New Haven Jewish Life

By Elin Schoen Brockman

The inevitable village green is lovelier than most, but New Haven's Yankee charisma is not just a matter of looks. There's a pride in place that comes partly from a tradition of substantial contributions to American commerce and culture and the presence of Yale University, which was incorporated as a college in 1701. New Haveners are extraordinarily proud of Yale, but they're also proud of the role of more recent arrivals (including Italians, Irish, Greeks, African-Americans and Jews) in giving the town its cultural, social and intellectual edge.

In the beginning, however, Puritanism reigned here as it did in other parts of New England. It is ironic that the colony operated under the Mosaic Code and that the Puritan powers insisted on Hebrew classes in their first public school. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale from 1778 to 1795, delivered his inaugural address in Hebrew and made the language a freshman requirement. And Yale's crest is emblazoned with "Light and Truth" in both Latin (Lux et Veritas) and Hebrew (Urim v Tummim). Still, Jewish people were few and far between. In 1772 Stiles wrote in his diary that this summer past a Venetian family became the first real Jews to settle in town. But the city's Jewish life really began in 1840, following the arrival of Bavarian Jews fleeing economic and social oppression. They opened dry-goods stores, drugstores, restaurants, an umbrella factory, a corset factory, a cigar company, tailor shops and worshiped on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays over the Heller & Mandelbaum store on Grand Avenue. In 1843 the congregation, known as Mishkan Israel, established a cemetery. That year Connecticut granted Jews the same rights, powers and privileges as Christians had: to worship freely. Nevertheless, the local newspaper sniffed: "Strange as it may sound, it is true that a Jewish synagogue has been established in this city. Yale College Divinity deserves a Court Martial for bad generalship."

Be that as it may, Connecticut's first synagogue had arrived, albeit still housed humbly over the store. Then in 1854, with $5,000 bequeathed by Judah Touro of Rhode Island, congregants purchased the Third Congregational Church building which, complete with towering white spire, made a very impressive synagogue indeed.

By 1887 there were 3,200 Jews in New Haven and a number of Orthodox shuls (synagogues), including B'nai Jacob, known as the Russian shul. The old downtown neighborhood (remembered as the Oak Street Ghetto) was poor but nourished deep family and spiritual ties. In 1917 (the year Samuel Campner, a Jew, became New Haven's mayor), Sinclair Lewis, a Yale graduate, published Young Man Axelrod. In one scene the main character visits New Haven's ghetto just after daybreak in late October: "Knute stared out into the street milkily lighted by wavering gas and the first feebleness of coming day; he gazed upon Kosher signs and advertisements in Russian letters, shawled women and bearded rabbis; and as he looked he gathered contentment which he could never lose."

By 1903, when the Kishinev pogrom  in Ukraine ignited a new rush to freedom among the Jews of Eastern Europe, New Haven's coreligionists were prepared to take in as many as necessary. The resident population included not only successful merchants and manufacturers and police officers, but medical, legal and political stars. Today Jewish New Haven is visible all around the town.

Community: Greater New Haven's 25,000 or so Jews live primarily in Westville, Hamden, Cheshire and the Woodbridge-Orange area, and in shoreline towns like Madison. But complete with eruv (Sabbath bondaries), two mikves (ritual baths) and a kosher butcher, Westville is very much the Jewish neighborhood. Its spine is Whalley Avenue. At 379 is Edge of the Woods, a vegetarian supermarket with a kosher salad bar, restaurant and bakery. Down the street is the Lubavitch Yeshiva Gedolah and Chabad House and Young Israel Synagogue. Nearby are two more Orthodox shuls and the Gan School, one of two Orthodox day schools. A Conservative day school and two preschools also serve the community.

Farther west on Whalley, in the Mishkan Israel Cemetery, a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, towers over the tomb of Minna Kleeberg and her husband, Rabbi Levi. Minna, who died in 1878 at 37, was renowned for her poetry and prose decrying anti-Semitism and the oppression of women.

Across the street is the New Haven Memorial Tribute to the Six Million.The concrete Star of David surrounding a stark steel evocation of the camps has a yew tree at each of its six points, each an ever-living symbol of one million.

