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Bill Moyers


Life at the Synagogue


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Undated, probably late 19th – early 20th century
Glazed ceramic
5 x 7.5 (diameter) inches

Spittons in a synagogue? This glazed ceramic bowl reveals the tobacco habit of Eldridge Street congregants. Since observant Jews are not allowed to strike a match to light a cigar or cigarette on the Sabbath, they turned to chewing tobacco or snuff as a way of satisfying both religious tradition and their personal desires. Spittoons were placed on the floor and served as receptacles for excess juices produced from this smokeless tobacco, and a century or more ago, they were not uncommon sights on the floors in both public and private places. Ledgers in the Museum archives show that the congregation ordered new spittoons each Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They were likely kept all around the synagogue, and most certainly close to the built-in snuff box on the bimah in the lower sanctuary, another evidence of the congregation’s dedication to an unhealthy habit. In an oral history, Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Judiasm’s Reconstructionist movement who worshipped at Eldridge Street as a boy, recalled that the sanctuary was “strong with the smell of snuff”.

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