Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum : Explore the NYC Landmark


“I am giving you the stars of the heaven and the stars of the American Flag” . The idea behind Kiki Smith’s revolutionary design of the stained glass window was to display the bond between Judaism and Americanism in the current period of time in an otherwise orthodox synagogue which today attracts many visitors from all over . The inside of the yesteryear’s Synagogue is an example of historic , aesthetic and emotional story. A landmark which can easily be missed from the outside if you are unaware that it exists somewhere in China Town. Let me guide you it exists few blocks on the left of the start of Manhattan Bridge.

The tour is listed on Visit.org and the fraternity of Eldridge Street Museum were kind enough to tag everyone on the tour to an informed docent.

The docent who took me through the tour

Our tour started with why the Synagogue was build and then we were told on why it holds significance to the story of grandeur of the aesthetic of the building and what makes it special! There is also an exhibit on the lower ground floor , there are classes, and they also showcase you a small video on the history and restoration project of the Eldridge Street Museum.

The Story of Jews and Synagogue in New York

In my previous post, we have talked about immigrants who came to New York and sold Jewish comfort food on the lower east side. We also tasted some very yummy Jewish comfort foods. This time we go more in depth on who are the Jews based out of New York.To read more about about USA through my blogposts, click here

So basically, New York has majorly Jews who immigrated from three different locations:

a)Spain and Portugal: Also known as Sephardi Jews who speaks Spanish or Latino are Jews who came here from the struggle they faced at inquisition in Spain and Portugal. The Catholic church in Spain and Portugal decided that they had to get rid of the Jews and the Muslims and they were given a choice. A choice that was either they convert or they get out and if someone pretended to have converted but remained Jews and Muslims they were burnt. It wasn’t a good period of history and they moved from Spain to Brazil and then came to USA. They were the first Jews in the 16th century. They have their Synagogue in the upstate Manhattan.

b)Germany: The German Jews came in the 90’s century where there was a lot of revolution going on. In that revolution lost and in a revolution when you lose you get out of the country. So they came to US and they came as Germans not Jews. They speak German. They also have their Synagogue in the upstate Manhattan.

c)Russia: The last group came from Russia were the poorest and the largest. Between 1870’s and 1914, 2.5 million Jews left the Russian empire and came to New York and why? Because back in their home they were having a pogrom that is a government sponsored violence against specific people. In Russia it was against Jews. They were obliged to live in scary and terrible circumstance. They were killed , raped and attacked. And so they moved to US. They speak Yiddish. Yiddish is a combination of German and Hebrew.

The Story Behind Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum

The construction of Eldridge Street Synagogue was more of an emotional expression of freedom than just the structure. In honor of making it to the US, the Russian Jews wanted to build the most magnificent synagogue and so this is the art of that kind of history and design. This is also the major synagogue of eastern Europe. Downstairs we had a a chapel in a church where the congregation met, today we have classes. The main area of the Eldridge Street Museum is in two floors. There is an arch in front, the arch was handcrafted in Italy and that’s where Torah was kept. Torah is a scroll - that has first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and it is very sacred so one has to keep it closed in a closet. Since there is no Torah here, the doors are open. The arch was always being on the wall facing Jerusalem - here it is eastern wall - someplace else it could be western wall - it always has to face Jerusalem.

The flat table where you keep the scrolls are all handcrafted in US. The stained glass comes from the local area. The magnificent stained glass comes from Vienna. In 1887, the gas Jets will also flicker. So people who came from Tenements in the are where everything was dark and horrible would see the lights flickering around. And not everyone was a member who came here some people were businessmen who lived in their houses. But they had to live in the walking distance because it was an orthodox Synagogue. No one till now knows who is the artist there are no written plans on artifact. The Skylight is 73 feet high. The women and men would sit separately. The women would sit upstairs. There also was a cantor sometimes - the person who sings and chants prayer. Not every synagogue can afford or need a cantor. But if one can afford one, everyone is happy. The Cantor would sing on the podium.

The condition of the Jews that time was so poor, that they collected money and the Synagogue was build on mortgage. You have to get in the minds of these people who had escaped the wrongs and wanted to build the Synagogue as an expression to freedom. They couldn’t do it in Russia.

So everything on the Synagogue even though was made to look grand was never with marble or gold - because they could never afford it. The decline of the building started in 1930’s when the economic depression had hit, and the men were not working and the business people could not afford to maintain nor care for. It got worse when men went to Army and Navy in the world war II. And got worse when the GI bill was passed and men and women left the neighborhood. So Italians moved out, germans moved out and a lot of 1st and 2nd generation Jews moved out.

This building is today primarily used as a museum - it is no longer used as a synagogue. The neighborhood has changed in several years - we used to have until 10 years ago- we don’t have orthodox people living in the area anymore and this is an orthodox synagogue - it will always be a museum - whether it will be a Synagogue again or not it is difficult to say.

The Restoration and The Kiki Glass

So there is a section of a wall where you see how big the damage was done over the years, had it not being restored it would have had been a beautiful Synagogue yet not an eye appealing one probably. The building had almost collapsed in the 1970’s when the rain had come in. In 1949, the congregation moved downstairs because they couldn’t afford to keep the space open from 1949-1979. Imagine the condition this would have had been. Every penny from private contributions were used for restoration. Finally in 2009 the restoration was complete.

So during the restoration period, the center glass was removed and instead replaced with the modern blend of cultures to signify the change by Kiki Smith, an artist. She worked with an engineer on it and the beauty of the glass is there is no lead between each piece of glass which traditionally is done. This one was by putting the glass on the layer of resin and baking during which the glass melts and is heated. It fuses when dry and that’s how you get big panes without any lead between. The colors and stars are different and the whole idea was to create a movement of swirl.

What attracted me towards the museum was the unusual stained Kiki glass, in fact it was initially the primary reason why I had gone there to begin with, but I never knew, there is no much history that envelopes the place that makes it so worthwhile a visit. Amy Stein, the deputy director of Eldridge Street Museum tells us a little bit more about Eldridge Street Museum here + I take you to the tour of museum here on my short vlog:

Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival

On Sunday , June 18 2017, from 12pm - 4pm is an open to all Egg Creams and Empanadas Festival, that would have the landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue as its centerpiece and would have Jewish, Chinese, Puerto Ricon Tastes, traditions, sights and sounds. They would have folk music, opera performances, calligraphers, mask and lace making, food demos, art and craft and egg roll, egg creams and empanadas. So come one and come all!

Not taking much of your time, let's go through a quick photo essay:

On sunny days, some times rays come through stained glass window from the right, and I have heard that is beautiful.

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