It might not be impossible to walk into the Museum at Eldridge Street and not gasp and then gush, but it’s hard to imagine the person hardhearted enough not to be awestruck by it.
It’s a synagogue, built in 1887 and renovated since then, of a scale and grandeur that both its surroundings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and its modest exterior leave a visitor entirely unprepared to expect. It’s a living institution, now a museum, with a range of classes and other offerings, but it also houses a small Orthodox congregation that traces its roots all the way back to its founding. Its vitality is breathtaking. As is its beauty.
It’s also a testament to Jewish history, to the ways that American Jews held onto their traditions and also grew outward into the new world, which both rejected and welcomed them, both attracted and repulsed them.
When the building was constructed, the wave of eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States already was underway but still fairly new — it began around 1880. Those Jews made minyanim for themselves in shtiebels — little storefront or tenement spaces. Most of the shtiebels were organized by the eastern European towns its members had left; unlike them, and in what could be seen as a sign of shifting allegiance from eastern Europe to New York, Eldridge Street attracted local Jews from all over.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was nothing at all like those shtiebels. Instead, it was “the first great house of worship built by eastern European Jews,” the museum’s deputy director, Amy Stein-Milford, said. “The architecture shows their aspirations — they were proud to be Americans, and also proud to be Jews.” There is a Jewish star prominently engraved in the building’s façade.
It was built by two brothers, Peter and Francis Herter, Roman Catholics whose other works were tenement buildings. This was their only synagogue. The building is in the Moorish style that was popular at the time; despite its Sephardic allusions, the congregation it housed was overwhelmingly Ashkenazic.
The building was expensive to construct and maintain. Although the community to which it was home was large, most of that money came from a few families who had struck it rich quickly. Sender Jarmulowsky, a Russian who was orphaned when he was 3 years old, was universally acknowledged as brilliant and expected to become a great talmudic scholar. Instead — and after marrying well above himself — he took his family to New York just before the great wave of immigration started. Already well established as a savvy businessman, he opened a bank whose tellers spoke Yiddish and Russian, and he did extraordinarily well.
He also remained an observant Jew.
He donated much of the money to build Eldridge Street, and became its first president. Later, he moved uptown and started shuls there as well, including the one that later became Park East Synagogue; he also built a great edifice for another bank that was nothing less than a Temple of Commerce. (After he died, a run on his bank caused it to crash, but that is another and far sadder story.)
Isaac Gellis, the so-called “kosher sausage king,” whose brand flourished for years and vanished only recently, was another large donor to the shul at Eldridge Street.
The Lower East Side was one of the first places where eastern European Jewish immigrants lived; at one point, it was the most densely populated area in the United States, Ms. Stein-Milford said. But most of the Jews moved on, as soon as they could, first to the outer boroughs and then to the suburbs. “Buildings tell stories,” Ms. Stein-Milford said. “It’s about Jewish arrival, encounters with the United States, and later about decline.”
And then rebirth.
There are signs of rebirth everywhere. In the conference room, there are Tanachs on the big wooden table. They’re for a class that begins with parashat hashavuah — the weekly Torah portion — and ranges to wherever the ideas and the discussion takes it. It’s taught by Dr. Regina Stein, the museum’s scholar in residence, and it’s been held weekly for the last few years, drawing a fervent core of students.
Those students are adults, but the synagogue generally is filled with children, elementary and middle and high school students from local and farther-away schools. Children — many of them not Jewish — learn about Jewish culture and Jewish holidays. Adults, including scholars, come to learn about architecture and historic preservation.
“One second-grader came, and she looked around, and she pulled on my skirt, and she said, ‘Can I be Jewish?’” the museum’s executive director, Bonnie Dimun, said.
When you enter the building through the museum entrance, you climb down a small flight of steps and find yourself on the bottom level. It’s got a lovely small sanctuary with dark woodwork and a copper ceiling. It’s charming; it also looks like many other small sanctuaries from that period, although it’s probably better maintained than most.
And then you go upstairs, and that’s when your jaw hits the floor.
The sanctuary is huge, and that’s surprising. Because the building is fairly narrow, the view from the street is deceptive. There is no clue about how far back it goes, how immense the space it contains.
It’s all dark wood and a glorious blue-painted ceiling, with stars all over, and windows on the sides, and a stunning rose window in the back, and an intricately carved reader’s table in the center, and a high bimah with a beautiful ark, and amazing lighting fixtures, and arches and balconies that frame the space and make it even more wondrous.
And then there is the huge window in the front.
That window — made by the stained glass artist Kiki Smith, who is not Jewish, and the architect Deborah Gans — is just a few years old. The original window is long gone, and there is no record of what it looked like. For many years, the hole in which it stood was bricked off, and then it was replaced by a flame-like installation of glass bricks, which was beautiful, according to the photographs. But it too fell into disrepair and had to be fixed.
Although there was some sentiment in favor of repairing the window, Ms. Stein-Milford and Ms. Dimun said, the board decided to commission a new one.
The window is blue, with gold at its center — maybe the sun, maybe pulsing energy, maybe God’s presence in a glowing cloud, maybe all those things. It is filled with stars. There is a six-pointed Jewish star at the very top, in the middle of the gold, and then there are stars in the changing blue that surrounds the gold. Echoing the stars on the ceiling, those stars are five rather than six-pointed. In that one window, Jewishness and Americanness are combined, and together they leave a viewer slack-jawed and breathless.
Back downstairs — breathing once more — a visitor can see both the permanent and the temporary exhibit. Both are small, and both are emotionally powerful. The permanent one traces the paths immigrants took to the Lower East Side; it uses clever interactive devices to draw viewers in.
The temporary one, postcards of synagogues of eastern Europe, is fascinating and devastating. They are reproductions from the collection of Frantisek Bányai, a Prague-born Jew, the son of Holocaust survivors, who has devoted himself to those artifacts. Most of the synagogues in the postcards were destroyed. Many of them were beautiful, all of them were loved.
There is some irony, of course, that the pictures of these doomed shuls are on display in a revitalized one. The situation’s not at all parallel, but the sense of life in Eldridge Street is unmistakable.
Overall, it is a monument to American Jewish life, to its cycles, determination, history, sense of esthetics, sense of community — and to its future.
Visit the Museum at Eldridge Street
The Museum at Eldridge Street, at 12 Eldridge Street in Manhattan, offers a full calendar of classes, talks, walks, workshops, concerts, and other events. The postcard exhibit will be up through June 8. On Thursday, April 6, at 7 p.m., Amy Stein-Milford will give an after-hours tour of the exhibit, complete with a wine reception. The Sunday before — April 2 — at 2 p.m., the museum offers a pre-Pesach walking tour of the Jewish Lower East Side. Food, of course, will be part of the walk.
For information about these or any other events, go to www.eldridgestreet.org or call (212) 219-0302.