Nusach Ari and Crown Street Shul

As I was working my way through the copies of the Liverpool Jewish Gazette which are kept in the archives in Liverpool Central Library in William Brown Street, different pictures and stories of people and events which even I have a memory of jumped out of the pages. Two stories in particular jumped out at me asking to be transcribed as they are linked to Abe Max’s accounts of our family and yiddishkeit in Liverpool.

The end of Crown Street Shool

Liverpool Jewish Gazette, June 21 1968

Children and grandchildren of one-time members of the Nusach Ari Synagogue, 55 Crown Street, were among the congregation at the closing service which was held on June 4. The building, which has been acquired by Liverpool University, stands solitarily amid an area which has been almost completely cleared of habitations and other premises and it, too, will soon be demolished.

The service was conducted by the Rev. S. D. Cutler and some psalms were read by Rabbi. S. Woolf.

Three Torah scrolls were carried in procession around the synagogue by Rabbi. Z. Plitnick, Mr. H. Isenstein (who had opened the ark) and Mr. A Pearlman (who is believed to be the oldest member). [note-Gerald Pearlman’s father?] 

Transplantation

In an address Rabbi. Plitnick said they were gathered there with a broken heart. He recalled the synagogue had been established by a group of Ukranian Jews who had come to England without a penny and had to strive hard to earn a livelihood. Before long the heritage with which they were imbued moved them to build a temple for the worship of god. They transplanted Yiddishkeit from the Ukraine. They were not concerned with the method of pronunciation of Hebrew – some of them did not even know the Ashkenazi pronunciation properly – but their prayers came from their hearts.

That synagogue, continued Rabbi. Plitnick, had been a centre for Yiddishkeit. “When I felt frozen in other places I came here for some warmth. We cried on Tisha BeAv and we rejoiced on Simchas Torah.”

Rabbi. Plitnick, contrasting the spirit of the synagogue with that of others, said its spirit should not be assessed by its small physical dimensions. “What is the use of decorum without a Jewish content?” he asked.

“Let us carry on the spirit of this shool wherever it may be to end up.” He concluded.

Following the service there was a reception in the ante-room. Mr. N. Silverbeck, president, was in the chair. He said that it was a sad occasion and announced that services would be held, until new premises were found, in the Yeshiva.

Other speakers included Mr. L. Krasner, the Rev. B. Fagil and Dr. Mervyn Goodman (a vice-president of Liverpool Representative Council).

A century-old building

The history of the building that has now been vacated will be found in Betram. B. Benas’s ‘Later Records of the Jews in Liverpool’. It was built over a century ago. The title deeds commenced with a lease dated July 1, 1858 and the property is described as an existent Dissneting Chapel.

The first conveyance to Jewish authorities is dated August 6, 1896 and the congregation which worshipped there moved in 1908 to the Central Synangogue, Islingtom, which was demolished following damage it sustained in air raids during the Second World War.

It was then – in 1908 - that another congregation took over the building and it remained there until the final service this month.

In 1929 some reconstruction was completed. This included a new frontage. It was the gift of the then president, the late Louis Silverbeck, who was succeeded on his death by his son, Mr. Nathan Silverbeck.

In the issue of the Liverpool Jewish Gazette of the next month, July 19, 1968 a Mr. S. D. Temkin wrote the following article.

The soul of the Nusach Ari

So the Nusach Ari shool is no more . One feels that a piece has been torn out of Liverpool – not a great big chunk, as if St. George’s Hall had been obliterated, but something which had a warm place in our hearts and memories. The building had a history.

Was it not the home of the Crown Street Beth Hamidrash which in 1908 moved to Islington and became the Central Synagogue? Thereafter it passed into the hands of the Hassidim. Sixty years ago the greybeards must have been clucking wildly that the feud between Hassidim and Mitnagdim had died down sufficiently to enable such a happy transfer to take place. Twenty years later the structure was rebuilt and while this operation was in progress the congregation worshiped at the Zionist Hall in Bedford Street. Again, in communities where the Zionists and the Orthodox were at each other’s throats this would have been considered impossible. But if Liverpool was nor as tranquil as it is today, the atmosphere did not cause ideological fires to burn.

Of the internal affairs of the Nusach Ari ‘tranquil’ would not be the correct description. The rebuilding operation called forth discussions more prolonged and more animated than did the erection of larger shrines. Many of these discussions took place Socratic fashion on Princes road Boulevard, and excited they were. The late Louis Silverbeck was invariably in the middle of the argument; without his support there would have been no rebuilding, but it was a democratic society and anyone could argue with him.

