I was on the road earlier this week, seeing college kids and sneaking in a few family visits along the way. I flew into Indianapolis to hang out with my nephews, both residents at the Indiana University hospitals, meet one’s new girlfriend and, most important, meet the other’s new son, Benjamin, my third great-nephew. A cutie.
From there to Bloomington and dinner with a bunch of TBA students who touchingly opted for dinner with me over the season ending basketball game against Maryland. Dessert later with my friend Arnaldo Cohen, the IU piano professor who played here in October in our current piano series.
On to Madison and the University of Wisconsin, via Illinois, with a stop in my home town of Champaign to visit my parents’ graves. Dinner in Madison with more kids, to Chicago for an overnight at the home of an old college friend, breakfast with my aunt in Skokie, and then to O’Hare and home. Much stuff in few days…but I left out the best part.
When I was growing up we occasionally visited the “relatives in Spring Valley,” a town about two hours northwest of Champaign. My grandmother, Ida Steinberg Rudolph, grew up there. I remember a bun
ch of nice, fun, people, a furniture store, and not much else.
Every family has its stories, as does mine. Not the time or place for details, so let’s just say I had not had contact with this side of my family in close to fifty years. The drive from Champaign to Madison goes through Spring Valley. I decided it was time to explore my roots.
I began, of course, with Google. I struck gold. Steinberg Furniture Store is alive and going strong at almost 130 years in business. Founded by my great grandfather, my cousins Bruce and Leslie are the fourth generation of the family to run it. (The link has the details if the story is of interest.) I called them and made arrangements to visit.
The store is now in the nearby larger town (10,000) of Peru and seems to be a successful, thriving business. Bruce and Leslie were warm and gracious and we had a wonderful time catching up, finding out who was still around, who wasn’t, and so on. In the midst of our conversation, Bruce asked, “Would you like to see the synagogue?”
Your knowledge of Illinois geography might be a little lacking so a let me help.
The Illinois River flows west and south from Chicago, through Peoria, eventually meeting up with the Mississippi west of New Salem, where Abe Lincoln once lived. The area around Spring Valley is called the Illinois Valley, and as both names suggest, there are high hills on either side of the river.
In the 1880s coal mines opened and the town of Spring Valley was founded smack in the middle of the mining activity. As happened in other coal small mining towns in Illinois, West Virginia and elsewhere, a Jewish community sprung up, its members mainly merchants who served the miners and their families. My great grandfather was a Chicago-based peddler who knew an opportunity when he saw it.
Being Jews, a synagogue was the next source of attention after making a living. And sometime in the 1880s, my great grandfather was one of the founders of Shaare Tzedek, the small orthodox synagogue in the small town of Spring Valley – a couple of thousand residents – in the today nearly non-existent Jewish community of the Illinois Valley.
I have vague memories of my great uncles, Maurice and Harry, going to shul to daven early on Saturday morning so they could finish in time to open the store at 9:00 AM. (As a small boy from a classical Reform synagogue, I only vaguely grasped what a shul was or what it meant to daven.) And keeping this shul open became a family obsession.
Bruce gave me the keys and I drove the five miles east on US Route 6, along the Illinois River, to Spring Valley. The small, stucco building has seen better days. It is now used for one service on the High Holy Days – I didn’t ask how they get a minyan – and for special family occasions…which of course are growing fewer. But walking inside filled me with a sense of nostalgia…which was odd because I’m pretty sure I had never been inside this building; it was not a part of my personal past.
Except, of course, it was. Some people become overwhelmed visiting or even seeing pictures of the shtetl from which an ancestor came. I grew teary standing in the dusty sanctuary of this small deserted synagogue in Illinois coal country.
Much of the emotion, no doubt, came from reconnecting with family and family history after a very long time. And awed by the uncles and aunts and cousins who steadfastly maintained the building as a symbol of their history and their presence, even as the Jewish community itself – always small – dwindled. I can’t imagine that the 10,000 square miles around Spring Valley contain more than a couple of dozen Jews.
I took the Torahs out and opened them. They were old, but in surprisingly good shape. Unsurprisingly, the Steinberg name was prominent on the mantels and on the adornments. I wondered who, over the years, had read from or said blessings beside these Torahs. Had an ancestor of mine personally brought it from some bigger city? Again, I reached for the Kleenex.
For two decades my job was to travel the Jewish world. I met Jews in some of the most unlikely and far flung places. And this was as unlikely and far flung as any of them. And it was part of me.
Spending my days as I do, sometimes the shalshelet hakabalah, the chain of tradition, becomes something I take for granted. I see the world through the lens of teaching and study and that’s what happens. I forget to feel awe. The history is just…part of it.
That day, I saw and felt history differently. I felt the awe. Standing before that Torah was an intense moment of linkage to my people’s past, as well as to my own. I won’t wait another fifty years before going back.