilled.  Sometimes he would not go to services on Shabbat.  He would say, “Let the other guy have a chance.”

It was this statement that brought this story to my mind last weekend..  My husband is a Levi.  He goes to minyan every Wednesday, but to Shabat services about once a month. He almost always gets Levi.  Our congregation only has three Levis who come weekly.  They, like my grandfather, are happy when another guy comes. This week the Gabbi came and said, “Do you want Levi?” “Sure,” was my husband’s response.  “Good because the others say they don’t want it today, you should take it.”  During this short conversation, in my mind’s eye, I could see my Grandpa’s smiling and laughing.

Grandpa took his role as a Kohan with joy and fulfilled his duty.  I know he would be happy seeing my husband fulfilling his duty as well.

 

 

 

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1008437/jewish/Birkat-Kohanim-Melody.htm

 

Our Shul in the Catskills

18 Jun
Temple in Kauneonga Lake.

Temple in Kauneonga Lake.

Congregation Temple Beth El in Kauneonga Lake celebrated its 90 anniversary last summer. I only found out because my daughter asked me a question about the shul in the Catskills — the shul that three generations of her family had all attended.

To be honest, I was not sure that it even still held services. I live in Kansas now, and only go up to the Lake once each summer. Even less than I used to. When my parents were alive I would spend 7 to 10 days at our home in Kauneonga Lake with my parents and one or both of my children. But since they passed, at most I have spent a weekend.

So I checked. I went on line, and there it was a website for the congregation! I sent a donation in honor of the anniversary and in memory of my parents. And then I joined the congregation.

It brings back so many memories. The shul was founded in 1923. I think I started going there in the early 1960s. Maybe before. But my memories before then are not very accurate.

We spent every Rosh Hashannah at the shul on the hill in the Catskills. It was an orthodox congregation when I grew up. The women and girls sat upstairs in the balcony, while the men and boys sat downstairs. I actually liked sitting upstairs. We could look down on everyone and see what was going on, while we could be a little less formal.

But my Grandma Thelma and her good friend, Clara Wagner, rebelled one year. They said enough was enough. They did not want to climb the stairs anymore. So the congregation made a mehitzah for the downstairs and made the last three rows of seating for women. Grandma and Clara much happier, and keeping them happy was important. They were both very strong willed women!

I think they would be thrilled to know that there will be a woman rabbi there leading services this summer. Obviously men and women are sitting together and the mehitzah is down.

The shul was where we celebrated special events as well. My parents wedding anniversary was in June. One year, in honor of their anniversary, we held a special kiddish luncheon. My Grandpa Nat, a retired baker, baked plum cake after plum cake. Every oven was filled. Luckily he had saved many of his cooking trays.

The day of the kiddish was special. We were all there, family and congregation members. My Grandma asked Grandpa to sing in Yiddish for us. Grandpa had the best voice. His first song did not make my Mother happy. He sang, “Was is Geven ist Geven it Nitch Du.” My Mom said, “Daddy, why that song?” ‘What was, was and never will be again,’ is not what my Mom wanted to hear on her anniversary. (I think he was reliving her wedding, which occurred when my Dad was in the army on his way to Korea. It was a difficult time for the family, I have been told.)

My Grandpa laughed and then sang Tumbelalika and Schtetla Belz among other songs. There was some singing along, but mainly Grandpa singing to all of us.

We also celebrated my Grandma’s birthday there once or twice. Her birthday was in July. So perhaps her 70 or 75th birthdays were celebrated in the shul.

Grandpa was a cohen. He did not want to go to shul every week, but if no other cohen was available he went. In his younger days he would walk the mile or so to shul. But as he drifted near his 80s and older, he began to drive. He would park at Newman’s or across from Sylvia’s store and then walk the rest of the way. He just could not bring himself to drive all the way to shul on Shabbat.

I remember that a rabbi was hired that was a bit too orthodox for the shul. He put strings up around the syngagoue. As we walked to the shul, my Grandpa stopped and stood so still. “Vas Machts?” He turned to my Grandma. “I haven’t seen that since the shtetl!” He said. (Yes, he said it in Yiddish, but I don’t know how to write the entire sentence.)

I wanted to know what it was; it was an iruv. It makes a wall around the area of the synagogue or community so that people can carry things. You are not supposed to carry on Shabbat, but with an iruv up you can.

My grandparents had many friends at the shul. Among their closests friends were Abe and Clara Wagner. I can still see Abe, a plumber, down in a hole at my grandparents’ bungalow colony asking for some tool.   And my Grandpa laughing hysterically at the sight of the little red haired, highly freckled plumber in a hole.   Abe was so mad, “Stop laughing and hand me the tool.” But they both had a good laugh.

I remember going to their home many times with my Grandma and sitting and talking with Clara.

When Clara passed away, my grandmother was inconsolable for quite awhile. But when Abe remarried, she was welcoming to his new wife.

It was Abe who was there for my Grandpa when my Grandma passed away. We got the phone call from the hospital early on an August morning. My Grandpa refused to go to the hospital. He said, “She is gone, why do I need to go there.” They were worried about him at the hospital as he was in his 80s. So my Mom called Abe.

I can see it as yesterday. Abe spoke to my grandfather briefly, then he pointed at me. “Ellen, you come with me,” he said.

We went to the hospital, and while I signed my grandmother’s name over and over again on documents, Abe said. “Stay with them, I will be back.” At the time the emotion of signing Grandma’s name was all I thought of, nothing else.

We left when he returned. He had a big plastic bag of Grandma’s stuff. As we passed a dumpster, Abe told me throw it all out. “Your Grandpa doesn’t need any of that stuff,” he said.

I then turned to him and said, “Abe, I never saw Grandma.”
“Don’t worry, I took care of it,” He said.

And he did.

Grandma was buried in New Jersey, in our family plot. We, my parents, Grandpa and I, drove back to the Catskills from the cemetery. Grandpa sang, Johnny Mercer’s song, “Autumn Leaves” all the way back. “We promised each other that whoever remained would sing this song,” my Grandpa said. I still cannot bear to hear that song.

When we got to the house, all was ready. There was water by the door. There was a spread of eggs and other dairy items on the table. I am not sure if it was relatives or the Jewish community who prepared everything. But I know that many members of Congregation Temple Beth El came to sit shiva with my Grandpa. They were there for him for the many years he remained living at Kauneonga Lake.

My grandparents and parents always supported Congregation Temple Beth El. And as a community the people of the shul comforted my family.

I am so glad that services are still held at the shul on the hill, and that I have renewed my membership to support it and keep it alive.

 

http://congregationtemplebethel.org/

 

http://artists.letssingit.com/johnny-mercer-lyrics-autumn-leaves-wgtz6xc