RELIGION COMES TO 50th STREET

I grew up in Wynnefield, a tree-lined section of West Philadelphia. Originally settled by William Penn’s physician, Thomas Wynne, it still consists of a variety of housing ranging from row homes to apartment buildings to large single-family homes. Most were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. My family lived on 50th Street, just one block from a row of mansions on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Like them, our house was clad in Pennsylvania fieldstone and surrounded by mature maple and sycamore trees. But its relatively modest three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths made it a comfortable home, not impressive. Its placement atop an incline made it appear larger than it was.

When I was born in 1956, Wynnefield’s population was as Jewish as any shtetl in pre-War Ukraine. A decade older than I, my siblings attended public school, socialized and suffered through religious education almost exclusively with Jews.  In 1963, however, the first house in the neighborhood sold outside “the community.” As though a race had been started by the crack of a pistol, nearly every other house in the neighborhood sported a “For Sale” sign within weeks. My first-grade class picture from 1962 at Gompers Elementary School, which showed three minority students in a class of 20 gave way to a sixth grade photo wherein I was one of five Caucasians.

“White flight” is a pejorative term. Justifiably. It represents the knee-jerk reaction of racists, or people who are not quite racist, but are still fearful of living amidst people of different appearances or backgrounds. The effects on property values, schools and the sense of community are usually negative. Our property value certainly declined. The new neighbors are vilified without even having a chance to offend. Also unsettled are those who don’t move.  My family, due to some combination of enlightened acceptance of others, or inertia (I prefer the former interpretation) stayed put.

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We shared our driveway with a family named Rosen who joined the exodus as though Moses himself were leading it. Almost uniquely, however, the family who bought their home was not from outside “the community.” Rather, my parents learned, the buyer was a young rabbi with a wife and two daughters. In terms of joining Wynnefield’s Jewish community, Harry and Esther Cohen were the last people to purchase tickets on the Titanic.

When I learned our new neighbor was a rabbi, I expected a stern, bookish sort of man. I anticipated having to curtail my endless ball playing in the driveway because he would require quiet. I thought he would wear a yarmulke, sport a beard and, perhaps, a long coat. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Harry was tall and slender, with a clean-shaven face and sandy-colored hair. He was young, affable, and a lover of baseball. He often stopped to talk to me while I played ball in our mutual driveway, but never about religion.   We discussed his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the two woebegone teams I followed, the Phillies and the Cubs.

The rabbi’s wife, however, though short in stature, was formidable.  Born in Israel, Esther had served in their army before emigrating. Often, people regard a petite veteran, and say: “Hard to imagine she was a soldier.” Once you’d met Esther, you’d be surprised to learn she hadn’t been the commander in charge. With her nasal, accented voice, she dominated her easygoing husband. “Harry, take out the garbage NOW,” she would say. “Harry, don’t forget to be home by six. I mean it.”

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My family was chauvinistically Jewish, never failing to tout our kinship to the range of luminaries from Albert Einstein to Leonard Bernstein to Sandy Koufax. Yet, we didn’t attend religious services. The view of organized religion most commonly espoused by my father approximated that of the author, Ambrose Bierce. To paraphrase, “organized religion is the use of fear and hope to explain the unknowable to the ignorant.” Owing mostly to my father’s viewpoint, I also knew that the word “orthodox,” which I understood had something to do with those who took religion seriously, was often connected with the word “lunatic.” Basically, our religious observance involved celebration of all the major food groups, from beef brisket to cheese blintzes to fruit compote, a practice my family sustains.

Still, I thought because our new neighbor was a rabbi, my father would at least be pleased.   It surprised me when he didn’t accord Rabbi Cohen much respect. Instead, he said the rabbi “talked too much.”  Initially, I assumed the lack of reverence derived from the cleric’s relative youth, his mild southern twang or the related unlikelihood that a man of religion could come from Texas.   The subject of religion confused my seven-year-old self. Nowadays, I simply have a somewhat more detailed incomprehension of how people form and sustain their beliefs. After a year or two, I recognized my father’s lack of respect for Rabbi Cohen was not due solely to his personal attributes so much as to the hitherto unknown (to me) distinction between “reformed” and “conservative.” From overhearing my parents talk, particularly my father, it appeared that somewhere beneath Orthodox Judaism (too much) and Conservative Judaism (about right) was “Reformed Judaism,” representing “too little.” Rabbi Cohen led Beth David, the local reformed congregation.

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Civility reigned in our little corner of 50th Street, but not warmth. While the Cohen’s shared the driveway and their kitchen door stood just fifteen feet from ours, we never socialized. Besides his stated distaste for his chattiness, my father’s take on Rabbi Cohen was that he was not a “real” rabbi. Beth David stood in the literal and figurative shadow of the Conservative temple, Har Zion. The latter’s massive building was the long-time anchor of Wynnefield’s Jewish community. My impression growing up was that only presumed beatniks or unserious people belonged to Beth David, housed in a modest, former single-family residence.

“What’s so bad about Beth David?” I asked several times over the years.

“It’s reformed,” said my father.

“So?” I said.

“That’s not a real synagogue,” he said.

We never got farther than that. My father’s antipathy towards Reformed Judaism ran deep and shallow at the same time. He felt strongly about it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate why. Though I was too young to press my father, his insistence for “authenticity” rang hollow. It was as though a person with absolutely no interest in baseball passionately hated the designated hitter rule.

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My only concerted exposure to our neighbors occurred during my last two years of high school. Their younger daughter enrolled in the Friends’ Academy, the same school I attended; thus, we carpooled every other week. Fortunately, no one paid attention to the arrival of cars at Friends’ Academy as they might have at the entrance to a large public school. As though it weren’t bad enough that my carpool partner was in third grade, Mrs. Cohen delivered me in a powder blue Corvair. I didn’t need Ralph Nadar to tell me that it was unsafe at any speed. It looked funny and smelled funny; I can only hope its fumes didn’t shorten my lifespan in a significant way.

I don’t recall specific discussions with Mrs. Cohen, but I think my parents’ indifference had taken its toll. She made no effort to interact and, being shy myself, the rides were awkward. I sat in the backseat while she tried to communicate with her daughter, an exceptionally silent little girl. After I left home for college, I rarely saw the Cohen’s again except to nod or wave to Esther across the driveway during occasional visits home. If I encountered Harry, we’d cheerfully discuss baseball, at least until his wife rushed him along to work or back inside the house.

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When I married at age thirty, we chose to have a rabbi perform the ceremony. I asked my father if I should ask Rabbi Cohen, since he was the only rabbi I knew. “Ecccchhh,” or a sound to that effect, replied my father.  The fact that he didn’t offer an explanation still puzzled me but certainly was consistent. As a result, we enlisted a “Rent-a-Rabbi” closer to where we lived. It’s purely speculation as to what Rabbi Cohen thought about my choice. Perhaps, he felt insulted. Perhaps, he didn’t think about it at all.

In any event, my parents remained neighbors with the Cohen’s for seven more years. By 1994, Har Zion had long since been converted to a Baptist Church and Beth David had become a daycare center. Rabbi Cohen was semi-retired. My father’s death occurred immediately upon moving. My mother asked Rabbi Cohen to lead the funeral service and deliver a eulogy. The rabbi’s performance was dignified and professional. Yet, it may not have been as heart-warming as the audience might have expected from a next-door neighbor of thirty years duration. In a sense, one could call the service “conservative.” In that way, the loquacious rabbi had the final word.

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