, Salem, MA

November 12, 2013

Walsh: Mourning the loss of an institution

Brendan Walsh
The Salem News

---- — Because I was recently a candidate for public office, I could not submit the following, originally written in August, when it was more current. I hope that it will still resonate.

While Kay and I were away on vacation recently, I did check The Salem News each day for headlines and obituaries; headlines to make sure no disasters had befallen us and obituaries because in the culture of my youth, I heard them referred to as the “Irish Sports Page.” You had to be part of the culture to get the humor!

One day’s News front page included a story that qualified as both a tragedy and an obituary. I read of the imminent closing of Temple Shalom.

How to describe my reaction? It was if an uncle had died. Not an uncle whom you saw every day or week. Maybe an uncle you saw at funerals, weddings and the occasional graduation, but an uncle whom you liked and for whom you had great respect. Temple Shalom and its community of people I knew or knew of was an integral part of my younger days and has remained a part of the “furniture” of my world. News of this community’s dissolution brought sadness to my heart even in an alpine Nirvana.

What do I remember? I remember my dad going off on a Saturday morning to provide Izzie Cohen with a 10th man for the Shabbas Minyan. Charlie Walsh was as Catholic as Catholic could be, but that didn’t prevent his participation in a rite of what he considered our Mother Faith. I also remember Izzie and him sitting on rocking chairs across from my childhood home at 22 Eden St., discussing comparative religious beliefs.

I remember George Cohen and little brother Robert being part of the mixture of kids playing in the neighborhood (primarily French Canadian, but with healthy doses of Irish and Greek, Jewish and the occasional Yankee).

As a young adult, I remember meeting the father of one of my all-time greatest students. It was a very warm September night. Charlie Abel’s dad, Boris, had on a short-sleeved white shirt, and I could not stop staring at the tattooed numbers on his arm. It was my first knowing contact with a Holocaust survivor. It was chilling — and the memory of it remains so today.

I hope people know that many of the people who made Salem the great place to live that it is today were members of Temple Shalom. I think of the Polanskys and Pitcoffs and Pofchers; of Dr. Kaplan and Dr. Cutler; of Mayor/Judge Sam Zoll; of powerhouse businessmen like Ted Simons, Saul Goldberg, Jerry Rich, the Axelrods, Max Talkowski and a host of other self-made successes.

I mentioned my dad earlier. For those who don’t remember him, he was the truant officer for many years. I remember him banking for help for needy families on people he dubbed the “Three Great Christians” of Salem. There were actually four, but so what? They were Dave Wong (China Sails) and three members of Temple Shalom: Jerry Rich (Jerry’s Army & Navy) and the Axelrod Brothers (Empire Clothing). Unlike many of the organized charities that tended to ask if people were “worthy poor,” Charlie’s allies asked, “How much? How many? What sizes? How soon do you need it?” The indelible mark that their kindness left in the mind of a little boy remains vibrant today.

I also remember people we treasured simply as neighbors, like the Cohens across the street, the Levins across the street, the Cohens on Messervey, the Bixbys up the street and, in the present day, the Sklovers on West Terrace.

So, as with all earthly things, Temple Shalom will soon pass into history. The old uncle dies, but the distant nephew remembers. And isn’t making memories what life is all about? In my own Goyisher way, I shall say Kaddish for my old uncle.