When the Gay Street Synagogue building was demolished in 1947, a window went missing. The synagogue — since relocated to Nashville’s West End Avenue — is now known as West End Synagogue. Read the story of how this ‘treasure’ was returned to the synagogue over half a century later.
In 2009, the former president of West End Synagogue came home to a message on his answering machine about a “piece of glass” that might belong to the synagogue. That “piece of glass” was the window missing from Gay Street.
Rodney Rosenblum, 81, said the caller was Chuck Stern, the CEO of a high-tech company in Newport News, Virginia who was involved in the Jewish community. Stern said he had been told the window came from a synagogue building in downtown Nashville and the congregation had moved from that location to West End Avenue — which fit the description of West End Synagogue.
Tracking down the ‘treasure’
Stern emailed two photos of the window — a wooden frame containing a Star of David in the center surrounded by amber glass, clearly handmade with varying textures. He asked if Rosenblum could identify it as being from Gay Street.
"Since we had moved from that location [on Gay Street] over 62 years ago, I was not overly hopeful that we would have anyone who could positively identify the window," Rosenblum told the congregation in a 2010 speech. “...It seemed to be only a remote possibility that we could find anyone who would remember the window.”
He added that most of the people who had attended the Gay Street Synagogue were no longer alive; Rosenblum had been about five years old when he attended a service there. Marcia Stewart, the executive director of WES, called the remaining congregation members, who said they didn’t remember any windows. Rosenblum said he began viewing this search as a “lost cause.”
Within an hour of Rosenblum sending photos of the window to Stewart, Rosenblum said an elderly man walked into WES to speak to a rabbi. As the man, Arthur Lee, waited for his appointment, Stewart asked him about his connection to Gay Street. Lee responded that he had lived in a “shanty” on Gay Street and had done odd jobs for the man who ran the synagogue, earning 25 to 50 cents.
“And he said a quarter was a lot back then, so he always liked coming up there,” Rosenblum said of Lee, who worked on Gay Street until he had to stop due to World War II.
Rosenblum said Stewart pulled up the photo of the window and asked Lee if it looked familiar, to which he responded “without hesitation.”
“He says, yes, that looks familiar,” Rosenblum said. “He says, ‘I used to clean that window from the inside and then I had to go outside with a ladder and clean it,’ because back then, most of the residential heating, especially [in] an area like he lived, was done with coal. And so it would get coal dust on it. …But every three months, he would go and wipe it clean, as he did with some of the other windows, but he definitely remembers that [one] and he remembered where it was.”
He said the window in question was “high up in a hall on the right-hand side of the building,” across from the Ladies’ Aid Society, now known as the Sisterhood. (Stewart asked if Lee remembered any members of the Ladies’ Aid Society, and he recalled a Mrs. Reba Silverman, who, coincidentally, was Stewart’s grandmother.)
“[Lee] had confirmed it was our window, which was miraculous,” Rosenblum said. “I mean, man had never been in the West End Synagogue all those years and he just decided that day, at that time, he made an appointment and it turned out to be that time.”
Rosenblum said he called Stern back: “I said, ‘You’re probably not going to believe me, but here’s what happened.’”
“And [Stern] says, ‘That’s the most incredible story, and that’s almost unbelievable, but I believe you because nobody, nobody can make up a story like that,’” Rosenblum said.
The big return
A rabbi from WES suggested that Rosenblum speak to Monty Dorriety, a woman from Florida who had bought the window in the early 1970s from a Nashville store that sold “odds and ends.”
Dorriety, a secretary for one of Nashville’s music production companies, was walking down 16th Avenue when the Gay Street Synagogue window caught her eye. She walked another block before she decided she wanted to buy the window .
“She doesn’t really remember how much it was, but it wasn’t a big strain on her, even making what people made back then…” Rosenblum said of Dorriety. “But she bought it, and for the next number of years, it was with her wherever she moved.”
Rosenblum said he and Dorriety arranged to hand off the window in July 2009 and for Dorriety to see the synagogue and meet the WES staff. The meeting consisted of the WES president, Marcia Stewart, a photographer and Dorriety, who brought the window in packaging. Rosenblum said he asked Dorriety why she chose then to search for the window’s origins.
“[Dorriety] said, ‘There’s nobody in my family that’s interested in Judaism,’” Rosenblum said. “‘I mean, they’re not disinterested, but…nobody is Jewish. And I didn’t want [the window] just to be part of what was left behind and then just get lost because no one in Nashville even knew it existed.’”
Rosenblum said he used an acrylic coating to protect the window, which is now visible to anyone who enters the building — he and his wife, Lynne, donated the cost of framing and professional hanging. He said the WES building has undergone renovations since 2009, some of which are now being finalized.
Rosenblum said he will display the window in “a prominent place” with a small plaque explaining its origins. He spoke to the importance of preserving local Jewish history.
“It’s part of our history, to me personally,” Rosenblum said of the window. “My great-grandparents on one side belonged to the Gay Street [Synagogue]. My grandparents belonged to the West End Synagogue. My parents belonged. My wife and I belong… We’ve been there a long time.”
‘Closing the circle’
In April 2010, Rosenblum introduced Dorriety, the owner of the window, to the congregation and asked her to tell her story before the official WES window dedication. He said he had hoped to have Lee, the elderly man, present at the dedication, but Lee died in February 2010.
In a speech to the attendees, Rosenblum made connections to the words bashert — Yiddish for “destined, fated, meant to be” — and mitzvah — “a worthy deed.”
“If there ever was an example of a worthy, purely unselfish deed, it is this most gracious act by Monty in returning a treasure to our synagogue,” Rosenblum said to the congregation, before displaying the window in the synagogue once more.
The window now resides on the left-hand wall of WES as you enter the wooden doors.