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Shared Memories of The Downtown Synagogue
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official name is called Issac Agree Downtown Synagogue. A Sabbath Service
is held here every Sat. at 8:30 am. It functions as a local businessman's
synagogue as well as one for tourists downtown. If a person was staying
at a downtown hotel, it would be possible to walk to synagogue and take
in a ballgame or other downtown activities, remaining "Shomer Shabbos"
and not driving or riding a bus.
- Arnie P
My father Harry N. used to go to the Downtown Synagogue
occasionally to observe yahrzeit for his father Samuel. One evening, walking
up the stairs to the maariv service, my father heard an unusually beautiful
voice coming from the sanctuary. When he entered the room, he saw Metropolitan
Opera star Jan Peerce chanting from the Torah. Mr. Peerce was in Detroit
with his Opera company, and he too was observing yahrzeit. It was an enchanting
experience for my father, one which he shared with many people.
Our family went to the Downtown Synagogue (a kind of jazzy
name for a synagogue) on the High Holidays. I remember a Rosh Hashanah
in the mid-60s when we all emerged from synagogue ready for a break, but
filled with fellow feeling by this brought-together-for-one-day community.
The synagogue was free of cost and the people who came were an interesting,
unaffiliated crowd. At that period in Detroit -- the early to mid-sixties,
you could see the problems of racism, classism, corporatism, and pollution,
that became urban disintegration in so many other places, as well. There
was much that was wonderful -- the music especially from the Black community
-- Motown -- was a green lyrical voice growing out of the sidewalks.
As Jews of Detroit we occupied a curious place. Not moneyed,
but not poor. Books, our history, gave us the sense of a horizon that
could include many futures. The unfolding political events were totally
compelling -- the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements; the deaths, or
murders, of a generation's leaders had already begun. (And without that
leadership, we seem to have found ourselves not in the progressive future
that was flowering then, but in a parallel future that seems to prefer
fundamentalism to originality. There was little actually known of Judaism
by our neighbors (and perhaps that was our faults, we didn't speak about
it much to non-Jews); some of whom thought we had horns under our curly
hair as a sign of an evil nature. Wefell into a nether world between Black
and White. After all, just a decade and half before six million of our
people died, in part, because they were not "white" enough.
And Christianity, which was so strong in parts of the Black community,
seemed both foreign and responsible and for a history of misery. Still,
we were not brought as slaves to America, nor trapped in factories or
mines. We lived as other immigrants who came of their own free will did,
through our connections to others who preceded us. And because of that,
we had a responsibility to help. Sadly, most families we knew fled instead,
to the safe confines of the suburbs.
With that move, the financial base of the city was shattered.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the only day a Jew goes down onto
the ground to pray, though just for a moment. I remember the rabbi on
that particular Yom Kippur lowering himself onto the floor of the center
aisle as everyone sang and then men gathering around him and taking him
by the elbows to lift him up again. He was small, vulnerable looking in
his black gown, bird-like, but the act of humbling himself seemed to make
the opposite happen, he became central and important in our vision; a
kind of emblem that opposes man (the noun is purposeful) the tyrannical,
invulnerable, and proposes man as equal and, sometimes, vulnerable. Later,
when we crossed the street to rest and watch the river, the steely grey
Detroit River, the sky was breaking open. The shafts of lights that shot
through the clouds were at once a Hollywood moment and a real moment,
because on that day it was Jewish in Detroit.