Our Man in New York: Eldridge Street Synagogue a monument to faith and immigration

The balcony has the best view of the rose window, created by Kiki Smith. (Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO)

The balcony has the best view of the rose window, created by Kiki Smith. (Photo: Peter Aaron/OTTO)

Strolling past Fang Fang Bakery, KK Delicious Dumpling Shop and the Buddhist Association in New York’s Lower East Side Chinatown, you come upon a stone building with four rickety steps leading down to a little door and an unimpressive basement. Inside this room are a few pictures, a gift shop, some tables and chairs, and a ramp leading to a barely lit synagogue.

Ascend another rickety staircase and get ready to be hit by the sight of one of downtown Manhattan’s most awe-inspiring architectural marvels, a mixture of the Gothic, Moorish, Romanesque, ancient Jewish and secretly Catholic.

Facing east is a 60-foot monumental stained-glass window with what looks like a million cracks on a robin-egg blue background. On its 70-foot-high turquoise-blue ceiling are a thousand stars. The walls are covered with symbols, the oak frames are carved magnificently and the chandelier has a thousand light bulbs. One hundred and fifty years ago, those bulbs were a thousand candles.

The so-called Eldridge Street Synagogue is no longer used for services. (That is reserved for the little synagogue downstairs.) But this building was a glorious monument to a period of migration that was never equaled.

Jews from Germany had been in America since George Washington’s day, making their way into finance, business, philanthropy and (they hoped) high society. From the 1880s to the 1920s, these Americanized Jews were astonished—and unhappy—to see boatloads of poor Jews, covered with shawls, speaking only Yiddish and barely able to stammer out their Russian names, pouring into the Ellis Island Immigration Centre.

These Central European Jews would revolutionize American art: the Marx Brothers, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, the creators of burlesque, vaudeville and ultimately the movies. But in the meantime, they scraped together a living with markets, little shops and manufacturing.

They prayed not in synagogues, but in the basements of their tenement houses. Their religious figures had questionable degrees (my illiterate grandfather had a job blessing kosher animals), but with a degree of ardour.

In 1887, those who had begun to climb the ladder of success decided they needed their own synagogue, a place that could rival the “German-Jewish” Temple Emanuel in the middle of New York.

Funds did not come from the “uptown Jews,” as singer Billy Joel might have called the group. Instead, it came from poor and rich Jews downtown, those who built the official Kahal Adath Jeshurun Synagogue. They took out a $50,000 loan (paid in full in 1944) and hired some of the greatest Talmudists and cantors. As a community, during the synagogue’s halcyon days, they considered themselves the true representatives of the Orthodox Jewish tradition.

Who were the original architects? Not Jews, but Catholics who took temples in Europe as their models, (perhaps secretly adding the three-pointed designs on the ends of the pews symbolizing the Holy Trinity). The stained-glass windows were created here, the Torah probably brought from Europe. The walls were painted with that oh-so-Victorian anti-minimalist notion that no space should be left unfilled.

But the Jewish tradition of gender separation was (to coin a phrase) religiously adhered to. The balcony was built with a “pierced curtain” to “seclude Hebrew femininity from the disturbing gaze of the masculinity.”

The balcony has the best view of the rose window, created by famed artist Kiki Smith, which was once the glory of the Lower East Side immigrants

That glory was fading after the 1930s. Successful Jews moved uptown or to Hollywood. Simultaneously, the tasty Romanian-Jewish restaurants turned into Cantonese dumpling shops. Kosher butcher shops and noisy street markets became lithographic souvenirs for the few tourists, not reality.

In the 1980s, the building on 12 Eldridge St. was dilapidated. Rain poured through the disused roof. The wall paintings were blurred. Parishioners held their services in the small temple in the basement, where they still hold services and which is still the only area devoted to religion.

Until the 1980s, not much attention was paid to this building. The area became almost totally Cantonese Chinese, and the alleged synagogue was just one more building ready for the wrecking ball.

Still, some people retained the vision of history. Charitable foundations raised $18 million to restore the synagogue. The goal was to remain faithful to the original, and one certainly can imagine those days before the First World War, when every pew was filled, when visiting rabbis spoke in Yiddish, when cantors sung the age-old chants.

Today, because of its designation as a national historical landmark, it cannot be called a synagogue. It is a “museum,” welcoming a few hundred people each day for hourly, informal tours.

The grandeur is overwhelming, the little alcoves and corners with their artistic treasures grist for the curious. And when you descend those rickety stairs, take a look where few visitors go, to that tiny little room where, each Friday night, a few dozen people attend services. In more than 120 years, not a single service has been missed.

Says the museum’s founder, Roberta Brandes Gratz: “It is as if the synagogue has been held up by strings from heaven.”

Eldridge Street Synagogue

12 Eldridge Street, 10032. Take Subways to East Broadway or Grand Street stop. (But much better to walk south from Houston Street, to get the flavor or Eldridge Street, even sample some Chinese food). Tel: 212-219-0302

Tickets: Adults: $10, Students/Seniors $8.00 for hourly tours by volunteers

Open Sunday through Thursday: 10am-5pm. Friday: 10am-3pm. Closed Saturdays.

Concerts, lectures, festival etc etc offered through the year,including an “Egg Roll and Egg Cream” party for the Chinese neighbourhood.

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