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New York City’s magnificent Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1887 in response to the great wave of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution in eastern Europe. Finding their way to the Lower East Side, the new arrivals formed a vibrant Jewish community that flourished from the 1850s until the 1940s. Their synagogue served not only as a place of worship but also as a singularly important center in the development of American Judaism.
A near ruin in the 1980s that was recently reopened after a massive twenty-year restoration, the Eldridge Street Synagogue has been named a National Historic Landmark. But as Bill Moyers tells us in his foreword, the synagogue is also “a landmark of the spirit, . . . the spirit of a new nation committed to the old idea of liberty.”
Annie Polland uses elements of the building’s architecture—the façade, the benches, the grooves worn into the sanctuary floor—as points of departure to discuss themes, people, and trends at various moments in the synagogue’s history, particularly during its heyday from 1887 until the 1930s. Exploring the synagogue’s rich archives, the author shines new light on the religious life of immigrant Jews, introduces various rabbis, cantors and congregants, and analyzes the significance of this special building in the context of the larger American-Jewish experience.
For more information, go to: www.EldridgeStreet.org
THE WESTERN SIDE OF Eldridge Street is home to a dizzying array of activities. Workers unload vegetable crates, merchants buy restaurant supplies, residents and tourists visit Chinese bakeries and noodle shops, and Buddhist priests offer sidewalk feasts to the gods. So vibrant is the mix of commerce, social activity, and religion that movie and television crews in search of a New York Chinatown scene often set up their cameras here to capture it on film. But their shots tend to omit the eastern side of the street, for there, in the center of the block, stands a synagogue. Its cream-colored brick, its Moorish finials, and its Star of David ornamentation catch the eye. What is a synagogue doing in the heart of Chinatown?
When it opened in September 1887, in what was the heart of the Jewish Lower East Side, the Eldridge Street Synagogue surprised spectators then, too. New York's east European Jewish population, made up of peddlers and tailors and their families, had worshipped in small, nondescript storefronts, partitioned tenement halls, and churches converted into synagogues. Although they eventually built dozens of synagogues, as well as notable, even palatial secularspaces-banks, newspaper headquarters, and theaters-in 1887 nothing in the neighborhood's architecture announced the Jewish presence as strikingly as the Eldridge Street Synagogue did. Opening just in time for the Jewish High Holidays, the synagogue permanently altered the streetscape and skyline of the Lower East Side, attracting not only downtown and uptown Jews but also reporters from New York City's leading papers, one of whom heralded the "elegant" and "magnificent" synagogue as "one of the finest Hebrew places of worship in the city."
For the tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants already settled on the Lower East Side, as for the hundreds of thousands who would arrive in the coming decades, New York's first great east European synagogue expressed the hope that the immigrants' religion and culture would flourish on American soil. For forty years after the synagogue's dedication, it was sustained by "lawyers, merchants, artisans, clerks, peddlers and laborers" who gathered to celebrate holidays, mark life-cycle events, and debate communal issues. Cantorial concerts and Sabbath sermons drew crowds; daily study sessions attracted a core constituency. When longtime members moved uptown at the turn of the twentieth century, new immigrants replenished the congregation. But by the 1920s the population, as economically and geographically mobile as earlier immigrants, had dispersed far beyond the Lower East Side, and immigration quotas stemmed the tide of arrivals. Still, the members who remained, many of whom operated small neighborhood businesses, kept the congregation going. By the 1950s a depleted but stalwart congregation could no longer afford the repairs needed to maintain the building, or even to heat its sanctuary, and met instead in the street-level chapel.
In the 1970s and 1980s the congregation still prayed in the street-level chapel, but the building itself was in grave disrepair, its cracked foundations, leaky roof, and unsound structure "held up only by strings to heaven." In 1971, New York University professor Gerard Wolfe persuaded Benjamin Markowitz, the sexton, to show him the sealed-off sanctuary. Although pigeons roosted in the balcony, grime covered the stained-glass windows and painted surfaces, and dust blanketed the wooden surfaces, Wolfe was amazed by its beauty, and together both Wolfe and Markowitz began to lead visitors on tours of the sanctuary. Hoping to preserve and ultimately restore the building, the journalist and preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz and the attorney William Josephson incorporated the not-for-profit nonsectarian Eldridge Street Project (now renamed the Museum at Eldridge Street) in 1986, which mounted the largest independent restoration in New York City not supported by or attached to an institution or government agency. When raising funds and organizing the restoration fostered recognition of the site's potential as an educational and cultural space, the project sought and secured National Historic Landmark status and introduced tours and programs that brought tens of thousands of visitors to the synagogue.
