gallin Remembrance of Synagogues Past - The Lost Civilization of the Jewish South Bronx


One evening during the 1977 World Series, Howard Cosell, a sports caster announcing the New York Yankees baseball game, saw flames from a burning building beyond the stadium walls. In a moment of inspiration, he said, "The Bronx is burning." The phrase became famous overnight.

This book reviews the story of the synagogues in the South Bronx from the time the Jews came to the Bronx until they left in the aftermath of the virtual destruction of the area starting in 1960. It includes the addresses of every registered, tax-exempt synagogue that ever existed, their dates of organization and present usage. In addition, there are 100 photographs of the buildings as they stand today.

In 1930, there were more than 260 registered synagogues and over 360,000 Jews in the South Bronx. By 2007, the author estimates, there was 1 active synagogue and fewer than 2,500 Jews in the South Bronx. As the Jews moved from the Bronx, the synagogues were abandoned, demolished or put to other uses. Today, more than half of the synagogue buildings are still standing.

The various sections of the book include synagogue demographics, present usage of synagogue buildings, a history of the Jews in the Bronx, Jewish population trends and transportation facilities, synagogue histories, synagogue architecture, a description of difficulties photographing synagogues and a lengthy chapter of personal impressions as well as a glossary, an appendix and a bibliography.

Synagogues are only buildings made of brick and mortar. People of the congregation make a synagogue come to life. There was a need for a human dimension. Letters were sent to many Jewish periodicals asking former residents of the South Bronx to send personal impressions of their synagogues. Hundreds were received and incorporated into the text of the book.

For example, Martin Smith relates this anecdote about his bar mitzvah in 1945. At the time of Martin's bar mitzvah, his father was serving in the army and stationed in Hawaii. Martin's mother wanted him to record his bar mitzvah speech and send it to his father. There were no cassette recorders in those days, but there was a store on the Grand Concourse that made disc records. His mother made an appointment for Martin to record the speech in the store.

When they arrived at the store, the owner told Martin to go to the booth at the rear of the store, keep his back to the street so there would be no distractions and present the speech as he did at the synagogue. As Martin ended the speech, he heard loud applause. When he turned around, he saw a crowd standing on the sidewalk in front of the store. The store owner had turned on the loudspeaker so that everyone on the Grand Concourse could hear Martin's bar mitzvah speech.

A Fourth Edition of Remembrance has been published. It includes updated information about the South Bronx Synagogues. As of now, every registered tax- exempt (active and inactive) synagogue that ever existed in the Bronx is included in the book. Hopefully this book will provide the reader a window into how the secular and religious life of Jews were woven together into a seamless tapestry that defined the culture and civilization of the Jewish South Bronx.