Shuls grow old, and the stories get better. The Actors Temple had a party, blowing out “100 candles” at the Friars Club the other week, and comedians, producers and wise guys cracked wise, telling tales of long-gone members that no one quite remembered: Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor, Moe and Curley of the Three Stooges. And what’s a birthday without a sweet lie, or two, like the one about Sandy Koufax coming to the temple when he wouldn’t pitch on Yom Kippur, except he didn’t. And then there was the time when Sophie Tucker, the “last of the red hot mamas,” flamboyantly left the women’s balcony for the men’s section below, single-handedly turning the temple from Orthodox to liberal, which it’s been ever since.
During World War II, Milton Berle, George Jessel, Jolson and Cantor raised money for the “Actors’ Temple Cigarette Fund.” As Jessel wrote, “The tiny little house of worship called the Actors’ Temple wishes to do its little bit in the great struggle by sending cigarettes to the boys of the various fighting fronts overseas.” It would be good for the Jews, if “a young Catholic or Protestant should say to an Arab in Casablanca, ‘Here, buddy, have a butt; they were sent to me by a little synagogue in New York.’”
In a temple alcove, winter sunlight filters through the reds and blues of stained glass. Carol Ostrow, with the glamour and elegant voice of a former actress, now an Off-Broadway producer and president of the temple, starts telling the Tucker story. “So Rabbi [Bernard] Burstein would walk over to the Broadway, knocking on stage doors. He’d tell Jolson, ‘you got to come, we need a minyan.’ He went to Sophie Tucker’s stage door,” though she didn’t count for a minyan. “She told the rabbi, ‘No, no, no, I don’t see any rabbis.’ Well, one of her songs was ‘A Yiddishe Mama,’ so Rabbi Burstein says, ‘Sophileh, who’s going to say Kaddish for this Yiddish mama?’ He got her right in the heart. She brought all her friends with her, and the Actors Temple became the place for stars,” at least on Yizkor days.
Ostrow tosses the story to Rabbi Jill Hausman, the temple’s spiritual leader and cantor, who bicycles to the West 47th Street shul from her apartment on the Upper West Side. “Rabbi Jill tells it so much better!”
“There was a couple that owned one of the big hotels in Miami Beach,” said Rabbi Jill. “They gave lots of money to this synagogue. One Holy Day, the wife was up in the balcony, when it was the women’s section, and she got it into her head that she gave so much money to the synagogue that she could sit wherever she liked. So she gets up, marches downstairs, and sits with the men. Sophie Tucker, who was in the balcony at the same time, gets up, follows her friend downstairs, and sits right next to her. Well, Rabbi Burstein was smart enough not to say a word. And from that moment, well, after Sophie Tucker, the synagogue was not Orthodox.” From that day on, the stars became gods; they didn’t just worship at the temple, they were worshipped.
Today, says Rabbi Jill, “I lead a Reform-style service from the Conservative prayer book.” Daily services ended years ago, with services now only on Shabbos and holidays. The Torah is read in Hebrew once a month, and is replaced by a Torah discussion in English three weeks out of four. The temple is not affiliated with any denomination. The main selling point, says a sign, is “cool shul, warm people.” Or, “Not your grandfather’s temple!” No, it’s not. It’s “where the Lost Tribes pray.”
The shul, whose given name, honored in the breach, is “Ezrath Israel,” was founded in 1917 by the West Side Hebrew Relief Association. It’s been in its handsome four-story building since at least 1923 — no one really knows. Its first congregants were gentlemen who, in their day jobs, owned shops in Hell’s Kitchen, along the Hudson River docks. According to Bob Goodman, a good-natured comedian who is active in the temple and at the Friar’s Club, “I was told that there was a policeman who helped Rabbi Burstein find hobos, drunks and dockworkers to make a minyan in the morning.”
Rabbi Jill adds, “There was a police station and a small jail,” on 47th Street, down the block from the temple. “And Rabbi Burstein could get Jewish policemen and Jewish prisoners, bring them to shul, give them some schnaps, and he had his minyan.”
Midtown was filled with “guild” synagogues, such as The Garment Center Synagogue and The Millinery Synagogue; Ezrath Torah became The Actors Temple. (There were similar Christian phenomena; Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church, near Times Square, is known as the Actors Chapel; “The Little Church Around the Corner,” on 29th and Madison, has long been a bastion for Episcopal actors; and St. Peter’s, on East 54th, is referred to by those in the know as “The Jazz Church,” tending as it does to a hip flock.) Then, as the temple’s website explains, “Eventually the nightclubs closed, television went west and vaudeville disappeared. The Actors Temple declined with the Times Square area, but the proud shul remained to anchor the neighborhood.” Rabbi Burstein passed away in the 1950s, and it was said that when people lost their connection to him, they lost their connection to the temple.
More recently, Ostrow, who lives on the East Side, explained how she came to the temple. “My husband died, my parents were gone, I wanted a place to say Yizkor. I’m not religious. My mother would make a seder; that’s all I knew. But when everyone died, it brought me closer to my religion. It was important to me. A friend invited me to the Actors Temple. A lot of my friends were here, but they never told me. Then I walked the stairs and saw all the pictures — Shelly Winters, Sophie Tucker — women responsible for opening doors for Jewish women in show business. And Edward G. Robinson looked just like my father! I said, ‘Hi, Daddy.’ I fell in love with the place. The roof was leaking, the floors were horrible, but it was love at first sight. I became the president!”
Ostrow says, “When Rabbi Jill started 10 years ago, we only had five members. The president who was here at the time was very worried we’d have to close our doors.” The stained glass needed to be reinforced, as did the ceiling. Repairs cost more than $100,000. “Some of the financing came from the landmarks conservancy,” says Ostrow. “We got some grants, from the Shubert Organization, and some wonderful Jewish people who gave us money. I wanted to get the word out. Why should it be a secret?” Membership is now 150, and the shul “is now in the black. We are very fortunate. We are.”
The temple, in recent years, took out the pews, and turned its main prayer space into a 200-seat Off-Broadway theater. And during the week, says Ostrow, “we rent out the facilities to the Professional Performing Arts School next door. All these kids running up and down the stairs are aspiring actors and singers.”
The stairwell is filled with photos of old friends: Ed Sullivan (who hosted the temple’s annual benefit, not Jewish but married to Sylvia Weinstein); Barney Ross, the welterweight champ; Shelly Winters; Danny Lewis, who taught his son Jerry Lewis how to do a pratfall. Morey Amsterdam, Danny Kaye, Harpo Marx and Toots Shor used to stop by, until they didn’t.
In the shul, bronze memorial plaques remind visitors that before and after these actors were stars, they were Jews. Jack Benny has a yahrtzeit every third of Tevet. Perhaps, as Rabbi Burstein promised, someone, somewhere, says Kaddish for that “Yiddishe Mama,” Sophie Tucker, every 20th of Shevat. Charlie and Jimmy Rapp, agents who used to book the Catskills, have memorial plaques, as do William B. Williams (Velvel B. Velvel) of the “Make Believe Ballroom” and Smith & Dale (both) and Joe E. Lewis. The only applause remaining is the “amen” to their Kaddish.
Rabbi Hausman opens the ark, and inside are 11 Torahs, in silver crowns and red velvet gowns: “You can see this was a wealthy place. And is.”