Archive for the 'Eldridge' Category

May 09 2012

The Catskills – A Jewish Vacation Destination

Our last couple posts have explored Jewish Heritage Sites here on the Lower East Side: our Eldridge St. Synagogue, Seward Park and Stieblach Row.

But now, let’s escape the chaos and clamor of the city and take a trip back to another locale at the center of the Jewish-American experience: a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains!

Fresh air, wide open spaces and, of course, enough embarrassing family photos to last a lifetime! A trip to the Catskills offered this and so much more to city-dwellers needing an escape. The mid-20th century was the heyday of the Catskills as a premier vacation destination for New York Jews. Filled with resorts that catered to individuals of all ages, memories of lounging by the pool, leisurely afternoon walks and a delicious kosher lunch at The Concord are all staples of the resort region.

The Catskills

But how, you ask, did the Catskills come to be such a popular destination for the Jewish community?
There is no simple answer, but let’s look at a few key factors. With the post-World War II economic boom, the concept of “going on vacation” became a feasible reality for many American families. Yet, at the time, the Jewish community was still facing social discrimination. Restrictions based on ethnicity barred Jews from many mainstream country clubs and resorts. Still hungry for the opportunity to escape the city, Jewish owned establishments began to pop up in the Catskills at the beginning of the 20th century. Grossinger’s, one of the most famous, became so popular that by time it closed in ‘86, it had its own airstrip and post office!

Like the Museum at Eldridge Street, Jewish resorts in the Catskills represent an intersection between being Jewish and being American. As sociologist Phil Brown states, “ In ‘the mountains,’ Jews of Eastern European descent could have a proper vacation and become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewish culture. They imported their music, humor, vaudeville revue style, cuisine, language, and world views. These vacation spots were not merely resorts – they were miniature societies shaped by the vacationers’ urban culture.” – Take My Memories, Please: Keeping the Catskills Alive

So, what better way to remember the ambiance of a New York summer in the country than by joining us here at the Museum at Eldridge Street on May 16 for our very own Evening at the Catskills! Show off (or brush up on) your Simon Says technique. Indulge in a creamsicle while trying your hand at a game of canasta. Or enjoy the sweet sounds of pianist Steve Sterner and Shane Baker’s vaudevillian theatrics while you wait in anticipation for the caller to pull B9, the only number keeping you from a BINGO! And who knows, maybe you’ll even meet your own Johnny Castle and truly have the Time of Your Life.

To learn more about the history of vacationing in the Catskills here are a few useful resources:

The Catskills Institute, Borscht Belt Memories & The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt

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May 02 2012

Shtieblach Row
A Historic Landmark of the Lower East Side

The streets of the Lower East Side are filled with religious spaces of all shapes and sizes: churches, Buddhist temples and synagogues, to mention a few. Even within a Judaic context, houses of worship vary greatly. The Eldridge Street Synagogue, boasting an ornate stucco façade displaying Stars of David, is a recognizably Jewish space. But, not all synagogues in the area are as easily distinguishable.

Stieblach Row- Between Clinton and Washington on East Broadway, just a 10-minute walk from the Museum at Eldridge Street

I invite you to travel back in time to the turn of the 20th- century, when the streets of the Lower East Side were filled with new immigrants arriving daily from Eastern Europe. A lack of space and a desire to worship with individuals from one’s own community led to the popularity of shtieblach, or storefront synagogues. Some were as cramped as a single room, having space for only a small minyan (quorom of 10 required for prayer). Congregations shared buildings with shops, tailors and even secular newspapers and non-kosher eateries! The Lower East Side became the home to over 500 small shtieblach, some of which still stand today.

Equipped with a map outlined by our Deputy Director Amy Stein-Milford, fellow intern Sophie and I ventured to explore Shtieblach Row, home to an entire block of small, storefront synagogues.

