Saturday afternoons in my childhood meant catching a movie matinee in Downtown Passaic. It was a time of such momentous decisions as whether to see Jerry Lewis at the Capitol Theatre or be scared out of my wits by “The Return of the Giant Spider” at the Montauk, whether to buy the milk duds or buttered popcorn.
Forty years later I return to spend Shabbos, which has exchanged places with the Friday night and Saturday of my childhood.
The face of Passaic hasn’t changed much. Third Ward Park still full of ducks in the pond and the miniature waterfall. The tennis courts still standing. The same houses on Passaic Avenue. The same whispering in the trees. The same cracks in the sidewalk.
But the insides of Passaic are different. Its insides mirror the changes that I’ve made in the years since I graduated high school and left to enter my future. Like me, Passaic discovered its spiritual bend, found its soul, and made tshuvah.
In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s when I lived there, I never once encountered observant Jews. My family and my friends’ families all belonged to the Reform or Conservative Temples whose services, for us children, were mainly recreational. During Junior High School, I went to shul on Friday night with my friend Susan, but later on in high school, I only came for the High Holidays like the rest of my contemporaries.
On Shabbos morning, I return to the Ahavas Israel, the conservative, turned orthodox shul where my father was a founding member. On the outside, the building is exactly the same. Same red brick, same stairs leading up to entrance where my friends and I would congregate on Rosh Hashanah to show off our new clothes.
Inside, the memorial lists still line the walls with little light bulbs next to each name to commemorate the yahrzeits. The names are sadly familiar.
The same sea of movie theatre seats. It all comes back to me, how I walked down the aisle as the flower girl at my big sister’s wedding. But now the mechitza blocks that little girl’s way as I relive the scene. It’s the only visible difference I can find around me. Same light fixture overhead. Same stained glass windows. Same morning light streaming in.
Being here is bittersweet. The pressure of memories on my heart, flashes of people’s faces who aren’t here anymore. It makes me think I must be dreaming, but I look down at the fancy but comfortable shoes that grandmothers tend to wear, and I know it’s definitely not a dream. I can feel it’s time to tighten the knot at the side of my tichel.
I take an Art Scroll siddur off the shelves and sit in an aisle seat on the women’s side of the mechitza with a sprinkling of other women who cover their hair. It’s the same shul, but not really. I am the same person I was when I last sat here forty years ago, but on a path so different from the one where I was headed back then as a teenager.
I left Passaic when I was l7 as a freshman at Wellesley College. Even if I had wanted to preserve my Jewish identity, I would have encountered tremendous odds against it. The only Jewish presence at Wellesley was the part-time Hillel Rabbi who organized a Friday night excursion to Yale to hear Ray Charles play the piano and meet boys.
When the handful of girls who wanted to keep kosher requested that cottage cheese be offered as an alternative to the porkchops in the cafeteria, the request was denied. Those were not especially enlightened times at Wellesley, and it took the striving for cultural identity by the Black and Hispanic factions to awaken the Jewish lobby and push through the cottage cheese addendum. But that happened long after I had graduated.
I was careening towards complete assimilation, teaching and living up in Bar Harbor, Maine at the age of 28 when I abruptly changed course. Strangely enough, the same thing happened to Passaic at just about the same time. A yeshiva decided to move in to apartments on Pennington Avenue near Passaic Park, and a kollel soon followed.
After ten months of study at a baal tshuva seminary in Jerusalem, I became engaged to my husband who was studying in Bnei Brak. On my way to Denver to get married by my husband’s Rebbe Rabbi Shloime Twerski, zatza, I stopped over for several weeks in Passaic to spend time with my family. I was amazed to find that I could continue my kallah classes with a Rebbetzin in the new religious enclave on Pennington, just a few minutes walk from my mother’s home.
After spending my first two and a half years of married life in Denver, I returned to Jerusalem and have been there ever since. Meanwhile, religious Passaic grew from that cluster of apartments on Pennington into one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in America. I understand that there are now about 1500 shomer mitzvot families in Passaic with yeshivas, kollels, chederim, girl’s school, and not only a kosher pizza place, but glatt kosher Chinese food as well.
If not for this unexpected turn of events, Ahavas Yisrael would have been obsolete by now since the majority of my Jewish peers left Passaic and many of them left even the vestiges of Jewish observance when they intermarried. Logically, The Ahavas should have disappeared like many other shuls in its position. Forty years later, The Ahavas should have been a bowling alley or erased completely to make room for garden apartments.
Just as I had been taken up over and above the natural course of events in my own life’s story, Ahavas Israel also miraculously survived intact and moreover, strengthened by its conversion to Orthodoxy and its adherence to authentic Jewish tradition.
I have an invitation for Shabbos lunch with an old friend who used to come to our home in Geula for Shabbos lunch when she was still single. She now lives with her husband and children in the Passaic Park section and relates to me how she feels it a privilege to be part of this warm, vibrant community.
I know that the Ahavas Israel has a new name, but it’s hard for me to think of it as anything but The Ahavas. My friend’s husband is also davening there, and after services, my husband and I wait a few minutes before meeting him in front of the shul.
I have an urge to see the rest of the premises, to walk downstairs and go past the smaller sanctuary which once housed the overflow on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I want to see where the Hebrew School used to be and the ballroom where 300 guests dined and danced at my sister’s wedding half a century ago. It seems that nothing has changed.
On the way out of the building, in the hallway of the side entrance, I look up to see a bronze plaque from the year 1954, only ten years after the staggering decimation of European Jewry. “We have built this synagogue for the sake of our children and their future.”
And there, underneath the inscription, are the children’s names. I find my name and my older sisters’ and brother’s names at the very top of the list. During the year they fixed that plaque to the wall, I was attending nursery school, of which I remember nothing but the time I watched the teacher wash out a little boy’s mouth with soap.
All those people—my father and mother, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin, the shul president and his wife—have all gone to the World of Truth. But something remains of their good intentions, and a rare glimpse into the Infinite Mind of Hashem in directing our lives. Standing at this juncture of time and space, I can appreciate His precise Divine orchestration, and what I consider to be an act of love, in giving to Passaic and one of her native daughters a set of parallel lives.
Varda Branfman leads virtual writing retreats by e-mail to help people achieve clarity, self-understanding, and healing. She is the author of I REMEMBERED IN THE NIGHT YOUR NAME and the soon-to-be-released e-book BLUEBERRY FIELDS FOR BREAKFAST: A COOKING COMPANION FOR CREATIVE SOULS. To order her books or for more information about the virtual retreats, write to her at email@example.com. For more of her articles, visit her blog, writingforhealing.blogspot.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.