In 2007 the Eldridge Street Synagogue became once again the magnificent edifice that had greeted throngs of worshippers 120 years earlier. From Eldridge Street, visitors can survey the same cream facade that immigrants beheld on opening day; inside, they can marvel at the fifty-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, the richly hued stained-glass windows, and the majestic carved-walnut ark, still lined with its original crimson velvet. This restored synagogue is one of the last remaining-and arguably the best-preserved-edifices built by the east European immigrants who made the Lower East Side the world's largest Jewish city around 1900. Its history is perpetuated today in two separate but complementary ways. On the Sabbath and holidays, congregation members, who have, across the generations, never missed a Sabbath service, worship in the Orthodox tradition of their grandparents and great-grandparents. On Sundays and weekdays, the Museum at Eldridge Street explores the context of their worship, explaining to visitors of diverse ages and backgrounds how the immigrant founders and their children lived, worked, and prayed on the Lower East Side.
The museum's tours treat the synagogue as a historical artifact. Its architectural elements-the facade, reader's platform, even the lighting fixtures-prompt discourses on the shared history of the congregation and the Lower East Side. The architectural elements work well as prompts because the restorers, with meticulous sensitivity, retained elements and finishes that show the passage of time. The undulations left on the sanctuary's pine floors, formed by worshippers' feet rocking back and forth, are perhaps the most striking reminders of the past. A ring of light bulbs encircling the ark's Ten Commandments was added in 1907, when the congregation installed electricity to attract congregants as some established members moved uptown and new neighborhood synagogues drew others away. On the northern balcony wall, a section of plaster and lathwork interrupts the stenciling and shows where water damage stripped away layers of decorative paint, plaster, and wood during the half-century when both the congregation's membership and the Lower East Side's Jewish population declined. As beautiful as the building is, its real power lies in its ability to convey the history of the immigrants and the challenges they faced in adapting to a new land.
The congregation, Kahal Adath Jeshurun, lay the synagogue's cornerstone in 1886 and celebrated its final mortgage payment in 1945. In retrospect, we can link the congregation's history to the growth and decline of the Lower East Side's Jewish population, but from the congregation's perspective on opening day, the synagogue was an experiment, and the course was debated every step of the way. Pioneer presidents, enterprising women congregants, star-quality cantors, and gifted orators grappled with the challenges of creating a viable Orthodox congregation in a city and country that both encouraged and threatened traditional customs. The story of the congregation's efforts to create and maintain a sacred space in what east European rabbis termed a treyfene medine, or impure land, becomes a case study of the opportunities and obstacles facing immigrant groups carving out a space-physical, mental, and spiritual-for religious life in America.
East European Jewish immigrants came to America in search of economic opportunities and political and religious freedom. Throughout eastern Europe-Russia, Austria-Hungary, Romania-industrialization had brought extreme economic dislocation as struggling merchants and artisans found their production of services and goods far outpaced by Western output. The economic shift was compounded by overpopulation in Jewish communities, spurring migration to large cities throughout Europe and America. In Russia, outbreaks of pogroms in the aftermath of Tsar Alexander II's assassination in 1881 and the ensuing restrictions on Jewish educational, residential, and occupational options further encouraged Jews, especially the young, to seek a better life in America. Between 1880 and 1924, two and a half million east European Jews came to the United States. Close to 85 percent of them came to New York City, and approximately 75 percent of those settled initially on the Lower East Side, which by 1890 "bristled with Jews." There they found homes in tenements and work in the mushrooming garment factories and the pushcart-laden streets.
Although, in theory, freedom of religion and separation of church and state encouraged religious life in their new country, American law and culture provided no formal support for rabbinical authority, which made religious officials reluctant to emigrate to the United States and immigrants already there less inclined to accept rabbinical authority. The United States, and New York City specifically, presented immigrants with an astounding array of educational and occupational options, which often challenged the practices of Orthodox Judaism. A six-day workweek that included Saturday and, through blue laws, restricted Sunday commerce offered many immigrants little choice but to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Retaining a steady and solvent membership where religious participation was voluntary, congregations were in competition, and traditional Sabbath observances posed an ongoing challenge transformed efforts to establish traditional Jewish congregations into experiments.
The Eldridge Street congregation grew in part because its institutional roots extended back to 1852, providing its members with more than thirty years of experience in their adopted city. In 1886, President Sender Jarmulowsky headed a group of leaders who moved the congregation from a converted church on Allen Street into a brand-new synagogue. The idea for a synagogue had been translated into a reality in fewer than eighteen months, but the skills and contacts the synagogue leaders drew on to steer the process had been cultivated in their years as American bankers, plate-glass dealers, kosher sausage manufacturers, and real estate investors. The congregation held annual elections and crafted a "constitution," fitting the rules for worship, study, communal service, and synagogue leadership into their new country's "bylaws," "articles," and "amendments." In another nod to American social and economic trends, this congregation-which limited its membership to Sabbath observers-had no qualms about selling special High Holiday tickets to Lower East Side residents who were not synagogue members (and therefore most likely worked on the Sabbath). An acute understanding of American economic, social, and cultural trends and a skillful integration of up-to-date ideas into the management of the congregation produced a synagogue that attracted Jews from all over eastern Europe, with a range of economic and occupational statuses and religious sensibilities.