Congregation Beth Hachasidim Depolen

To the casual passerby these buildings appear to be standard tenement apartments, but plaques display the name of congregations whose roots trace back to Eastern Europe. While walking, Sophie and I stopped to take a closer look at 239 East Broadway, Congregation Chevras Yeshuas Yaakov Anshe Sfard. The founders emigrated from Austro-Hungary, and the congregation still hosts minyans. They have even made the transition into the age of the internet, and weekly minyan times are posted online. Just a few steps away is the home of Congregation Beth Hachasidim de Polen, which began in 1904 by immigrants coming from Poland.

239 East Broadway - Congregation Chevras Yeshuas Yaakov Anshe Sfard

Here at the Museum at Eldridge Street our roots also trace back to worship in a shtiebel. The congregation, Kahal Adath Jeshurun, began in 1853 and originally worshiped on Allen St., about 25 years before the doors at Eldridge Street were opened! Even today the congregation’s original ark stands in the lower level Bes Medrash (House of Study), a relic of the time before the Eldridge Street Synagogue became of a part of Lower East Side history!

Eldridge Street Trivia:

How much did it cost to move this ark from Allen Street to Eldridge Street in 1887?

We’d love to hear your guesses, and come on a tour of the Museum to learn the answer!

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Mar 06 2012

A Bintel Brief – Interview with artist Liana Finck

On Wednesday, March 21 the Museum will exhibit work from Liana Finck’s graphic novel-in progress based on the Bintel Brief, the beloved Yiddish advice column of The Forverts newspaper. When I first saw Finck’s drawings I was taken with the range of emotions she was able to express with her beautiful drawings and text. Also, I am struck by the continued resonance of this century-old column, which was launched in 1906 by The Forverts editor Abraham Cahan and so poignantly (and, at times, humorously!) captured the condition of the Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side.  The letters continue to speak to readers today. Here Liana Finck shares her thoughts on the project.

Liana Finck with a panel of her Bintel Brief graphic novel at Eldridge Street

Liana Finck with a panel of her Bintel Brief graphic novel at Eldridge Street

What led you to the Bintel Brief?
My Grandma Helen had a copy of the collection of letters edited by Isaac Metzker. I found the book two years ago on a trip home from Belgium, where I was living, and loved it immediately.

What is it about the Bintel Brief that made you want to undertake this project?
The simplicity of the letters moved me. I have very specific taste in narrative: I like books and movies that are simple, full of emotion, and also told with a bit of distance and understatement. I think my taste comes from having loved poetry before I learned to love books or movies or art. The Bintel Brief letters touched me immediately, and this was especially wonderful because art usually seems to me like an escape from the ‘real world,’ specifically, in my case, from New York; from Judaism, from mundane life…these letters felt deeply familiar, but they had the special wildness and strangeness I usually look to art for.

Why the graphic novel and not another medium?
I’m not sure. I never liked to read graphic novels until very recently, and the discipline required to be a graphic novelist is something I’ve had to struggle to teach myself. It’s a slow and arduous medium and I still feel in over my head a lot when I’m working. Still… Here is why I chose to make graphic novels:

A page from Liana Finck's "A Bintel Brief"

A page from Liana Finck's "A Bintel Brief"

When I was a teenager I developed a passion for books, but I’d been drawing obsessively since I was a baby, and I knew that drawing was my natural ‘language,’ much more than written and spoken words. I thought of drawing as a responsibility that I had to hold onto, even if I wanted to become a writer. I never loved graphic novels, but I did relate more than anything to cartoonists and illustrators who seemed to have figured out how to ‘write’ with pictures. Some of my favorites were Maira Kalman, Roz Chast and Saul Steinberg. I decided to be a graphic novelist instead of a cartoonist or illustrator because it’s an exciting time to be a graphic novelist: the medium has suddenly become somewhat popular and very interesting in America. It’s also a relatively unexplored medium: there’s much more room to break ground today as a graphic novelist than as a writer or an artist. This sounds a little crazy but I do believe it. Somewhat, at least. And I deeply enjoy the challenge of using drawing -which comes naturally to me- in a way that does not come naturally.

