Eldridge Street Synagogue Interior

 

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About

When it opened, the magnificent interior of the Eldridge Street Synagogue offered a powerful contrast to the squalid and crowded neighborhood just outside the doors. The sanctuary measures 3,060 square feet, with a 50 foot high barrel vaulted ceiling and 67 glorious stained glass windows, creating a sense of light and space rarely found on the Lower East Side.

This grand sanctuary comfortably seats 750 worshippers and has accommodated more than 1000 on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). In accordance with Orthodox tradition, men and boys sit in the lower level and women and girls sit in the balcony above, called the ezras nashim in Hebrew.

Stained Glass. Glass and Tracery. Photograph by Kate Milford. Museum at Eldridge Street.

Ten Commandments

Ten Commandments. Photograph, Museum at Eldridge Street.

Music stand

Cantor Stand. Carved Walnut. Photo by Kate Milford, Museum at Eldridge Street.

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Bimah. Walnut, Metal, and Velvet. Photograph, Museum at Eldridge Street.

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Grand Chandelier. Etched Glass and Brass.
Photograph by Kate Milford, Museum at Eldridge Street.

The focal point of the room is the walnut ark, or aron, on the eastern wall, which held the congregation’s 24 Torah scrolls. Its majestic stature and beautiful carvings replicate details found on the building’s facade.

Blue tablets containing the Ten Commandments painted in gold top its upper circular form. Surrounding the commandments are bare light bulbs, which were added in 1907 when the building was electrified. A golden eternal light called the Ner Tamid hangs from the ark. Stars of David mimic the outdoor finials that crown the building’s roofline.

In front of the ark is the cantor stand, from which the cantor or chazzan leads the service. Its elaborate detailed carving signifies the importance placed on cantorial singing by the founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The stand includes two of the building’s often-used symbols, the circle and the Star of David. The ledge holds music sheets or prayer books. Sawtooth hinges adjust the ledge to the cantor’s height.

In the center of the sanctuary is the bimah, an elevated platform from which the Torah scrolls were read.

A Victorian style chandelier hangs down from the painted ceiling. Composed of over 400 parts, the brass fixture adds light and grandeur to the sanctuary.

Discussion Questions

  • What design motifs and symbols do you notice? What might they represent or symbolize to the congregation that worships at Eldridge Street?
  • How does the interior of the building communicate its function?
  • In what ways is this sanctuary similar or different to other places of worship you have visited?
  • Historian Annie Polland described the interior of the Eldridge Street Synagogue as an architectural sabbath. Just as the sabbath provides a sense of space from the rest of the week, the sanctuary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue provides a space distinct from the cramped living conditions of the Lower East Side pictured below. Do you agree with her statement?

hester st panorama

A Scene in the Ghetto, Hester Street, 1902. Photo by B.J. Falk (1853-1925). Library of Congress.

Classroom Extensions

  • Look at the drawing Reading from the Scroll below to see a service being conducted in the sanctuary. How does the drawing compare to the photographs of the synagogue interior on this page?

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  • Have students take on the role of an architecture firm designing a synagogue sanctuary. Students should design everything from window patterns and lighting fixtures to ritual objects like the Ark and the Bimah. Attention should be given to the function of the space and to the selection of a palette and materials.
  • Watch a movie documenting the restoration of the interior of the synagogue and hear from the artisans who helped to make this sanctuary grand once again.