Jenna Weissman Joselit: Hallow the Halls

When asked to conjure up a sacred space, BJ congregants would be quick to point to the 88th Street Sanctuary. But these days, when gathering together within its glorious precincts for prayer and community is no longer possible, figuring out what constitutes sacred space is a far more elusive proposition.

Is it a matter of rearranging the furniture in our living rooms? A question of lighting? Of sound? The presence of a ritual object or two? Or might sacred space be more of a state of mind, an expression of intentionality, a declaration of purpose?

As we consider what it takes to render a space holy – set apart, distinctive, and meaningful—some of us might turn to the Bible for wisdom, others to Hasidic tales. Some of us might look to parables, others to precedent.  And still others, like me, might find history—American Jewish history—a great help.

It turns out that while we are the first generation of American Jews to experience digital davening, the issues it raises—about the integrity of prayer, the power of community, and the meaning of sacred space—also bedeviled those who came before us.

Then, as now, most early twentieth-century American Jews were not regular shul-goers. And yet, once the High Holy Days were around the corner and duly marked on the calendar, our forebears experienced a change of heart, or what one contemporary in 1905 described as a sudden “shiver of religiosity.” Fueled by superstition in some instances and by the desire to be “numbered among the children of Israel” in others, an earlier generation of American Jews, many of them immigrants, cast about for a place to attend religious services.     

While many observers thought this momentary “revival” a good thing or, at the very least, better than nothing, no one had a kind word to say about the hundreds of places that sprang up, like mushrooms after the rain, to meet the sudden surge in interest: Provisional synagogues, they were called by some; “mushroom synagogues,” they were called more lyrically by others.  

In New York City, as demand rapidly outpaced supply, canny businessmen seized the opportunity to make easy money by renting spaces in which to hold High Holy Day services and hiring personnel to run them. Tickets were sold, either in advance or “payable on the spot,” just minutes before the proceedings would start. Anyplace, as long as it accommodated large blocs of people, would do: bars, music halls, factory lofts, and the Alhambra Theater on West 126th Street.   

Handbills posted throughout the city’s Jewish neighborhoods touted the virtues of these transient synagogues, highlighting their creature comforts rather than their spiritual dividends. The presence of a “world famous” rabbi–cantor duo who would preside over the services was mentioned, of course, but invariably that played second fiddle to the “new, elegant, large, airy, well-lighted, and ventilated” amenities that awaited attendees. 

Popular with the grass roots for whom the price was right—decidedly much cheaper than the cost of belonging to a synagogue—the fly-by-night shul was hotly denounced by those in elite positions of authority as a “recurring evil,” an “excrescence on modern Judaism,” a “public disgrace”: a true chillul hashem (desecration of God’s name).    

It wasn’t just the incongruity of divine services held in a space usually given over to the louche, ribald humor of the vaudeville stage that troubled the community’s cultural custodians, or that those who led services were clergy in name only: men who possessed a “tolerable voice” knew a bit of Hebrew and their way around the liturgy, but had no formal ordination, let alone an ongoing relationship with godliness.  

What set the critics’ teeth most sharply on edge was the way in which an expression of piety had been transformed into a form of commercial exchange:  Prayer had become a commodity. The monetization of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was bad enough; worse still was how it blackened the Jews’ reputation. When even the holy practice of penitence was “exploited” for financial gain, lamented one disheartened New Yorker in 1906, was it any wonder that people believed the Jews cared only for money? A shameful business!

Unwilling to leave matters to chance or to market forces, the organized New York Jewish community, represented by a constituent organization known as the Kehillah, took steps to provide a more dignified alternative by sponsoring a number of services in the years prior to and immediately following World War I. Held in the auditoria of highly respected Jewish civic institutions such as the Hebrew Technical School for Girls and the YWHA, and free of charge (at least at first), these were not only “strictly orthodox,” with a bona fide hazan and a baal tefilah, but decorous, too.

The “call for seats was immediate,” reported the American Hebrew, which closely followed the Kehillah’s remedial campaign, adding that four times the number of available tickets could easily have been disposed of.

Gratified by the public’s response, the Kehillah would go on to encourage the Jews of New York, as well as those of Cleveland and Chicago, to “abstain” from patronizing a provisional synagogue in “objectionable” surroundings. At the same time, it called on established houses of worship to “open” up their vestry rooms and other additional spaces to accommodate the occasional worshipper. They did, resulting in what we now know as the “overflow” service and, in the process, putting the makeshift synagogue out of business.    

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At first blush, my cautionary tale seems to be just another in a long series of cringeworthy clashes between tradition and modernity, the synagogue and the marketplace, in which the American Jewish experience abounds. But the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to see this particular communal flap as an exercise in defining sacred space.  

Lacking the requisite vocabulary, the actors in this early twentieth-century drama didn’t say so in as many words, but in their critique of the services’ provisionality and audiences of paying customers rather than steadfast congregants, they were onto something essential to sacred space: community, discipline, and responsibility. They understood that without these ingredients any sense of the Divine or the value of tradition was out of reach.  

Wherever we, their latter-day descendants, gather this year—in a living room or a backyard—let’s take this history lesson to heart. 

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at The George Washington University, is the author, most recently, of Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments and a monthly columnist for Tablet.