How do you feel about exhibiting your work at the Eldridge Street Synagogue?
So excited and honored. The building is so beautiful, comforting and also awe-inspiring–such a perfect mixture of art and Jewish history, like the Bintel Brief letters. I feel so calm and glad whenever I go there. It’s also right in the neighborhood where most of the Bintel Brief letters were written – the Lower East Side – and is a stone’s throw from the old Forverts building on East Broadway. The synagogue has felt like the center of the Lower East Side to me since I first went into the sanctuary a few months ago.

Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief opens on March 21 an 7pm and will be on view at the Museum at Eldridge Street through May 31, 2012.

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Jan 27 2012

It’s a Challahxplosion!

There’s always one surefire way to know that the Museum at Eldridge Street is gearing up for a big party – a fridge full of challah!

Join us this Sunday at 1pm for our Tu B’Shevat festival – where we’ll turn these big lumps of dough into delicious challah bread! While you’re at it, enjoy olive tasting, beer tasting and instrument making for the little ones. See you Sunday!

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Aug 08 2011

A Night Out on the Jewish Rialto

A Night Out on the Jewish Rialto, an event on Thursday, August 11th, honors the lively community of Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side. This event is the brainchild of our wonderful summer interns — Alyssa Constad, Leah Horowitz, David Schlenker, and Julia Gerasimenko. Their mission was to create an inspirational and entertaining  program that would hark back to the spirit and atmosphere of  the Jewish Rialto. We would love for you to participate in the historic spirit of the event, especially through our suggested glamorous theater-wear dress code! Here intern Julia Gerasimenko shares the history of the Rialto.

The Jewish Rialto was the Yiddish theater district that ran along Second Avenue from Houston Street all the way north to 14th street. This strip was home to theaters and restaurants, both of which were equally important to the scene. We came across information about this neighborhood while we were researching vaudeville acts on the Lower East Side. We started with the idea to recreate an evening of entertainment that would have been typical for our original congregants, but with a modern spin.

A Night Out will feature live music performed by Eletfa, a Hungarian music group comprised of  gypsy violins. These violins were typical of the parlors where both actors and patrons would nosh and schmooze before and after the theater. The parlors and restaurants would typically serve blintzes, cherry varenyki (dumplings), and other finger food. Sometimes patrons would even bring food over to the performances. We will serve knishes from Yonah Schimmel’s, snacks from Noah’s Ark Deli and Russ & Daughters, and beer from Brooklyn Brewery!

Thanks to one of our favorite blogs, the Bowery Boogie, and the NYPL for the image! Click for the link. Also see here:

At the theater, crowds were loud and performances were often interactive, whether or not they were intended to be. The language of choice was Yiddish. The types of acts varied from operetta, musical comedy, satiric or nostalgic revues; melodrama; expressionist and modernist plays; and of course vaudeville. We will entertain you with selections from the films of Eddie Cantor, a famous vaudeville star who is rumored to have lived on Eldridge Street. We encourage you to re-watch classic favorites to get inspired, such as Funny Girl!

In the Museum’s own  ‘Academic Angles’ journal, we read that the dance halls and the theaters were the two biggest competitors for attention with the synagogue (“Goldene Medine, Treyfene Medine: Judaism Survives Migration to America”, David Soyer). While it may seem slightly ironic that we are hosting this event in the main sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, we pay tribute to the varied cultural activities of our neighborhood.

Between 1890 and 1940 there were over 200 Yiddish theaters or touring troupes in the US. Today there is a small but vital Yiddish theater community working to make its presence known in New York City. The Jewish Rialto specifically, a precious piece of Lower East Side culture, has faded just like the “Sidewalk of the Stars”, a 35-ft long sidewalk with worn down granite plaques  with the names of 58 great Rialto performers carved into them. This Sidewalk is in front of the now defunct Second Ave Delicatessen (on Second Avenue and E 9th St) and was installed in 1985.

