Celebrating the Torah – Shavuot Artifacts from Our Collection

Beginning this evening, Jews around the world will celebrate Shavuot, a holiday which centers around the Torah. From the Star of David to Sabbath candlesticks to a beautiful Passover Seder plate, Jewish tradition is marked by a variety of symbolic and ritual items. Many such pieces of Judaica and Shavuot artifacts are on display at the Museum at Eldridge Street. But amidst all these objects, the Torah scroll stands out as the most significant representation of the Jewish faith. 

Torah Cover from the collection of the Museum at Eldridge StreetWhat is Shavuot?

“Shavuot” means “weeks” in Hebrew; Shavuot is the “Festival of Weeks”. This name comes from the fact that Shavuot occurs seven weeks after the first day of Passover. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jews, and the values and commandments enumerated within the Torah that define Jewish tradition.

The Torah scroll consists of the five books of Moses handwritten by a trained scribe onto a piece of parchment. A decorative cloth, or mantle, covers the Torah once it is completed.  The image here shows a Torah mantle used by early worshippers at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The name of the congregation “Kahal Adath Jeshurun with the People of Lubtz” is embroidered on it in Hebrew. Lions and a crown decorate the cloth and symbolize the majesty of the Torah. Because the Torah scroll cannot be touched, the reader uses a “yad” or “hand” to follow the words. The yad above was used at Eldridge Street.

Ark in the Eldridge Street Synagogue's lower level

The Ark – Housing the Torah Scrolls

In the synagogue, the Torah scrolls are housed in a special cabinet called the ark. The ark is usually located on the eastern wall of the synagogue so that as members of the congregation pray eastward towards Jerusalem. Just as the Torah itself is a core element of Judaism, the ark where it is kept is a significant piece of synagogue architecture. This is no exception at Eldridge Street.

The Museum at Eldridge Street contains two arks: one downstairs in the historic Bes Medrash, or study area, and one in the main sanctuary. The downstairs ark predates the synagogue itself. It came from a prayer space on 78 Allen Street, where the congregation worshiped before the Eldridge Street Synagogue was built. According to the synagogue ledger, it cost the congregation $3 to move the ark over to Eldridge Street. There are more than two dozen layers of paint covering this ark (which you can see on the right side, where restorers have left a small area where these layers are visible).

The upper portion of the ark at the Eldridge Street Synagogue shows the Ten Commandments surrounding by a ring of Edison lightbulbs. Photo: Robert Kozlarek

The upper portion of the ark at the Eldridge Street Synagogue shows the Ten Commandments surrounded by a ring of Edison lightbulbs. Photo: Robert Kozlarek

The ark in the main sanctuary is hand carved walnut, the most expensive type of wood found in the building. The original red velvet material covering the inside has survived, a remarkable feat considering the state of the building before the restoration.  The ark’s exterior reflects the facade of the synagogue itself, with Stars of David etched on the doors and a focus on a circular element. Like many arks, the design features the Ten Commandments. 

Before the Eldridge Street Synagogue was built, there were many more small congregations meeting in the area.  Most were made up of people who came from the same areas of Eastern Europe. Each of these groups had their own Torah,. When they merged into the bigger congregation, these Torahs were given a new home in the Eldridge Street ark. The ark had enough room to fit 24 Torahs! Along with the magnificence of the building itself, this fact would have wowed worshipers during the most important parts of the prayer service when the ark is opened, revealing the many scrolls inside.

A variety of customs mark the holiday, including staying up all night to study and eating dairy foods such as blintzes and cheesecake. These traditions vary among Jewish communities around the world. Many Jews who immigrated to the Lower East Side saw their Jewish identities transform and modify as they became Americans. But on holidays like Shavuot, those who worshiped at Eldridge Street likely appreciated the permanence of the Torah as the core of their faith, no matter how much their traditions changed.

Written by Jackie Bein, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern

Categories: Archive & Collection, Jewish History

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