The “bones” of the Eldridge Street Synagogue; Photo: Peter Aaron/Esto
When people come to the Eldridge Street Synagogue they are wowed by the beautiful main sanctuary. What they don’t see right away is the care and deliberation that went into restoring it. Here I wanted to share special areas in the synagogue that reveal our preservation philosophy – one that focuses on authenticity and the human touch.
The un-restored panel of lath and plaster above is one of my favorite places in the synagogue. More than 60% of the sanctuary looked like this before the Museum stepped in to restore the building. It is a reminder of how this building so easily could have been lost. I like, too, that you can see the “bones” of the building, or the materials with which it was put together. If you look closely you can even discover bits of horse hair, which were used to bind the plaster together 125 years ago! In Judaism, there is a tradition of leaving a portion of a building unfinished in memory of the Temple so it serves as a reminder of that, too.
Bare bulbs around the Ten Commandments. Photo: Kate Milford
When you enter the sanctuary is it beautifully illuminated with electric lights. But that was not always the case. In 1887, when the synagogue opened, it was lit by gas. The congregation did not electrify until a generation later in 1907. By the point, they must have realized they needed electricity to keep technologically up-to-date. (Electricity back then = the Wi-Fi of today.) So taken were the congregants with the new electric technology they installed this crown of bare bulbs around the Ten Commandments. What looks somewhat carnivalesque today was most impressive back then. Our restoration retained this feature because it tells this story. Electrifying!
Another favorite feature I like to point out is the synagogue’s floorboards. They are a simple pine showing their wear and tear. When you move your feet back and forth along them you feel a dip – and that is exactly the point. Rather than replacing them with new flooring we retained the original wood. It bears the imprint of the many people who gathered at the synagogue and left their mark – quite physically – in the building. By saving the original wood floorboard we are reminded of those many people who worshipped and gathered here. When you visit the Eldridge Street Synagogue, you walk in the footprints of those who came before.
Worn wood floorboards remind us of those who came before. Photo: Ed Cheng
Are there aspects of the building you are curious about? In future posts, I will share more about the Museum’s preservation choices.
Have fun making instruments out of recyclables at our Tu B’Shvat Festival. Photo: Geoffrey Berliner
Our WinterGreen festival this Sunday, January 27, will celebrate Tu B’Shvat – one of the lesser known of Jewish holidays. Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees, celebrates trees and the start of spring in Israel. In recent years, this “Jewish Arbor Day” has becoming increasingly popular as a day to reflect on Jewish cultural and environmental roots. There are a number of holiday customs, including the eating of the 7 foods of the Land of Israel. (You will have to come to our event to find out what these seven foods are and enjoy tasty samples courtesy of The Pickle Guys and The Sweet Life.) Check out Hazon’s website for great resources about Tu B’Shvat.
There will be many opportunities to explore both Jewish environmental heritage and roots on Sunday. Genealogist Roger Lustig will be on hand in our FamilyHistoryCenterto answer questions about how to conduct family research, tracing your ancestry back to earlier generations. We’ll also have activities for kids, including creating a family tree and making musical instruments out of eco-friendly materials followed by a concert by Bash the Trash. The Lower East Side Ecology Center will be on hand to conduct composting workshops (love those worms). Barley and olives are two of the foods associated with the holiday so we’ll have beer and olive tastings.
Museum educator, Mattie Ettenheim, will conduct a Tu B’Shvat seder for those who are curious to learn more about holiday customs. And in celebration of all things environmentally-friendly, I’ll be leading “green” synagogue tours that showcase the eco-friendly aspects of our restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Come and learn how we have used recycled milk jugs and denim jeans in hidden spaces in the building!
In all, our WinterGreen Festival: A Tu B’Shvat Celebration promises to be a special day focusing on trees and roots – of both the physical and family genus.
Thank you to the Lori and David Moore family for sponsoring this special day!
Tell us if you do anything special to celebrate Tu B’Shvat.
As the Museum’s archivist, it has been a treat to be able to look at each item in our collection. What are my favorites? It’s so hard to say, but this sign, from the Museum’s sizable collection of Hebrew and Yiddish signs collected from around our Lower East Side neighborhood, is on my list.
It’s small, about the size of a standard sheet of paper. Its frame is nicked and worn, and the sign itself is stained. Why do I like this so much? I like how it looks, its authentic patina of age. But the deal was sealed when I found out what it says.
The Hebrew writing is the beginning of the Blessing for Dew: “V’ten Tal u’Matar“; in English, “And give rain and dew.” This sign signals that this blessing should be added to daily prayers, and it would be hung on the synagogue’s bimah during the dry season in Israel, roughly from fall through early spring.
I was curious about why the sign had clearly gotten wet — its letters are blurred and its hanger is rusted. I wanted to think that it had hung outside and that its instructions had produced results — that it had worked and brought rain. But probably, like so much else at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, it fell victim to the elements when the main sanctuary was shut in the 1950s. Still, I love that the cycles of nature are part of prayer and faith, and that asking for rain would be a community aspiration.
As this brutal winter drags on, maybe we should organize a collective prayer for an early Spring!
Here in New York, winter is in full bloom. Over the past few weeks we’ve experienced snow, freezing rain and winds that seemed likely to lift our historic building all the way to Kansas! This coming Sunday, January 31st from 1-5 PM, join us as we wish away the winter blues with our first-ever Tu B’shvat Winter Garden Festival, a free event celebrating the Jewish Arbor Day and environmentalism.
