Morn­ings at the Stan­ton Street Shul: A Sum­mer on the Low­er East Side

Jonathan Boyarin
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

Jonathan Boyarin char­ac­ter­izes this lov­ing dai­ly jour­nal of dav­en­ing at the Stan­ton Street Shul on the Low­er East Side as an ethno­graph­ic mem­oir.” Boyarin and his wife have lived in the neigh­bor­hood for thir­ty years and have been active mem­bers of the syn­a­gogue most of that time, but his new book is much more than one person’s diary. Boyarin, who is a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Jew­ish thought at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na, includes vivid descrip­tions of Jew­ish cul­ture and rit­u­al drawn from his insid­er” knowl­edge and his schol­ar­ly pur­suits.

The Stan­ton Street Syn­a­gogue build­ing dates back to 1913 and has been in con­tin­u­ous use since that time. Its peak mem­ber­ship peri­od was in the 1920s. Its offi­cial name is Con­gre­ga­tion Anshei Brzezan which means men of Brzezany,” an East­ern Euro­pean town. It is not uncom­mon, explains Boyarin, for Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties to feel a sense of a shared iden­ti­ty” based on their place of ori­gin, which may have dis­tinc­tive stan­dards, arrange­ments of par­tic­u­lar prayers, and musi­cal styles in their reli­gious wor­ship.

The author has skill­ful­ly woven into this tapes­try of Ortho­dox Jew­ish life the quo­tid­i­an events that often occur in a small shul, such as the anx­i­ety of not being sure that the ten-men morn­ing minyan will be achieved, or kib­b­itz­ing about oth­er con­gre­gants and the rabbi’s foibles, or dis­putes about the selec­tion of a new rab­bi, and heat­ed dis­cus­sions about the pros and cons of a type of nusach, or style of prayer. Boyarin char­ac­ter­izes the Stan­ton Street Shul as a new-old” insti­tu­tion. Unlike most of the Low­er East Side syn­a­gogues of the ear­ly 1900s, the Stan­ton Street Syn­a­gogue has sur­vived and increas­ing­ly drawn mem­bers from what Boyarin char­ac­ter­izes as the new Jews” in the area. These new Jews” include sin­gle peo­ple, open­ly gay mem­bers, and egal­i­tar­i­an cou­ples com­mit­ted to expand­ing the role of women with­in the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion. These new” and old” Jews make up the reg­u­lars” at the shul.

Morn­ings at the Stan­ton Street Shul is a delight­ful trib­ute to the spe­cial mag­ic one feels being a mem­ber of a shul. Boyarin has mas­ter­ful­ly accom­plished his goal of cre­at­ing a chron­i­cle which can serve as a liv­ing bridge to the world of East Euro­pean Jew­ish­ness, pre­serv­ing ges­tures, idioms, and anec­dotes for those who come after….” Foot­notes, glos­sary, photos.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions