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The Nusach Ari Synagogue

The Nusach Ari Synagogue

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I grew up in West Rogers Park, Chicago, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. There were some dozen synagogues within a one-mile radius of our house, and the one we belonged to was less than a ten-minute walk away. We prayed there every Shabbat, and when I was old enough, every morning and evening.

But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we walked two and a half miles south to the old Jewish neighborhood—a 45-minute walk—to the Nusach Ari synagogue in Albany Park. There they prayed according to the custom established by the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Ari, “the Lion.”

Time seemed to move backward as we walked through Peterson Park with its stylish low-profile ranch homes, through Hollywood Park with its many two- and three-flats, to Albany Park, where the apartment buildings were made of dark, foreboding brick. Even the trees, planted many years earlier, formed a tangled canopy that blocked the sun from reaching the street.

The Nusach Ari synagogue had a mikvah for men in the garage behind the house. The dank, musty smell greeted you at the door, even before your glasses fogged up from the humidity.

The synagogue was in a converted two-flat. Congregation Nusach Ari used the upper floor; the first floor was used by another congregation that prayed according to nusach Ashkenaz.

Rabbi Winchester was the rabbi of Nusach Ari. He had been a yeshivah student in Chevron during the Arab riots of 1929, and when there was an epidemic of highly contagious typhus in the yeshivah, he took care of the sick students without regard for his own safety.

In the downstairs synagogue, everything was tan—the floor, the benches, the walls. The upstairs synagogue was dark. The carpet had once been a dark blue. Rows of mahogany benches filled the entire floor, with a translucent curtain marking the women’s section in the back. They told me the room used to be full. By the late ’60s, the crowds were gone. About 15 men prayed there on Rosh Hashanah, and a few women. We made sure to wipe the dust from the benches with handkerchiefs before we sat down.

The people who prayed there were all old. Compared to them, my father was a youngster. Yiddish was the first language of almost all of them; for some, their only language. Did they come to the U.S. after the war? Before the war? I don’t know. But I do know that many of them grew up in the famed yeshivahs of Lithuania or in the shtetls of Poland, in a world utterly different from the one they now inhabited.

After the old chazzan (prayer leader) moved away, or passed away, my father took over. On Rosh Hashanah he would begin the haunting melody standing at the back of the synagogue. Then he would proclaim, “Hamelech!”—The King!—and walk silently to the front, where he would lead the congregation in the morning prayers.

The cacophony of feelings was reflected in the sounds of the prayers. Regret, awe, trepidation, relief, hope, and gratitude intertwined in the melodies. At one moment the chazzan sobbed, at another he seemed to dance. Bits of these tunes remain fixed in my memory. What I wouldn’t give to hear them just one more time.

There was one other family with children in the synagogue. Once in a while, we would leave the sanctuary to explore. On one occasion, we went out to the porch and rolled marbles down the gutters made to collect rainwater for the mikvah. We watched our marbles roll onto the roof of the garage, hoping they would fall into the hole that led to the mikvah. Another time, I remember opening drawers in the kitchen. They were filled with roaches. It took great courage, and lots of screams and giggles, to get close enough to slam the drawer shut.

Most of the time, though, we prayed and talked, counted the pages and watched the clock. The long second hand swept over the face of the clock, but the minute hand didn’t budge. After what seemed like hours, I would peek at the clock and find that only three minutes had passed. Many years later, when the synagogue was dismantled, my father gave the candelabra to my sister’s Chabad House. I asked for the clock. It was one of the objects in the synagogue to which I felt an attachment.

All these years later, the memories of those Rosh Hashanahs and Yom Kippurs I spent at Nusach Ari in Albany Park stand foremost in my mind during the High Holiday prayers. A forgotten synagogue, with forgotten people, who were themselves from a forgotten time and a forgotten land. Pure, simple and sincere, yet confident in their faith and practice, they embodied beliefs and values that have endured for thousands of years.

Perhaps this is the message of the High Holidays as well. It is a time when we see beyond the landscaped lawns and late-model cars, when smart phones and the price of gold just don’t matter. We feel ashamed for our frail weaknesses, and rely on G‑d’s kindness to grant us blessings for our families, for our health, for our sustenance. As long as we have that, we think, we can be happy.

Rabbi Chaim Kosofsky is a Lubavitcher Shliach at Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow, MA, where he teaches Judaic studies. He also teaches adult education and coordinates outreach programs for Beis Medresh Lubavitch. Rabbi Kosofsky is the author of Much, Much Better (Hachai, 2006).
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P. Malevitz August 27, 2015

Cong Nusach Arie and Albany Park When I was born in 1949 our family lived on the 1800 block of S. Springfield Av. on the west side of Chicago for four years followed by four years in the Garfield Park area on Jackson & Karlov. In 1958 we moved to the north side. My grandparents lived in Albany Park on the 4700 block of N. Bernard St. We lived a mile north of them in an area called Hollywood Park, on the 5500 block of N. Sawyer Ave. My father had a business a block and a half from the Nusach Arie shul in Albany Park. The shul itself reminded me of Albany Park--a heimish and comfortable place to live. Another Albany Park shul created from the first floor of a three-flat apartment building was Rabbi Eichenstein's Congregation Nachlas David located on the 5000 block of Kimball Ave on the west side of the street. I wish we had more shuls like those two! Reply

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