Too many recent books thrive on scandal or outrageous behavior. The public has an almost insatiable desire for such salacious stories. Those looking for such scandalous stories won’t find it in Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side (Fordham University Press ISBN 0823239004).
In this enjoyable and insightful book, anthropologist and ethnographer Jonathan Boyarin, Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University, writes of his experiences at the Stanton Street Shul, a historic Jewish congregation in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. While the Lower East side was once teaming with hundreds of thousands of Jews filling hundreds of synagogues; one of the problems Boyarin details is the dilemma of finding the requisite 10 men for the daily prayer services at the synagogue.
As an ethnographer, Boyarin’s goal is to understand the people and culture of the synagogue and neighborhood. The summer of 2008 in which he wrote about was a transition year for the synagogue as its Rabbi was retiring and the membership had to find someone who could rejuvenate its diminishing and mainly elderly membership.
Part of the transition of the Lower East Side that Boyarin describes is that while it once was the starting point for millions of Jewish and other immigrants and a place many tried to escape from. In recent years, the neighborhood has turned into a hot area for hipsters. Boyarin writes how one of the congregants described the synagogue as where “hip meets hip replacement”.
Boyarin notes that there are myriad book about old Jews; but his goal was to write about the new post-modern Jew in American society. In the 12 chapters of the books, he chronicles what he wrote in his journal during those 12 weeks. While Boyarin and his wife have lived in the neighborhood for decades; the book details those 12 weeks of the summer of 2008.
Through the book, one gets to meet the many congregants, with their diverse personalities that make the synagogue a special place. Some young, many old, and each bringing their unique touch and diversity to make the synagogue the brilliant mosaic that it is.
If a word describes this book, it’s subtle. Boyarin shares his subtle observations of the synagogue, community and other overall Jewish scene in New York City. The book has no plot per se, rather it’s simply Boyarin observing and ruminating. Also subtle in the sense that as an ethnographer, Boyarin is able to focus on seemingly innocuous statements, and focus on their deeper relevance and significance. Be it a comment, how a person vocalized a specific blessing, and much more; he is able to pick up on these nuances and detail their underlying meanings.
There are many Jewish communities Bayarin could have studied; but he writes that he chose his Lower East Side neighborhood due to its attitude of inclusiveness towards all different types of Jews.
It’s clear that Boyarin enjoys being part of this special synagogue; as he takes the reader down to the Lower East Side and invites you to reminisce on his interesting trip with him. This is a fascinating tale of a neighborhood in transition and rejuvenation, and Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side is a most pleasurable read.