The Tiny Yiddish Schul

My painting: The Ark

My painting: The Ark


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.


Little Schul in Brighton Beach in about 1990. Photo: Jim Blythe

The little schul in Brighton Beach in about 1990. Photo: Jim Blythe


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?


Lion by Marcus Illions, 1910

Lion by Marcus Illions, 1910


Decalogue by Marcus Illions

Decalogue by Marcus Illions


Decalogue by Marcus Illions in the Gemilath Chesed Synagogue, 5th Street, Coney Island, demolished in 1974

Decalogue by Marcus Illions that used to be in the Gemilath Chesed Synagogue, 5th Street, Coney Island, demolished in 1974. It is now in the Jewish Museum.


Here's Marcus Illions studio. See the decalogue over the door?

Here’s Marcus Illions studio. See the Decalogue over the door?

An article about Illions and the other carousel makers is in this issue starting on page 42.


A Memory:

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.


Bubbie's Green Card

Bubbie’s Green Card


Me in about 1950

Me in about 1950


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.




Posted in: Blog & Stories


  1. Jane Ryder says:

    It’s so sad the way American “progress” always wins out over preservation. For a place that was so important to the community to be turned into condos … It’s just a shame.

    Love the video! He sounds like the lead singer for the Red Elvises, though it’s probably just the Slavic influence making me think that. 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    I too went to that “shul” with my Bubbie. Marched around on Simchas Torah with my apple on a flag. We use to call it the “little shul” as my family belonged to the “big shul” around the corner on Ocean Parkway . it was my job to walk my Bubbie home after the festivities. It was only yesterday, Now I am the Bubbie of 5,

  3. Mimi Safa says:

    Thanks so much Sheila! I thoroughly enjoyed this!

  4. Marilyn S. says:

    Sorry about above comment… cut/paste didn’t work.

    Anyway…I remember that little shul. I went there with Bubbe. It was Yom Kippur and she was close to fainting. And I remember the translucent white curtains separating us from them. Thanks for helping to retrieve these old memories from storage.

  5. I remember being told that separation by gender was so that the men davening wouldn’t be distracted by the sight of the beautiful women.

  6. Hinda says:

    I remember Chiochia (aunt in Polish), my father’s aunt, (Sheila’s Bubble) in one of the first rows of the women’s section. Our family celebrated the holidays in the little shule in respect to her till her death.

    I don’t recall what holiday it was, but each year Chiochia and another elderly women would prepare peppered chickpeas (arbis).. Dishing out full Dixie cups to the congregants. I also remember the apples on the flags on Simchas Torah and the ancient rabbi I could barely hear or understand.

    I’m so saddened to hear the little synagogue is gone. Surely someone took photographs.

  7. Stephen Friedman says:

    It brings tears to my eyes. I lived around the corner and went by the shul almost every day. I had bar mitzvah at the big shul around the corner. In fact I often delivered grocery package to the shul from Hymies store. (another story) I love and cherish all these pictures and reading of the rich history of our ancestors.

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