Friday, July 30, 2021

Farewell Shaare Zion

Some of my strongest memories from growing up in Sioux City, Iowa, have their origin in one specific building. Shaare Zion Synagogue. The synagogue was torn down this week.

My parents were very active members of the synagogue, and that is where I celebrated my bar mitzvah. I was president of Junior Congregation in the months before my family made aliyah and moved to Israel.

I remember the balcony overlooking the pulpit and getting into trouble as a young boy for making noise up there while the congregation was praying down below. I remember Sunday school classes; there were only six of us in our class. I remember bringing Jodie and our one-year-old daughter to see the synagogue on our trip to the States in 1981. I gave a short talk about our lives on a kibbutz and we joined a small group for an Oneg Shabbat.

I remember fondly the congregation's spiritual leaders. Rabbi Hyman Rabinowitz (the synagogue's first rabbi in 1925!) made aliyah and we visited him frequently in Jerusalem. Rabbi Philip Silverstein was the rabbi after him. Rabbi David Zisenwine, who also made aliyah and was a close friend of my family in Israel, and Cantor Harry Sterling both played such an important part of my upbringing, especially as I prepared for my bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Rabinowitz officiated at my brit milah; Rabbis Rabinowitz and Zisenwine attended my wedding.

Shaare Zion's colorful history

My father wrote a book called A History of the Sioux City Jewish Community 1869-1969. The book, although listed on Amazon, is long out-of-print. Among other things in the community's storied past, the book relates part of Shaare Zion Synagogue's colorful history.

"New Synagogue to Be Erected" declared a headline in the Sioux City Journal on March 22, 1923. The article reported that plans for the erection of the synagogue, costing $125,000, had been announced by members of the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Church. The 60 founding members of the synagogue had struggled for nine years to get the building constructed, according to the article. It was only starting April 18, 1926, that the first funds were raised for the construction, and the cornerstone was ceremoniously laid on May 1, 1927.

In his book, my father quoted extensively from the newspaper's account of the synagogue's dedication on September 11, 1927. "The eight scrolls of Shaare Zion Temple were deposited in the new $100,000 edifice at 16th and Douglas Street, and the temple was dedicated late Sunday afternoon. The last rays of the sun's light filtering through the stained glass windows of the synagogue, illuminating the starred blue dome over the ark, made the significant rites deeply impressive to the crowd which had gathered for the occasion."

Unsafe for use and occupancy

Fast forward many, many decades. The Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church purchased the building in 1994, and it was later owned by Ciudad Cristiana Ministerio Nueva Jerusalem. According to the Sioux City Journal, "due to declining membership … the church could not afford to fix leaks in the roof and make necessary repairs."

In May 2021, the Sioux City Council determined that the structure was unsafe for use or occupancy.  The city put out bids for the demolition project, including removal of debris and site work.

As can be seen in these photographs, the demolition has taken place and Shaare Zion Synagogue is no more, except in my memories and in the history of Sioux City's Jewish community.

Shaare Zion Synagogue, as I remember it

Images shared by George Lindblade of Sioux City Gifts on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"Three Women in Sofia" - short story


I remember meeting Milena the day I rode on one of Sofia’s rusty orange trams for the first time. I remember boarding, searching for somewhere to validate my ticket. The ticket was a thin piece of paper, I recall, no bigger than the wrapper of a stick of gum. I turned it over, searching in vain for a barcode. Should I show it to the driver at the front of the carriage? Maybe it had been enough to purchase the ticket at the stand? Perhaps, but that didn’t make sense.

“There,” someone called out.

A middle-aged, slightly frumpy woman sitting near the door pointed to a small box on a metal pole. Confused, I approached the pole.

“You must to punch it,” she instructed me, making me grin at her broken English. “There to put!"

I inserted the ticket in a narrow slit, and applied pressure on the handle, looking at the woman for her approval. When I removed the ticket, I saw it was marked by a barely discernible indentation.

“Good,” the woman said.

How did she know to speak to me in English? Was it so obvious that I was a foreigner who didn’t speak her language? Was it my clothes? During those years I rarely changed out of faded jeans and a Spartans T-shirt. Was this the clue that gave me away?

Read the rest of this story on Literary Yard.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

"Sozopol" - short story

When she approached me in the hotel lobby, I was reviewing my notes for the presentation I would be giving the next day. My laptop was open on the glass-topped coffee table and twenty-three PowerPoint slides alternated on the screen as I clicked through them repeatedly. I had given this presentation before, many times, but now I was nervous for some inexplicable reason. I was prepared, but on the other hand, I was skeptical of how my talk would be received.

“I am a big fan of your books!”

I looked up to find a young woman standing at my side. She was tall, with a slim figure, and jet-black hair. She had a pleasant face; barely visible eyebrows topped her almond-shaped eyes; and her lips were curled into an inviting smile. Quite attractive, actually. Her English carried an Eastern European accent, a sign that she was a local woman. I had seen her before, somewhere, but no full recognition took hold. After a moment’s hesitation, I responded to her compliment with a simple, “Thank you. Have we met?”

“I attended this morning’s session!” she said excitedly.

Of course, she was an attendee of the seminar! I had spotted her in the mixed audience—Bulgarians and participants from outside the country, like me. “It was quite an interesting discussion,” I said. “And you are...?”

“Desislava,” she said, extending her hand and sitting down uninvited on a lounge chair. “But you can call me Desi.”

Read the rest of the story on The Write Launch.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

From the Archive: Why I Write about Bulgaria

It was a cloudy, spring day and my wife and I were sitting on a bench, waiting for the Regional Historical Museum to open its doors for the day. We were in Vratsa, a small town in northwestern Bulgaria, 2-hour's train journey north of Sofia. A statue of 19th century revolutionary Hristo Botev overlooked the pavement, the hero's arm clenched across his chest as if he were about to launch into a fervent call to rebel against the long-gone Ottoman oppressors. A gypsy boy approached us.

The boy mumbled something in Bulgarian, a language we had failed to master despite several meetings with a tutor who emphasized grammar, rather than conversation. The boy held out his hand.