If you’ve ever had a picnic in Battery Park or taken a trip to the Statue of Liberty you’ve probably walked through Castle Clinton, a medieval-looking fortress dating back to 1808 that sits by the water’s edge. This structure, now used as a ticket office and information center for tourists heading to Liberty Island, has been through almost as many changes as New York City itself and was nearly demolished on six different occasions, only to be rescued and restored by the National Park Service in 1946. A remnant of the City’s colonial roots, the building has been involved in military, artistic, and immigration-oriented initiatives since it’s construction, serving an impressively diverse variety of roles during its 207 years of existence. Like the Museum at Eldridge Street, the now restored building pays homage to the stories of the people who passed through its doors during each stage of its evolution, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the city and the people who inhabit it.
There are many things that make the Museum at Eldridge Street unique: the building’s remarkable history and distinctive location, breathtaking interior, and extraordinary restoration story. However, it is not the only impressive example of architectural restoration in Lower Manhattan. Another example, Trinity Church, has been part of New York’s history for more than 300 years; the congregation’s first building was erected 190 years before the Eldridge Street Synagogue opened its doors in 1887. Today, Trinity Church is undergoing a restoration project that is similar to the Eldridge project in some ways, but is also as different as the histories of the two institutions. By examining these two restoration projects, we can see how the values of both organizations are reflected in how the buildings are preserved and reinvigorated over time.
Today, many Jews who grapple with incorporating liturgical worship (also called davening) into their lives have turned instead to wordless, mindful meditation. With this practice, one can choose to reflect on God, on their place in the universe, or on something else entirely. These Jews, many in their early 20s or 30s, often grew up in Jewish communities where the cultural, social, and historical aspects of Judaism dominated over a spiritual or religious belief in God. Many of these young Jews have rekindled their spiritual connection to Jewish practice through meditation, which gives them more freedom and independence to form their own spiritual identity. We will explore this technique at Eldridge Street on July 23rd at our “Sabbath of the Mind” night of guided meditation and music, where meditation beginners and experts alike can experience a night of contemplative practice.
Upon entering the beautifully restored sanctuary at the Museum at Eldridge Street, visitors are transported back to the height of the synagogue’s glory. Built in 1887 during the rise of Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side and restored in the 1980’s after a period of neglect and disrepair, the building is a perfect reflection of the past, present, and future of this historic neighborhood. Today, the synagogue’s sanctuary is covered from floor to ceiling in painted patterns and sparkling ornamentations, all twinkling in the shafts of light that emanate from the Museum’s newest and most distinctive feature: the exquisite stained-glass window designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. While the restoration of the sanctuary remained faithful to historical accounts of the synagogue’s 19th-century interior, the new window is an intentional departure from the past. It represents a bright and colorful future for both the Museum and the neighborhood.
At the Museum at Eldridge Street, we tell the stories of the immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side through the lens of our historic building. And on July 8th, we will focus on a particular story that has been beloved by families since it’s conception – the All-of-a-Kind-Family story. Sydney Taylor (born Sarah Brenner) who was born in New York City to immigrant parents, wrote All-of-a-Kind-Family in 1951 as a series of five books. The stories tell the tale of five Jewish sisters growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. As one of the few novels of its time to chronicle the everyday adventures of a Jewish family, this book is a true Jewish Lower East Side treasure that is still loved by children and adults alike.