A few blocks west is the antiques district. Many of the shops are Jewish owned, and you're likely to find some vintage Judaica; at 1460 are Westville Kosher Bakery and Fox's Deli. Then Whalley merges into Amity Road; at 95 is the Westville Kosher Market. Amity leads to Woodbridge, home of Congregation B'nai Jacob, today the area's largest Conservative synagogue and, on 53 scenic hilltop acres, the Jewish Community Center (360 Amity Road; 203-387-2522).

Among the programs and organizations at the center, affiliated with the Jewish Federation of New Haven (203-387-2424), is the Department of Jewish Education, which sponsors lectures, concerts, classes and exhibits, all open to the public.

Hadassah's New Haven home is at 65 West Park Avenue (203-787-5887). To find out what's happening in Jewish New Haven, there is The Jewish Ledger. Although there has been a Hillel at Yale for 54 years, the opening of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life in 1995 brought together all its programs, including arguably the only kosher soup kitchen in America; on Sunday nights it serves the entire community's poor.

Sights: The Slifka Center (80 Wall Street;203- 432-1134), designed by Harold Roth, is filled with light and soul and Jerusalem stone accents. Don t miss the silver Judaica by Joshua Morrow, displayed off the cement-block foyer. The splendid Torah crowns are topped with great silver pomegranates sliced out all around to reveal insides brimming with seeds made of cabachon garnets. And the silver yad has a garnet tip that, when light strikes it, illuminates the words of the Torah.

Downstairs is the Yale Lindenbaum Kosher Kitchen sponsored by Young Israel House at Yale, serving buffet lunches 11:30 to 1:30 Monday to Friday, and dinners 5 to 7 Monday to Thursday. Shabbat meals (reservations required;203- 432-1134) are served home-style on Friday at 6:45 and Saturday at 12:45. Not far away, at 120 High Street, is Sterling Memorial Library (432-2798) built in 1927. Over the entrance, among sculpted tributes to ancient civilizations, is a Jewish scribe and a lengthy Hebrew inscription.

The Sterling  Memorial Library houses part of Yale's outstanding Judaica collection, which now consists of over 100,000 volumes in Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages; qualified scholars can peruse materials by applying at the Privileges Office. Precious books and manuscripts, including the Sholem Asch Collection, are in the Beinecke Rare Book and  Manuscript Library.

Also in  the Sterling  Library is the Fortunoff  Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, where the recollections of survivors and witnesses have been collected since 1981; some materials can be borrowed by schools and groups. Information may be accessed on the Internet through the Yale Library Online Public Access Catalogue - http://www.library.yale.edu/testimonies - The archive continues to record personal stories.

Open every day but Monday are the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Museum of British Art. They face each other on Chapel Street and were both designed by Louis I. Kahn. The gallery, built in 1953, with its stripped-down interior anticipating the style known as Brutalism, placed Kahn in the pantheon of great American architects. Both buildings are unforgettable for their collections and exhibits. Don't miss the two Camille Pissarro landscapes and the roomful of Mark Rothkos on the second floor of the gallery and, on the third floor, the portrait of Ezra Stiles. On one side of him is a wall full of weighty volumes of Newton, Plato, Cotton Mather and Rashi in Hebrew. And hovering in the background is a heavenly blue disc with the Tetragrammaton.

The place for kosher snacks and meals downtown is Claire's Corner Copia at the corner of College and Chapel Streets, phone: (203)562-3888.

Not far from Chapel, at Orange and Audubon Streets, stands the elegant Spanish Renaissance-style temple designed by Arthur Brunner, to which Mishkan Israel moved in 1896. The structure is as grand as ever, including its magnificent stained-glass windows. But you can only see them from the outside and not too clearly, since the sanctuary is now a theater and has shaded windows. The best view can be had by strolling down the driveway between the old temple and the mansion next door.

The Max Adler home at 311 Greene Street dates from 1879, when Adler had gone from tailoring to ownership of Smoothie Foundation Garments (down the street and around the corner and still operating). The lovely red brick Queen Anne-style structure, now an apartment house, faces Wooster Square, one of the most beautiful spots in New Haven.

