At our recent celebration for our Eutaw Place home’s 120th birthday, we displayed a scrapbook which includes candid shots from the filming of Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights. Early on in the movie, Joe Mantegna’s character sneaks out of shul on Rosh Hashanah to check out the newest model of Cadillac. You can watch the scene here (time signature 4:20). The grand steps Mantegna descends are the actual front steps of Beth Am, and my understanding is the cameras were set up right in front of our home to catch the scene of classic cars lining the grand boulevard in front of the synagogue.
Those steps have a warm place in my heart. On sunny spring or breezy autumn days, I like to sit on those steps and take in the scenery. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur those steps are a primary gathering spot for congregants to assemble and schmooze, catch up and wish one another a happy and healthy New Year. And it was on those steps this past May 2 when, just days after the Baltimore civil unrest, our congregation proudly stepped outside to gather and pray in full view of our community with whom we share an unshakable bond. A neighbor captured the moment in this photo.
This past weekend our Reservoir Hill neighborhood hunkered down to ride out Winter Storm Jonas. Baltimore received 29.2″ of record snowfall, enough to impress even this native Chicagoan. Little could I predict it would be so deep the Beth Am steps would play host to dozens of kids sledding and frolicking in the snow! Here’s a shot of Miriam, our neighbor Karen and me Sunday with the kids playing and sledding in the background.
In the Bible, there are fifteen Psalms (120-134) that begin with the specific header Shir Hama’alot, a Song for Ascents. One tradition has it that these Psalms correspond to the fifteen double steps beneath in the Hulda Gates at the Jerusalem Temple of old.
As I think about what it might have been like for my ancestors to stand on those steps, squinting into the Jerusalem sun, ascending slowly, deliberately toward the holy summit and our most sacred spot, I find myself contemplating the steps of Beth Am. Many things, sacred and banal, have occurred on those steps in the 94 years since they were built. But among the most sacred, I think, were several hours in the winter of 2016, when kids from Reservoir Hill came together to make the Beth Am steps into the coolest toboggan run this side of Druid Hill Park!
One of the fifteen ascension Psalms includes the line, “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy” (v. 5). Jews sing these words every Shabbat and Festival meal before chanting our Grace, Birkat Hamazon. 2015 was a year brimming with Baltimore tears. But these videos reflect one small but significant example of how we are beginning to reap with songs of joy. Take a look!