This review of the book Rabbi From The Lower East Side: Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Spiegel's Story was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in The Schoenberg Spotlight.
Rabbi From The Lower East Side: Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Spiegel's Story
An Inspiring Narrative Of A Historic Neighborhood
Written by Menachem J. Spiegel
(Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 2017)
It was my privilege to know Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel for several years as a tour guide on the Lower East Side when I gave my Jewish tours of the neighborhood. I was impressed by his love of Yiddishkeit, the First Roumanian-American synagogue that he served as the rabbi, and his love of the Jewish people. The book does justice to a life dedicated to trying to keep the First Roumanian-American synagogue going as a traditional Jewish synagogue in modern times in a neighborhood that had once been the largest Jewish community in the world.
The biography, actually a series of anecdotes, by his son, explains Rabbi Spiegel's struggle between the practical and the spiritual as he tried to keep a spark of Yiddishkeit going in the neighborhood as the physical structure of the synagogue decayed and the Jewish remnant in the neighborhood kept on getting smaller in numbers. Rabbi Spiegel could have easily moved on to live a much more comfortable life by serving a much larger congregation with a much brighter future. Instead, he made it his mission in life to serve the fragment of Jewish remnant in the neighborhood from pious to secular that needed his help.
Many of the stories remind me of the Jewish tradition of the Tzadikim Nistarim ("hidden righteous ones") or Lamed Vav Tzadikim ("36 righteous ones"), thirty-six righteous people that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. Let me recount one story from the book that I heard several times from Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel's lips. He hosted a brit milah (circumcision ceremony) for a single mother without money or any friends in the world. She inquired how she could possibly afford the ceremony. The rabbi responded that he had not asked her for anything but that it was incumbent on the Jewish community to help its people to be Jewish. In the sermon he gave on the occasion, he said the child would live to see the coming of the Messiah. As a result, his biographer, Rabbi Menachem J. Spiegel rises above mere hagiography by giving us some of the real problems and conflicts his father faced and tried to resolve.
The one thing I would have wanted more of in the book was the nuts and bolts of Rabbi Spiegel's struggle to maintain the synagogue building, the First Roumanian-American Congregation that unfortunately collapsed in 2005 after his death in 2001. He would occasionally tell me about his fight to maintain the synagogue's physical structure as the sole staff of one, as well as the nuts and bolts of operating a spiritual facility. For example, although the synagogue had air conditioning, he could not turn it on in the main upstairs prayer room because it would have cost $1,000.00 for the day when the synagogue had an elderly membership of few congregants, some of whom were too infirm to come to services consistently.
Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel was not as fortunate in achieving his goal to maintain the synagogue as did the people that helped the Eldridge, Stanton, and Clinton Street synagogues while other congregations such as Temple Emanu-El and Ohab Tzedek managed to move uptown. The son, Rabbi Menachem J. Spiegel, missed an opportunity to give a more detailed explanation of the struggle to maintain the building and to defend the honor of his family's involvement in this struggle. We do not have the lessons as to why the effort to preserve the First Roumanian-American synagogue failed. Without this vital critique, this book has a limited appeal to those who like to read about the good deeds of pious people instead of a much larger appeal to community activists and landmark preservationists that could learn lessons from the rabbi's struggles.