When I was very young my grandmother, (Bubbie) took me to a little Yiddish schul on Neptune Avenue near Ocean Parkway in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is no longer there. One of the things I remember about it were murals on the walls. Some years ago I read that Marcus Illions the famous carousel carver (see previous blog) painted them. I remember these to be of biblical scenes in golden earth tones on bumpy varnished walls. I tried to find references to them or photographs, but to no avail. Then one person, Norman Berman, on my Facebook group: We Grew Up in Brighton Beach… actually remembered them too.
Further research yielded some interesting stuff. There was an exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in 2007 tying synagogue sculpture to carousel carving including the work of Marcus Illions. Don’t you love it when things fall into place?
An article about Illions and the other carousel makers is in this issue starting on page 42.
The first (and maybe only) time Bubbie took me to that little Yiddish schul I found out that women and girls were shoved into a separate section partitioned by a curtain from the males of the species. This allowed us to hear, but kept our eyes from falling upon holy objects. Picture the angry little girl I was marching right around the partition and up to the sacred Ark which contained the Torah scrolls followed by Bubbie ready, I assume, to do damage control. I don’t know where I got the chutzpah. Oh yeah, probably from her. Picture if you will a lot of old men in tallism (prayer shawls) and beards from the old country. Now picture my surprise when they gathered around and said how adorable I was and that I could look upon the holy Ark as much as I wanted. Because as it turns out, in that place at least, it was a very gentle world.
When I started to do research for this post I tried to find the schul on Google maps, but was surprised not to be able to. Through my Facebook group I found out it had been torn down about five years ago and had been replaced by condos. I don’t know why I was surprised, but somehow I thought, like my memories, it would be there forever. But the rabbi died and the language died and the culture changed and so did everything else including me, an atheist since high school.
Here’s a quote about the schul from Jeanett Russo of the aforementioned Facebook group:
I worked in Joe V’s candy store as a teen & passed it every day. They tore it down so fast! One day as I was walking past I stood there & couldn’t believe it was gone. A man walking past started crying. He told me he & his family worshiped there many years ago when he was a young boy. He said everything was torn down & thrown in dumpsters. The tears just started running down my face & I couldn’t believe nothing was saved. I remember it had the tiniest steps going up to the doors.
Postscript: December 19, 2014. Lately I’ve been talking to a Brighton Beach Facebooker who is a friend of the great-grandson of Marcus Illions. He tells me that Illions didn’t paint, just carved, and he has no record of the schul murals, so it’s unlikely that he painted them. It might be that someone in his workshop did. I also found out that his workshop was on Ocean Parkway were Lincoln high school is now. It almost doesn’t matter what name gets attached to the missing murals, it’s still a great story.
I also found out from a different Brighton Beach Facebooker William Mangels, the carousel builder, lived across the street.
In my novel, the Angel of Death, Molech ha-Movess, sings the following song sometimes when he’s collecting souls. He just loves to sing. All the big shots in the afterlife do.