The primary goal of the Eldridge Street Synagogue's congregation was upholding Jewish law. Some worshippers came twice a day, some came weekly, and others came once a year. The congregation hired rabbis to lead study sessions, developed and maintained an impressive library of Jewish commentary, supported permanent rabbis and rabbinical travel and studies, and sponsored neighborhood yeshivas, or academies of Talmudic learning. Congregants and guests celebrated Jewish holidays and organized weddings and bar mitzvahs. In times of mourning, the congregation's khevre kedishe, or burial society, performed one of the most valued of the Jewish commandments, preparing the deceased for burial, ensuring that the deceased's family had enough people to meet prayer quorums, and offering comfort as the family mourned. Each year the congregation donated thousands of pounds of matzos, kosher meat, and wine to those in need of Passover provisions, and each week the Ladies' Auxiliary sponsored meals for the homeless. By depositing a coin in a six-slotted charity box, worshippers could link themselves to the broader Jewish community, for the donations supported Lower East Side charitable institutions and settlements in Palestine.
Despite the many visible successes, the synagogue was the target of scathing criticism from the start. Its beauty led some contemporary observers to bemoan the amounts of money lavished on a physical structure in the absence of needed educational services. The tremendous expense apportioned to secure a cantor, albeit an extremely learned one, struck some as scandalous when compared to the paltry incomes eked out by learned rabbis and scholars. In other corners, socialists took the religious leaders to task for engaging in "business Judaism" and shirking the greater responsibility of addressing the problems besieging the Jewish immigrant workforce.
At first glance, the contemporary critics may seem to have been right: the Eldridge Street Synagogue was neither a great center of formal learning nor an outright champion of the workers' struggle. The minutes of the congregation show that the leaders devoted more time and money to repairing chandeliers and painting ceilings than to establishing a Hebrew school. Contracts that explicitly forbade hired preachers from addressing political matters before the congregation suggest that the congregational leadership did not care to dive into the political, social, and economic currents swirling around the Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century.
Whatever the leadership planned, the congregation-and the immigrant community of the Lower East Side as a whole-made use of the sanctuary not merely as a space for worship but also as a venue in which to support communal institutions and debate social issues. People came to Eldridge Street to pray, certainly, but also to learn about issues and tensions within the Jewish community with respect to Orthodox Judaism and, more broadly, immigrants' social and economic adaptation to New York City. The synagogue was a vital community center, not a refuge from America but a place where people could wrestle with the challenges that America posed, a place where religious and economic life intertwined. Efforts toward maintaining Orthodox Judaism at the turn of the twentieth century necessarily involved fundraising: money to form Jewish charitable associations, money to establish schools, money to build Jewish hospitals. This need was met by those who had adapted to, and succeeded in, the American business environment. Immigrants' religious adaptation also has to be understood in the context of an economic environment that more or less necessitated Saturday work. The Eldridge Street Synagogue's leaders sensed this relationship and accordingly supported the Sabbath Association, an organization that worked to repeal blue laws in Albany, and supported storekeepers who kept their shops closed on the Jewish Sabbath.
This awareness of and effort to address the modern world's challenges to Orthodox Judaism spurred the Eldridge Street Synagogue's leaders to improve Orthodox Jewish life for its members and the Jewish community at large. They partnered with Beth Hamedrash Hagadol to spearhead a union of congregations, the Association of American Hebrew Orthodox Congregations, and sounded a call to action: "We find that our religion is neglected and our Law held in light esteem. ... Is it not our duty to prevent our children and grandchildren from straying?" In early 1888 the association gathered at the Eldridge Street Synagogue to collect subscriptions for the effort to import Rabbi Jacob Joseph to New York. Although this initial venture proved unsuccessful, the congregation engaged in numerous other attempts to solidify east European Orthodoxy in the United States, including the establishment of the successful Orthodox Union in 1898. The union convened at the synagogue, and several of the synagogue's leaders held office in it.
Excerpted from LANDMARK OF THE SPIRIT by Annie Polland Copyright © 2009 by Annie Polland. Excerpted by permission.
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Foreword Bill Moyers Moyers, Bill
Ch. 1 A Landmark Synagogue 1
Ch. 2 Laying the Cornerstone 15
Ch. 3 Opening Day 32
Ch. 4 Music and Money 49
Ch. 5 E Pluribus Unum 64
Ch. 6 Patriarchs and Matriarchs 90
Ch. 7 The Burning of the Mortgage 114
Selected Bibliography 151