Gigs: The Oldest Synagogue in the World

Dear Marian showed up to learn and told a story about a synagogue she visited in NYC.
Hey I’ve been there, but lately only from the third floor. I wrote a story about it.
It turned out to be a different place.

Gig Tonight

Linda showed up at the end of the gig and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure.

Where to?

The oldest synagogue in New York City, someone bought it and turned it into a foundation and an artist’s studio. [she exaggerates but who cares]

Sounds great.

It’s way downtown, way down on the lower East Side, she said, below the letters [Avenues A,B, C]. We took cabs. Jake the bass player came too, and Judah from Brooklyn, and Daniel the artist.

We found the street, carrying all our instruments, in the middle of the block, dark, set back behind a black metal gate. It certainly looks like a synagogue but it reads The Orensanz Foundation. What the heck is Orensanz. . . I mumbled.

The name of the two brothers who bought it, Linda said.

Standing out in front of its dark exterior on Norfolk street, waiting for someone to answer the buzzer, I was as cold as I have ever been in my entire life. No gloves, I hate it when my hands get cold. I felt as if I were standing naked on an ice flow. It was February, New York City, but it felt like February, Rejkavik. The temperature had plummeted forty degrees from afternoon to night that particular day, and my bones froze standing out in front of the Orensanz Foundation, midnight, after the gig on Fourteenth Street. We stood waiting on the street, in the dark, for someone to come from somewhere within the labyrinth of the dark edifice looming above us. Open the door.

There were handwritten notes attached to the gate: ring loud, I am within, but deep within. Ring ring, no response, climbing he was through a series of ascending palaces of subterranean mist to reach land-level.

Ring ring. A light from within, a door opened and silhouetted in the doorway a man with a natty thin-brim hat. Cardigan sweater. Scarf.

He opened the front door, come into my office, he said. His office was to the right as we entered. I peeped to the left into the large empty room, the synagogue I guessed, it was dark but I could see a shadowy presence and its three story ascent in the darkness. On top a luminescent dome that glowed blue in the dark.

His accent was a combination of Latino, eastern European, Pee Wee’s Funhouse, I thought it was completely contrived and someone’s private joke. It sounded like one of my accents. In his office, large industrial space heaters hanging from the ceiling. Pictures on the walls of Sarah Jessica Somebody’s wedding, who Mr. Orensanz referred to several times as one of his finest moments as landlord. I gathered he rented the space out to parties for New York’s hip elite. Poof Daddy was here last night. Poof Daddy was here last night, he said twice, great party. MTV loves it here.

Joke? I looked at Linda. No joke, Linda looked back at me. Joke? I looked at Judah. I have no idea, Judah looked back at me, shrugging his shoulders. Joke? I looked at Jake the bass player. Good joke, Jake looked back at me, great joke, fabulous joke.

Orensanz was describing his brother’s sculpture, for which the synagogue was purchased in order to house his studio. Where is your brother now?

Paris. He went back to naming the celebrities who were having parties in his synagogue.

I snuck out of the office and into the dark synagogue to the left. The floors were wood and not refinished, as were the columns that ran the length of the room in two parallel rows. The columns were carved out of small facets in shapes that looked like fine tile-work, but it was not tile, it was wood, small carved facets of color carved out of the wood pillars. I realized that the entire ceiling and upper walls were formed out of these colorful miniaturized facets. The colors – magenta, scarlet, purple, yellow, and the dome a shimmering blue like God’s holy eyes.

There was no heat at all in the synagogue space. I unpacked my guitar and sat down on the steps that led up to the bimah. I began to play. First I played a couple of serpentine Ladino melodies, I switched to some oud-inspired improvisations, the notes of my instrument ascending slowly up into the dome space and raising a holy sweet savor to God’s nose, ears, eyes. For the second time that night, I began the love songs that make up the slow-hand Havdalah ceremony that I had recently learned for just these occasions, and by now the group who had been huddling in the office had followed the sound and wandered into the synagogue.

Mr. Orensanz the brother switched on a bank of what looked like make-up lights that ran in a row above the columns along two side walls and the rear wall of the synagogue. Not too much light, but enough to note the floors, the walls, the columns, the facets were original and not reconditioned, original structures, the empty floor a rough parquet unfinished, whose footprints?

Daniel the artist was examining the columns and the collusion of colors in the facets around the room. Everyone was walking slowly examining the shadowy recesses. Jake the bass player unpacked his instrument, sat down next to me, and began to accompany my playing.

I started to sing in Ladino again, a medieval Spanish garnished with Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Arabic. I sang love songs, sad songs of longing, songs of exile, and I noticed that Mr. Orensanz was standing near one of the columns to my right, weeping at the sound of his ancestral language and the music of the post-exilic longing of his predecessors.

Soon everyone stopped wandering around the room and stood stationary, each in place, like players on a big game board, lit not-lit by the light casting shadows, faces dark.

I sang and they listened this way for forty five minutes. No longer did I notice the temperature, it was cold but we raised a fire in our rooted souls, the sound rose through the dome and into the space where the music rested. We sang and played into the shadows for forty five minutes.

When we finished, we quietly filed out into the New York City night, a hush having fallen over all of us, including Mr. Orensanz, who asked if I would like to record in his synagogue. Poof Daddy.

On the street, I began to freeze up again. I had no idea where we were, but several blocks later we came to the celebrated Katz’s delicatessen. We took a ticket and went and sat in the cavernous dining room, next to a table of young musicians recently come in no doubt from their own show, in black leather, studs, chains, tattoos and piercings.

One of them glanced at me carrying my instruments. Gig tonight? he asked.

Yeah, I said, great gig. You?

Me too, he said, nodding his head up and down. We smiled at each other. Later, I watched him walk out the front door and disappear into the night like a raven.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America