What were shuls like in terms of seating early 1900s in the United states?
The family pew/mixed seating came to Reform shuls in the 1850s and was adopted between the 1920s and mid-1950s by most what were to become “Conservative” congregations and a small but significant minority of what were to become”Orthodox” synagogues. (The terms were not used in then the way there are today and the movements were less separate then). Most traditional shuls had michitzot. But that did not mean they were as strict as people seem to think today.
I was astonished to (re)read this passaged from the beloved children’s book, set in the Lower East Side in 1913, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown by Sydney Taylor, for whom the premier Jewish Children’s book award is named.
From the back of the synagogue Uncle Solomon’s voice suddenly rang out, “All the world is singing on this joyous holiday”. Right hand cupping his right ear, left arm flung wide, he began shuffling his feet in time with his song. The sisters stared at him, astonished. Could this be their dignified Uncle Solomon?“ Papa, he’s dancing!” Gertie shouted. “It a party?” “Yes, my little one, Papa cried gaily. “It’s God’s party and everyone is invited.”
Uncle Solomon’s feet kept whirling faster and faster. They were carrying him clear across the back of the synagogue. He did not dance alone for long. One after another joined in to form a circle. Pious old men forgot the stiffness in their aching joints and danced shoulder to shoulder with the younger men and children. The curtain separating men and women was thrust aside, and so contagious was the revelry, many of the younger women joined the dancers. In and out and roundabout, Uncle Solomon led them, and the excitement kept mounting.
Voices feebly raised at first, soared ecstatically higher. Feet that had moved hesitantly, quickened their pace. Only the older women remained seated on the benches, bobbing their heads and clapping their work-worn hands in time with the dancing. Mama, too, was caught up in the moment, bouncing a delighted Charlie up and down on her knee.
The sisters, swept along in the general furor, were prancing about in all directions. Tiny Gertie was hemmed in by a sea of moving legs till Papa swung her onto his shoulders. There she rode on her bobbing throne, smiling down triumphantly at Charlotte who was holding on for dear life to her dancing Papa.
Yes, it is is a fictionalized account of Sydney Taylor’s (Sarah Brenner’s) early life and there are a few very small, trivial historical inaccuracies. But when she so carefully recalls so many ritual details like how to kosher meat with salt at home or what it is like behind the mechitzah on Yom Kippur, I doubt she would randomly make this up.
No religious expression is static over time or immune to the world around it. And we are all the richer, spirituality for that.
After all, is it really God’s party if not everyone is invited?