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.
After 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.
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.
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!