Sidewalk of the Stars on the Jewish Rialto

More must be done to celebrate this great period and place in American Jewish culture. So we hope you can join us in celebrating the Jewish Rialto!

Tickets are $15 ($10 if you follow us on Facebook or Twitter). Please RSVP by emailing 8PM – 11PM.

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Mar 15 2011

From the Trenches: Visitor Stories

Roberta and Nancy, our archivist, enjoying our most recent gala

Master Docent Roberta Berken shares:

In my capacity as a docent I am fortunate to meet people from all over the world and the country. Here are some of their stories.

In East London in the l9th century it was the custom for street peddlers to specialize in a particular item. Often the Jewish peddlers would sell fish and the Irish peddlers would sell potatoes, According to one of our visitors from London the Irish and the Jewish peddlers got together and decided to sell fried fish and potatoes together. Thus the origin of fish and chips. Now is this a fish story?? On the Lower East Side in the 1890′s one of our visitors described her great grandfather as a custom peddler. He would question his neighbors as to what they wanted to purchase for their needs. He would do their shopping for them for a fee. Thus the first personal shopper.

In a town in North Carolina there is a very special Torah. A visitor to our sanctuary while standing near the Ark told how her great grandfather fled his shetl with the Torah from the towns’ synagogue. While running from the shetl the soldiers fired on the band of Jews. One of the bullets hit the Torah which her great grandfather was holding saving her great grandfather but leaving a hole that went through the Torah cover and most of the Torah scroll. The Torah saved his life. She said that the Torah is in their synagogue and is used on special occasions.

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Oct 26 2010

Architecture at Eldridge Street

An artisan from Evergreene Studios works on the building

Our building tours offer visitors a peek into the workings of the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, and we’ve been busy adding new themes and tours to our lineup. You can now experience Eldridge through the lens of immigration, ritual practice, or architecture and preservation.

On Beyond the Facade: Architecture and Preservation, we break out the flashlights and turn our visitors  into forensic architects. What were the choices made by the founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue 123 years ago? How did this building, the first synagogue built from the ground up by Eastern European Jews, reflect the aspirations of an immigrant community? What techniques and materials were used in its original construction? Which buildings, religious and secular, inspired the architecture of this space?

But this building is more than just an ossified architectural relic, and on the tour visitors also explore the 20-year, 19 million-dollar restoration of this space. What was the preservation philosophy at Eldridge Street? Where can you find the unrestored elements of the building, and why were they left alone? How does a new contemporary window, designed by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans,  fit into a high Victorian space? And my favorite: which bug produces the laquer used on the benches?

So next time you’re in the neighborhood, make sure to stop by and experience Eldridge as never before. Offered daily at 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30. Whet your appetite for architecture with this restoration video, which offers insight into the process of restoring this century-old building.

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Aug 12 2010

The Shabbos Table

shabbos table
Looking for a tasty treat? In this week’s installment, we have recipes guaranteed to knock your socks off. Consider this fair warning.


Tomato and Zucchini Salad

First up is Jan’s Tomato and Zucchini Salad. If you want to thank her for making your meal healthful and delicious, stop by the Museum on Mondays and take her tour. A former French teacher, Jan has been known to lead tours in French, Spanish and even Italian– a fitting setting for this nice summer salad recipe. She even includes plating directions: what a balabusta!


  • l large tomato, coarsely chopped or diced
  • l small zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 2 T. sliced green onion
  • 1 tsp. snipped fresh basil
  • 2 T. Wishbone Robusto Italian Dressing

In a medium mixing bowl combine tomato, zucchini, green onion, basil, and Italian dressing.  Toss lightly to mix. Line 4 salad plates with leaf lettuce.  Divide tomato mixture between plates.Makes 4 servings.  If you are serving a dairy lunch, you can sprinkle each serving with some shredded mozzarella cheese.

