Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Congregation Ezrath Israel -- The Actors' Temple -- 339 West 47th Street


In September 1922, architect Sidney P. Oppenheim filed plans to dramatically remodel a "four story brick tenement" for the West Side Hebrew Relief Association, Inc.  The old structure (it was built around 1869) was, in fact, a high-stooped brownstone which had been converted to a rooming house.  Oppenheim's far-reaching plans called for new floors, new interior walls, "new exterior, new front."

The house was transformed into a synagogue faced in sandy-colored brick.  It was home to Congregation Ezrath Israel (Help of Israel), founded in 1917.  Vaguely neo-Georgian in style, the building's focal point was the large, centered arch that embraced the stained glass rose window.

In the post-World War I years, the most conservative of churches and synagogues still considered the theater to be sinful.  People involved in the theater were not welcomed by those institutions.  This synagogue was conveniently near the entertainment district, however, and when actor-comedian Red Baxter began worshiping at Ezrath Israel, Rabbi Bernard Birstein welcomed him.

Birstein was born in 1892 in Poland and had come to America in 1912.  Word of his warm reception to actors and entertainers spread.  Before long, the congregation was a mix of long-time neighborhood residents and stage celebrities.  

Rabbi Birstein discovered that having well-known members in his congregation had its advantages.  He instituted what would become an annual benefit.  According to Birstein's daughter, Ann, in her 1982 book The Rabbi on 47th Street, the events featured performances by the likes of Sophie Tucker; Jimmy Durante and his vaudeville team Clayton, Jackson and Durante; Red Buttons; Eddie Cantor; Jack Benny; Edward G. Robinson; and Milton Berle.  Within a few years, Congregation Ezrath Israel had earned the nickname, The Actors' Temple.  

The benefit would be staged every February for years.  On January 28, 1933, the Greenpoint Daily Star reported, 

With Eddie Cantor and George Jessel as honorary chairmen, Broadway stage stars are rallying to the support of the charity show to be given in aid of Temple Ezrath Israel at the Casino Theater on Sunday evening, February 5.  This annual theatrical affair helps considerably to maintain the synagogue, located at 339 West Forty-seventh street, where the actors come to pray and mourn for the dead.

More somber, of course, were those many funerals and memorial services which were routinely held here.  On April 16, 1927, for instance, The Vaudeville News reported, "N.V.A. [National Vaudeville Artists] members are respectfully invited to attend a Memorial Service on Sunday, April 24, 1927, at 11 A. M. at the Ezrath Israel Synagogue, 339 West 47th St., New York City."

On July 12, 1941, The New York Times reported on the memorial service for theatrical producer Sam H. Harris.  The article said 200 friends and former associates were present.  "George M. Cohan, former partner of Mr. Harris, had been asked to speak...but had declined, saying, 'I was too close to Sam Harris.  I couldn't go through with it.'"

Rabbi Bernard Birstein died in 1959 at the age of 67.  On November 15, The New York Times reported that "Congregation Ezrath Israel, more familiarly known as the Actors Temple," had hired Rabbi Moshay P. Mann.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

Things were changing in the neighborhood and within the congregation.  Following World War II the motion picture industry drew celebrities to the West Coast.  And the neighborhood generally declined.  The 16th Precinct police stationhouse, just steps away, was demolished in 1972 and the station moved to a new building on West 54th Street.  Within weeks, on October 9, the shul was broken into and $500 worth of silver breastplates, used to adorn the Torah, were stolen.  (The items were later discovered in a pawnshop.)

On November 18, 1978, Leslie Maitland, writing in The New York Times, began an article saying,

Edward G. Robinson conducted services.  Toots Shor, Tony Martin and Red Buttons came to pray.  And when the rabbi had trouble gathering a minyan of 10 Jewish men at the Actors' Temple, the old 16th Precinct station a few doors down on 47th Street could be counted on to provide it.

But times have changed.

Edward G. Robinson is dead.  Red Buttons lives in California.  The police station has been torn down.  The police officers who visit now do not come to pray.

Those police officers were, instead, were coming to investigate vandalism.  Teens threw rocks through the windows, spray painted swastikas on the walls, and "shout[ed] obscenities at its leaders," according to Maitland.

Label Malamud had been cantor here for three decades.  Pointing to the school next door to the synagogue, he asked Maitland, "You think they go to school with pencils?  These days they carry knives.  They could make me a head shorter than I already am.  Frankly, I am afraid."  A month before the article, the synagogue's outdoor Succoth decorations had been destroyed.

In response, the congregation had installed a $2,000 burglar alarm system and covered the stained glass windows with plywood--among them memorial windows to Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker and theatrical agent Joe Glaser.

On November 29, 2006, Campbell Robertson of The New York Times wrote, "Recently--say, oh, during the last half-century--this temple, with a declining membership and a vanishing budget, has not been doing so well."  In a desperate attempt to buoy its finances, the members of Congregation Ezrath Israel had decided to offer its auditorium as an Off Broadway venue.  The first play, The Big Voice: God or Merman?, opened on November 30, 2006.

It had not been an easy decision.  Congregation members discussed--and fought--it for more than a year.  Member Rich Schussel explained, "There was, first of all, the fundamental question of whether it was appropriate to open an active temple to show business.  And then the practical matters: if a show has a big, immovable set, what do you do for Friday and Saturday services?"

Vice president of the board, Mike Libien, said, "Not everyone was happy about it."  But, given the financial situation, "we really had no choice."

Nearly two decades later, the unlikely bedfellows continue to coexist as Congregation Ezrath Israel and the Actors' Temple Theater.

photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

No comments:

Post a Comment