You may be asking yourself: what in the world is Tu B’shvat? We admit, it is certainly one of the more obscure Jewish holidays, but its focus on celebrating the bounty of the earth and conservation seemed a natural fit with our building’s green restoration. And there is never a bad reason for a free festival! We see this as the winter counterpart to our fabulous Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival, which we host every June in celebration of the Jewish and Chinese cultures that share Eldridge Street.
The name Tu B’shvat is actually the date of the holiday, the 15th of the month of S’hvat. The holiday is first mentioned in the Mishna, where the ancient rabbis have a little throwdown over the date. They discuss the four “New Years” in the Jewish calendar (I wonder what they used for the ball drop in ancient Babylon?):
The first of Nisan – new year for kings and festivals – The first of Elul – new year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. – The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing – The first of Shevat – new year for trees, according to the school of Shamai; The school of Hillel say: the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh Hashana:2a)
Image via Ironic Sans
Our buddy Hillel seems to have won this argument, since the New Year for Trees has been celebrated on the 15th of S’hvat ever since. At Eldridge, we’ll be green-ing out with kosher organic wine tasting fromTishbi winery, a seder featuring many varieties of dried fruits and nuts (led by me), kid-friendly planting activities, family tree making and more! Check out the event on our Facebook page for more information (and become a fan while you’re there!) For a taste of spring in the dead of winter, this is one event you won’t want to miss.
We’re the talk of the town! In the latest edition of the New Yorker, author and architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes about the Museum’s exciting new project, the fabrication and installation of a new East Window in our historic space. Entitled “She Does Windows”, Goldberger’s article includes tidbits from artist Kiki Smith, Museum at Eldridge Street Deputy Director Amy Stein Milford and Eldridge Street Project founder and preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz. If you haven’t run out to the newsstand just yet, here is a sneak peak of what you’ll find inside:
Smith likes that the synagogue already contains five-pointed starts, as well as the six-pointed Star of David. “The five-pointed star is an American invention,” she said. “The people who built this were seeking their identity as Eastern European immigrants, but they were also conscious of being in the New World.”…She looked up at the glass blocks. “We will make the window a picture of the sky. It will subtly give out energy and liveliness and unpredictability. It will be a rupture.”
Here is a roundup of some of the press the new East Window has gotten thus far:
Visitors to the Museum currently have the option of going on our standard tour, Landmark of the Spirit, which focuses on the synagogue’s history, the Jewish East Side neighborhood, and the American immigrant experience. They can also explore our surroundings through our menu of walking tours, which range from the thrilling Gangster, Writer, Rabbi to the moving Love & Courtship.
Our building, however, is multifaceted—not just a historical site, but a significant portal into architecture and religious practice. In order to explore these planes and present them to the public, we are in the process of developing two new visitor experiences.
The Architecture Tour will debut in Spring 2010, and will explore the award-winning restoration of our National Historic Landmark. It will draw parallels with other prominent sites in New York City, nationally, and around the world that have faced preservation challenges and responded in innovative ways.
This tour is a collaborative project between the Museum at Eldridge Street and the preservation programs of Columbia University, Pratt Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. Students are researching and writing about aspects of the building and design that will help the public to engage in the building and its architecture.
Questions to be answered include: Does the design reflect the process of Americanization? What choices were made in its restoration? How does it fit into the museum’s preservation ethos? Are there examples at other sites that might be meaningful? Ultimately, we will hear back from the students about preservation projects that use green technology or sustainable practices, sites that provide creative examples of adaptive re-use, using the case study at Eldridge Street, among others.
We’ll be keeping you updated as this project develops further.
What happens when contemporary art and historic architecture combine? Find out at the Museum at Eldridge Street, which has commissioned artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans to create a new monumental east window for the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue. This installation will be completed in Spring 2010. Walking into the grand sanctuary, visitors will get a taste of both 1887 and 2010, Victorian architecture with a modern day interpretation.
Originally, stained glass rose windows at the front and back greeted worshippers at the Eldridge Street Synagogueon opening day. Always unstable, the East Window finally collapsed out of its frame in the late 1930s, leaving the congregation with a gaping hole at the front of the majestic sanctuary. Lacking the funds for a reproduction, the congregation replaced it with a clear tablet-shaped glass-block design in 1944-45, which remains in the wall today.
During the 20-year restoration process, the East Window became a major question: How do we restore an element for which there are no original building plans and no photographs? After an extended decision-making process, we opted for a new commission which would return an inspiring interior and offer a respectful solution to the irreplaceable original.
Smith and Gans’ design, a galaxy of golden stars against an ever-changing blue firmament, recreates in stained-glass the blue and gold star pattern painted on the walls immediately surrounding the new window. According to their statement, “The new stained-glass window will use the features and motifs of the existing synagogue in a new way so that the mind and eye reflects back on the interior space as they are drawn into the space of the window. The wall pattern of five pointed gold stars against a blue sky will be extended across the window. The ribs of the window will radiate from a Star of David at the center. In pattern and shape, this window will be similar to the existing ceiling domes of the synagogue and also the trompe-l’oeil windows to either side of the arc. The current technology of flash glass makes it possible to etch the yellow stars into a blue field without any outline or leading so that they will appear as more intense sources of light within the glow of the window. The translation of the traditional motif of the synagogue with this material and structure will intensify the floating qualities of the synagogue space and surfaces.”
To inaugurate the new East Window and investigate the challenges of restoration, visit the Museum at Eldridge Street every Wednesday at 1 PM for a special preservation tour. Be sure to keep reading for more about our exciting East Window initiative!