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Max Roytenberg; The Club of Strong Believers

by Max Roytenberg , posted November 15, 2016



When my Bride and I lived in Dublin, Ireland, we were strangers in a foreign land. Our refuges were the synagogues of the tiny Jewish community. It was there we found instant acceptance.  We were in Dublin, escapees from the harsh extremes of temperature in the places where we lived. Original products of Winnipeg in Canada, we had left Ottawa to pursue a life of retirement in Ireland. Recently married, we were getting to know each other again after leading separate lives since acquaintance in our teen years.

In Ireland we benefited from the welcoming embrace of Ireland’s cradle-to-the grave social system, in spite of being only alien residents. Seeking community associations, we joined a synagogue, the Dublin Liberal Progressive Shul. It had the merit of permitting men and women to sit together, important to us at the time. However, we found that environment less fulfilling, and I began to attend another, more orthodox, establishment. Although it was in the main synagogue in Dublin where we had our orthodox marriage, (married previously by a Justice in Canada, and a Progressive rabbi in Jerusalem), in the end, we found it, as well, less welcoming than we liked. Finally we became firmly attached to a shtibble synagogue which is the subject of this memoir.

Machzikei Adas had maximum capacity of about fifty male worshippers. It was located in an annex to an existing house. Among the benches for seating are tables, which are used, after the services, for food and drink. About a third of space was devoted to seating for women, behind a barrier with a curtained screen. Alcoves at the back housed a small kitchen and a children’s playroom, with a door providing a separate entrance for women.  A pulpit stood in the centre of the main room on the traditional raised area, used for reading from the Torah every Sabbath. The Cantor, a volunteer from the group, led the service during prayer. The room was bare. The only adornments were a decorated cover for the cubicle where the Scrolls were kept in the front of the room and an embellished covering on the pulpit where the Torah was read.

The Synagogue is managed by a group of men numbering about ten, with the assistance of some of their wives. The total membership is small. Aside from holidays, the congregation convenes once weekly, every Saturday morning. Ritual (Ashkenazi) is strictly observed. Men and women sit separately except for the Kiddush recited after the service. When the time comes to eat and drink, men and women are seated cheek by jowl. One of the abiding attractions of this place is the generous table that is set after services each week, complete with bottles of Irish whiskey. Rarely are these returned to the cupboard with any contents. True to the Irish tradition, the participants look to salvation in their spirits. I have many times departed this place, elevated in spirit, but somewhat the worse for wear.

The men in this congregation are of an independent-minded cast. They have resisted the blandishments of the main congregation in Dublin for decades, to maintain their independence. Every Saturday involves a struggle to ensure that the necessary ten men are assembled for a formal service. There is always a question whether the magic number will be reached. Each attendee is precious, and his arrival is greeted with appreciation for his presence, as a member of a select group. Each regular has his appointed place to sit.

A unique feature of services; it is often unruly as the members exchange news and discuss notable occurrences during the past seven days. All join in the service at the appropriate places, but otherwise the weekly exchange of views continues, nearly unabated, during their time in this place. Regular members contribute to the sharing of the latest news, keeping up to date with events in the community, sports results, and happenings in the wider world that are of importance. I gloried in the down-to-earth atmosphere.

 Members are chosen each week to mount the central platform, to have their name, and their father’s name, celebrated, in reading portions from the designated chapter in the Scrolls. I was always thrilled to be called up, to have my father’s name announced. To me, it was as if my father could hear his name called out and he could witness that I was keeping his memory alive. Each time I had the opportunity, I loudly exclaimed the requisite prayer, to awaken my father from his slumbers.

Each of the principals in the synagogue I grew to know was in some way unique, markedly distinct from my experience with any other group to which I have belonged. Each, in his way, was key to the successful operation of the synagogue. Attendance, management, security, accumulation of food and drink supplies, almost everyone played a role, often supplementing needs from their own pockets.

David, the Secretary, a young man, seemed to be a prime mover. He carried the concerns of the synagogue in his mind at all times. Inhabiting the rough and tumble world of classic car sales, he was nonetheless devout in his observance. Michael, the President, seemed to perform his role under David’s prompting, taking everything with collegial grace. More “laissez faire”, he was an enthusiastic participant in the consumption of Irish whiskey. He often brought his beautiful, wilful but adorable, five-year old son with him to synagogue. The triumvirate is rounded out by Terry, the inveterate Cantor. A convert to Judaism, he persisted in progressing through the prayer agenda, in spite of the babble behind him. He cheerfully gave up his place to a procession of visiting presenters. With his American wife, Karen, he was a mainstay of the synagogue, and a fierce defender of all elements of ritual observance. We looked over our shoulders to see if he was watching when we transgressed. We are hoping and prayerfully expecting the Deity to be more lenient in His judgements of us than was Terry.

Melvin, my seatmate took care that I did not blunder in my observance, using the right book, reading the right page. Richard, an Irish convert who spent time on kibbutz in Israel, sat behind us. A civil servant, he has shared with me the mysteries and intricacies of Irish bureaucracy and politics. Sturdy participants in the demolition of many a whisky container, I would gladly have them by my side, anywhere, whatever I had to face. Joe, a truly lovable mensch, sits across the aisle. He and his brother Robbie, many years in Ireland, still bear the accents they brought with them from Slovakia. Purveyors of parchment, they are the synagogue Cohans, necessary for the reading of the Scrolls. Robbie is the synagogue treasurer, openly eager for a tip on the stock market. Alec sits at the back. He is a retired person of the legal profession and the real brains of our outfit. He is usually at the centre of discussions, dispensing wisdom and wit.

Monty was my real favourite, and we had a meeting of the minds. With him I shared my deepest dark secrets and my tendency to violent extremism in defence of Israel. He sat far forward in splendid isolation, focused on his worship. He did occasionally join us for a bite and a wee dram. I am regularly in contact with him to this day, years after I have departed the Emerald Isle.

Eddie was a more recent returnee, coming from some other Irish place which he has abandoned. A Levi, he plays a ritual role. He was our mellifluous cantor on many occasions, generous with his time and effort. Enthusiastic of voice and social commentary, he disapproves of our unruly behaviour in the back of the room. He appeared to be discomfited by too much public attention to the Jewish fact and the attention garnered by Israel’s struggle to survive. We have different views as to Jewish public policy. But, he was often a cheerful addition to our services.

There are too many others to enter into detail. What a pleasure it was to have been to be a part of all this! How can I express fully the depth of my feeling of kinship, the strength of my feelings of appreciation for having been made so welcome within this community? The participants may have seemed at times cavalier in observance, but they cling fiercely to their synagogue and its perpetuation. I have been moved to tears here by my readings in the scrolls, and filled with joy, my enthusiasm raucous, in singing some of the prayers together with my fellow Jews. When we sang out together, my voice roared, (I wished to sing louder and louder so the Divine would hear,) my heart soared to be there with my brothers in that place.

A stranger, I was embraced and made to feel a part of this tribal fellowship. There I felt free to worship in my own way. There, one’s foibles might be the subject of critical humour, but they were accepted for all that. Some of my best times in Ireland were spent in that place. I am grateful and thankful for all those who made that precious corner of Jewish life what it was. It remains with me always as something I seek in other congregations. I celebrate it and its members.

 Am Yisroel Chai!



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