The opening ceremony, followed by a banquet at the Embassy Rooms (now the Irish Centre), remains fixed in the mind. At the former the choir of Princes Road Synagogue officiated. The almemar was not built to accommodate such numbers, and I have recollections of choristers hanging on the rails from outside. There were three sermons. First Rabbis. I. J. Unterman and M. J. Krasner (in Yiddish) denounced the infidelities of the younger generation then Izak Goller (in English) announced that he had discarded his sermon in order to reply to the previous speakers, his point being that old-fashioned rabbanim did not know how to speak to the rising generation.

Infallibility

Today the straight-laced prune-faced crowd would liken to Korach and company anyone who questioned rabbinic infallibility; then no one seemed to mind even when it was done inside an Orthodox synagogue.

The puzzle remains over the years is how many people knew what ‘Nusach Ari’ meant. I must confess that for over a year it never occurred to me to ask what the term meant. It designated the congregation as one which followed  the ritual of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572. The name Ari has been interpreted as meaning ‘Lion’ (Luria’s followers believed him to possess superhuman powers), or standing for ‘Adonenu Rabbi Isaac (‘Our master Rabbi Issac) or for ‘Ashkenazi Rabbi Isaac’ (referring to the fact that he was of German stock).

Luria lived in Safed and was the founder of an important school of Jewish mysticism. He propounded concepts such as ‘tzimtzum’, ‘shevirat hakelim’ and ‘tikkun’, but it was difficult to imagine the habitués of the Nusach Ari dabbling in such kabbalisitc mysteries. However, a significant figure in their annual accounts was for expenditure on snuff; they were always ready for a ‘shmeck tabak’.

The Ari was keen on the idea of transmigration of souls (gilgul). One of his followers wrote that ‘he could recognise souls that migrated from body to body. He could tell you about the souls of the wicked which had entered trees and stones or animals and birds.’ One wonders what will happen to the soul of Nusach Ari. They may conduct services in Church Road, but it is difficult to imagine the soul of Crown Street shul migrating there or anywhere else.

The Max family link with Crown Street and the Nusach Ari continued at the Yeshiva in Church Road. One of Abe Max’s younger brothers, Chaim Max, davened there regularly and he acted as the shamash for the shul for quite a time. His wife, my Aunt Ena, was the unofficial treasurer for the shul and I can remember her showing me some of the books of the shul long after it closed down. What was so strange about this arrangement? My uncle and aunt lived on Arundel Avenue but they apparently followed distinctly different Jewish traditions. While my uncle, like the rest of the Max family, were comfortable davening in Islington shul, Crown Street and later Nusach Ari in Church Road, my aunt and her two brothers together with their daughters were stalwarts of the choir at Princes Road. Since this was a mixed choir it was highly unlikely that my uncle ever went into that shul. Also, totally unrelated but interesting nevertheless, it was apparently common knowledge that men in brown shoes could never have a ‘pesicha’ or ‘aliyah’ in Princes Road; it was black shoes or you were not recognised. That custom together with something I had heard which was that people came to Kol Nidrei at Princes Road in evening wear would also not be attractive to my Uncle Chaim. Perhaps with his small greyish beard and large yarmulke he might have been too ‘Jewish’ for there anyway. So I have an imaginary picture in my mind of them going out of their front door on a Shabbos morning, Ena to the left towards the city centre and Princes Road and Chaim going right towards Smithdown Road and on to Church Road and the Yeshiva. However, whatever Ena’s real feelings as a Princes Road regular, one of her priorities after Chaim died on an erev Shabbos was to make sure that there was a bottle of whisky in the house so that my father and his one surviving brother at that time, Joe who was also a butcher, would be able to drink a ‘l’chayim’ in the next week at the end of shiva. Amazingly, into her ninety-ninth or one hundredth year, Ena still insisted on being taken to Princes Road on Yom Kippur where she managed to somehow manage the spiral staircase into the choir loft and join in with the choir if only for a few moments.

Nusach Ari eventually ended up in a house on the corner of Dovedale Road and Penny Lane. Within my memory very occasional services have been held there where the tradition of davening nusach Ari was continued but unfortunately, with hardly any Jewish people living close by the shul is to all intents and purposes now consigned to the history books and to my few lines on the Internet. (Through the generosity of the Silverbeck family, Lubavitch Liverpool use the premises as an office and storage area.)