Ten minutes from downtown at 785 Ridge Road in Hamden is the synagogue where Congregation Mishkan Israel has resided since 1960. In its sanctuary is one of the great masterpieces of modern Jewish art, Ben Shahn's Decalogue Ark. Shahn somehow managed to make this towering, concave mosaic mural of the Ten Commandments radiate both openhearted grandeur and the mysteriousness of a medieval illuminated manuscript. Its design with the golden letters representing each commandment entwined by vines, flowers and suns went on to become a classic, repeated on lithographs and in his Haggada. The calligraphy with which the names of the prophets are spelled out on the stained-glass windows is also pure Shahn (note that among the prophets here are Albert Einstein and excommunicated philosopher Baruch Spinoza).

Also not to be missed are the Shahn Hanukka-lamp tapestry and his portraits of Maimonides and of civil rights martyrs Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman; Shammai, a portrait of a rabbi by Jack Levine, and William Zorach's powerful bronze bust of Moses (203-288-3877).

Personalities: Among native sons are television producer Norman Lear, cartoonist Al Capp, pollster Louis Harris and singer Michael Bolton. Born in Stamford, Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman, the only Orthodox United States Senator, makes his home in New Haven.

In addition to his bagels, Murray Lender is renowned for his philanthropy, as is his brother Marvin, a former national chairperson of the United Jewish Appeal. Richard C. Levin is the first Jewish president of Yale University; Anthony T. Kronman is dean of the Yale School of Law. Sidney Altman shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry and Florence Wald, a former dean of the Yale School of Nursing, brought hospice care to the United States. New Haven-born Robert Moses, the most famous administrator in the history of New York, built most of that city's major highways as well as the Triborough Bridge. Psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis is known for her research into the causes of violent criminal behavior and Linda Greenhouse reports on the Supreme Court for The New York Times.

Reading: Dan A. Oren's Joining the Club (Yale University Press) is the definitive volume on the relationship between Yale and its Jewish population. Howard Fast's novel, The Outsider (Houghton-Mifflin) takes you back to the 50's and 60's and inside the life of a crusading Connecticut rabbi. Fast based this character on Robert E. Goldburg, the legendary rabbi-activist-orator who led Mishkan Israel from 1948 to 1982.

Jews in New Haven, a six-volume collection of profiles, essays, social studies and esoterica, amounts to total immersion in local Jewish culture (Jewish Historical Society, 501 Crescent Street; 203-787-3183). It's also essential for anyone interested in American Jewish culture in general.

Culture: The phrase "opening in New Haven" used to be synonymous with the Shubert Theatre. Now beautifully restored, it is enjoying a second heyday with touring Broadway shows and stellar opera and ballet productions (247 College Street; 203-562-5666). Many stars got their start at the Yale Repertory Theatre (Chapel and York Streets; 203-432-1234); Arthur Miller's Broken Glass originated at the Long Wharf, which won a Tony in 1978 for best regional theater (222 Sargent Drive; 203-787-4282).

With its nature dioramas, mummies and geological and ornithological treasures, Yale's Peabody Museum (170 Whitney Ave.; 203-432-5050) is a hot spot for kids.

Side Trip: No matter which direction you take out of New Haven and no matter what time of year, the scenery alone will reward you. But it's particularly fascinating to follow the shoreline with stops in picturesque Branford, Guilford and Madison. Don't miss R.J. Julia Booksellers, a modern classic among independent bookstores; ask for the newsletter on starting your own Jewish library (768 Boston Post Road; 203-245-3959). Owner Roxanne Coady, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, named the store after her grandmother, who perished in Buchenwald.

Then detour up 395 to Lisbon. On Route 138 stands Anshe Israel, a wooden synagogue built in the 30's, now a historical monument. Every other Shabbat and on holidays you can worship at the Conservative Beth Israel in Danielson (860-564-2484), built by survivors of World War II who started dairy and chicken farms in the area. Few farms remain, but Yiddishkeit is still strong here in the heart of Yankee territory.

Elin Schoen Brockman is a New Haven writer and member of Mishkan Israel, where her husband is rabbi.

Reproduced courtesy of Hadassah Magazine.

Nanette Stahl, Curator of the Yale University Library Judaica Collection;
Matt Russo, website developer.
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Last modified: October 15, 2012.