Second in a series written by guest blogger Andy Romanoff
I didn’t know why I was being sent to Hebrew school. My father had not been religious and besides, he was dead. HE didn’t care. My mother had only a glancing connection to Judaism, not like her father who davened daily at a little shul in Albany Park. Nevertheless when I neared thirteen off I went to learn Hebrew at Shaare Tikvah, the big, new synagogue on Kimball Avenue. It was not a match made in heaven.
Afternoons I had spent riding bicycles or exploring the alleys of Hollywood Park, figuring out my life, were now spent with kids I didn’t know or want to know, learning things I didn’t want to learn from people I didn’t want to learn from.
Below, my prison of unwanted learning, entered through those double doors, up to the second floor and into the line of classrooms overlooking the alley.
In those upstairs rooms they taught what me they could. I grudgingly memorized the Hebrew for my Torah portion and when the day came I recited it standing on the bimah before my mother and my relatives and for the moment everyone was happy. Then I forgot all the ritual and I left being Jewish behind for forty years.
A few years ago I came back to Chicago to visit, and driving by Shaare Tikvah on a Saturday morning, I told my wife, “There’s the place where I went to Hebrew school.” We parked and went in and were welcomed to services in a small downstairs chapel, not the big sanctuary where I had stood many years before. The overwhelming Shaare Tikvah was long gone, both the congregation and my confused feelings about it. It was dying and a few years later that congregation flickered out.
In December 2015 I came back and saw it was all changed again. Not the building but the congregation, the community. The people I was afraid of and disdainful of, the ones I wanted nothing to do with – all gone. It might have made me happy but it did not. I’m not that boy anymore.
But something of him remains from those days, something I feel inside with all the strength of a big thing that happened just yesterday. I remember this.
I remember sitting inside those second floor windows looking out. Not those windows exactly though, in 1955 the windows were different and you could imagine climbing out of them. What I saw looking out then was that telephone pole. I knew that if I was willing enough to take the chance I could climb through the window, grab the pole and shinny down to freedom. I knew it! All through my pained afternoons I looked outside at the world I wanted so much to be in and I looked at that pole and imagined the possibilities. I never took the chance.
It doesn’t matter, I didn’t jump out the window and my life turned out just fine. I’ve had success and good fortune, family and health. Still…there’s a little piece of me wants to know…could I make it…..can I make it? If I swing my legs out, duck my head under the glass; reach around to the left and push off can I get a foothold? Can I get a little way down the pole before the teacher comes running – stay out of reach of his desperate grasping arms? Can I get down the pole without falling and can I run away westward before they all come running out the door after me? Can I be free?
Andy Romanoff is a photographer and writer who also worked as a cinematographer, specialist camera operator and businessman for fifty years. Visit his website to see more of his stunning photographs.
Andy has also contributed these pieces to this blog: Ghost Chicago–Looking for Things No Longer Here–My Childhood, Albany Park Cool, Bob and Ikey’s Wedding: An Albany Park Story.
For a recollection of Shaare Tikvah when it occupied a Bryn Mawr storefront, see: They Went to Peterson,
Editor’s note: Shaare Tikvah is mentioned in many places in this blog as one of the landmarks of the community and I’m sure there are many more recollections readers can share with us.