The glossy wooden floor of the grand old sanctuary has buckled. One legend has it that the “shuckling” (i.e. rocking) of men praying in the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now the Museum at Eldridge Street, created permanent warps. The boards and the prayers have not changed since the turn of the 20th century, though everything else has. You step into the past even as a living museum ties you to the present.
The grand sanctuary greets the street with Moorish arches and a marble vestibule. But that gateway is pristine and conserved. Museum visitors first enter through a nondescript basement door leading into a petite lobby. If you peer around the corner, you see the Beit Midrash, where a small Orthodox congregation still prays. If you take the tour (on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), you begin in a converted rabbi’s office with a video display and dozens of artifacts and photographs from the community’s history.
I took the tour and recommend it. If you know everything that there is to know about Jewish life or if you have explored the resources at EldridgeStreet.org, the museum’s docents will still bring more to the building and the story. If you know nothing at all about Judaism or the synagogue, that’s at least as good. My tour group included a couple from Germany and one from France with limited English and no background knowledge of Judaism. By the end of the tour, our docent had them entranced.
The story itself is certainly compelling. Two million Jews lived in the Lower East Side by the 1880s. They slept in cramped tenements with or without running water and worked in cramped factories. They prayed in shtieblach – small congregations tucked into backrooms and storefronts. Freedom to pray, study, and observe was, after all, the point of the voyage from Russia and Eastern Europe to New York City.
But surely in America, they could do better than backrooms and store fronts. In the 1886, the Jewish community of the Lower East Side commissioned a synagogue – the first major Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) place of worship in the United States – to replace dozens of nearby shtieblach. It purchased lots at 12, 14, and 16 Eldridge Street. Construction took $91,000 and less than a year. The new building boasted Romanesque painted columns, Gothic windows, Victorian chandeliers, a Moorish ceiling, and a vestibule the size of an entire tenement apartment. Rumor has it that the non-Jewish architects ordered the benches – with a vaguely Trinitarian clover decoration – from a church catalogue.
The Synagogue at Eldridge Street easily filled its 770 seats for the next few decades. Then, again, the times changed. Wealthier families moved to the suburbs. A total ban on immigration to the United States in 1924 stemmed the tide of new residents into the country. The Great Depression hurt everyone. The synagogue’s member ranks dropped and so did its coffers. In 1938, when a hurricane blew out the sanctuary’s east window, the congregation could afford only boards to cover it. In 1950, the sanctuary closed altogether and services moved to the Beit Midrash. In the past, the congregation had held only meetings or occasional weekday services in the Beit Midrash, Hebrew for “hall of study.” Going forward, this basement room with a relatively small wooden Ark to hold the Torah scrolls and seats for no more than 50 people would host almost all of the synagogue’s operations.
The space was decrepit by 1970, when New York University scholar Gerald Wolf persuaded the caretaker to let him peek inside. The wood frame of the building and the plaster, painted to look like marble, had succumbed to the elements. Wolf took it upon himself to do something about it and formed the Eldridge Street Project, a predecessor to the museum. In 1996, the site became a National Historic Landmark and, in 2007, the Museum at Eldridge Street opened its doors. The restoration had taken $18.5 million.
But the museum went farther than mere restoration. With the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it ordered something new. Glass blocks had filled the circular portal on the sanctuary’s east wall for decades since the hurricane. In 2009, Lower East Side-based artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans began work on a window to replace the blocks. They designed a stained glass spiral in cyan and gold, with five-pointed stars and one six-pointed Star of David drawing from the synagogue’s primary design. The result is gauzy, with a sort of halo effect. Gans told the Forward newspaper that she had the “imagery of veils” in mind while generating the work.
I finished the tour staring at the east window, from the women’s balcony. Women and men in Orthodox synagogues pray separated by either a balcony or a screen. This balcony in particular offers a good view of any men praying below (perfect for young women scoping out marriage prospects, said the docent) and an even better view of the east window.
We do not know what the young women might have thought of the 1887 original east window, in a traditional rose pattern. No photographs of it survive. But our docent said that visitors react strongly to the new window, one way or another. I could not make up my mind. The whimsical quality of the window reflects a specific, contemporary moment in design history and I wonder whether future generations with think that this fits the eclecticism of the synagogue’s architecture or clashes with its grandeur.
The Museum at Eldridge Street eventually plans to incorporate more contemporary and modern art in the vein of the east window, though on a temporary rather than permanent basis. According to Deputy Director Amy Stein Milford, in an email, these works will “include temporary installations created specifically for our landmark site and that address themes that are resonant at our site like memory, architecture, [and] heritage, as well as the possibility of mini exhibitions of artists’ works on themes of Jewish/Lower East Side significance.”
Art is just one component of the museum’s successful effort to survive and stay fresh. A multimedia center offers interactive displays titled “Beyond the Façade,” “From Ellis to Eldridge,” and “Ways We Worship” interspersed with original street signs, ritual objects, and congregational documents. A gift shop sells a trendy “Schleppen” (schlepping – lugging around) tote bag, tchotckes, and graphic novels themed on a column from the Forward newspaper.
But if you missed the museum’s Passover products and programs, not to worry. In May, two renowned klezmer (Ashkenazi folk) violinists will perform and an after-hours tour will offer cocktails and socializing. More information can be found at http://www.eldridgestreet.org/events/.
This site is alive and well. Just as the east window crystallizes light in the sanctuary, the Museum at Eldridge Street crystallizes Jewish history in New York. It’s worth the trip downtown. Take the B or D to Grand Street and walk a few blocks through Chinatown.
– ABK for MOBIA