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 (Hebrew: צַדִיקִים נִסתָּרים, “hidden righteous ones”) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (Hebrew: ל”ו צַדִיקִים,x”36 righteous ones”), thirty-six righteous people that 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 how she possible could afford this 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 life problems and conflicts his father faced and tried to resolve.
The one thing I would have wanted more 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 of 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 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 preserved the Eldridge, Stanton and Clinton Street synagogues while other congregations such 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 lesson why the effort to preserve the First Roumanian-American synagogue failed. . Without this vital critique, this book has a limited appeal to those that like to read the good deeds of any pious person instead of a much larger appeal to community activists and landmark preservationists that could learn lessons from the rabbi’s struggles.