Hanna’s Summer Pot Roast

This recipe is courtesy of Hanna Griff-Sleven, Director of Family History Center & Cultural Programs at the Museum. In addition to planning amazing cultural events and taking oral histories of former worshipers at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Hanna is our resident chef. This recipe is her latest attempt to simplify summer cooking. With just a few ingredients and the most basic of prep work, this pot roast is simply a mikhaye.


  • 3 lbs. pot roast
  • ½ c. olive oil
  • Juice of two lemons
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups of miso soup or beef broth

Brown the meat on all sides in olive oil.  Add the lemon juice and soup/broth, cover and cook on low flame for 2- 2 and a half hours or until meat is tender. Add the lemon zest and cook for 15 more minutes.  Serve hot or cold. Pair with mashed potatoes and a nice green salad.

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Jul 21 2010

(Jewish) Gangs of New York

On our Gangster, Writer, Rabbi walking tour, we explore the lives–and funeral processions–of three iconic Lower East Side figures: writer Sholem Aleichem, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, and East Side gangster Big Jack Zelig. Though Bugsy Siegel and  Meyer Lansky usually come to mind when thinking of Jewish gangsters, Zelig was a true leader of crime in the neighborhood. As Abraham Schoenfeld, detective for the Kehilla, a Jewish communal organization, wrote: “Men before him – like Kid Twist, Monk Eastman, and others – were as pygmies to a giant. With the passing of Zelig, one of the most ‘nerviest’, strongest, and best men of his kind left us.”

Who was Big Jack Zelig? Born Zelig Harry Lefkowitz, Zelig was the leader of a band of Jewish gangsters in New York City in the early 1900s. Early in 1912, the Zelig gang was hired by corrupt New York City Police Lieutenant Charles Becker who ran a protection racket for the New York gangs to kill another Manhattan gangster named Herman (Beansie) Rosenthal whom Becker thought was an informant. Rosenthal was shot to death on a Manhattan Street on July 16,1912 by four of Big Jack’s men. Police Lieut. Becker was arrested and charged with ordering Rosenthal’s murder and put on trial with Zelig scheduled to testify against him. On Oct. 5,1912, the night before the trial was to begin Big Jack Zelig was shot to death while riding on a Second Ave. trolley car in Manhattan. Police Lieut. Becker was convicted of ordering Rosenthal’s murder and sentenced to death. He was executed in Sing-Sing’s electric chair.

Death may be final, but the story doesn’t end there. Find out how Zelig’s funeral polarized the downtown Jewish community, underscoring tensions between American commericalism and Eastern European traditions. The tour is offered Thursdays July 29  and August 19 at 7pm.

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Jul 05 2010

Independence Day

Independent Day - credit Kate MilfordsmallAfter leaving Eastern Europe, the founders of our synagogue forged their lives as Americans on the streets of the Lower East Side. How did they celebrate their newfound heritage? Unfortunately, I’ve found no mention of barbecued borscht or other culinary treats, but a strong sense of pride as Americans certainly took hold in the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s congregation.

As Annie Polland comments in Landmark of the Spirit: The Eldridge Street Synagogue,

Within the walls of the synagogue, immigrants forged an American Jewish identity that blended patriotism to their new country with a sense of responsibility to Jews around the world…In 1889 the congregation decorated the synagogue in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s iunaguruation and, in 1901, held a memorial service for President William McKinley. During World War I, the congregation commisioned and displayed an American flag with stars for each one of the congregation’s sons serving in the war (12.)

This ode to the patriotic boys serving overseas hung from special flagholders, placed in the women’s balcony and embellished with five-pointed American stars. Flying proudly from the magestic facade of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the flag must have seemed like a banner for American pride and identity. Though the flags have been lost to time, the flagholders stand as important reminders of the independence felt by our founders in this country.

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