This post is written by Summer 2021 intern Emma Thibodeaux-Thompson.
Working this summer in the Museum’s sanctuary, one of the most common reactions I hear when visitors first enter the space is: “Huh, it looks like a church?” I always tell visitors that they’re right – the general basilical plan of the space (a central nave flanked by columns and aisles), combined with the influx of colored light through stained glass, certainly brings to mind more famous Christian spaces. But why is that? Shouldn’t there be clearer parallels between the Eldridge Street Synagogue and, say, Temple Emanu-el or other Jewish spaces of worship in New York City? What were the architectural and cultural inspirations behind this synagogue?
It’s from this point that I normally give visitors the standard, general architectural labels we use to describe our synagogue: it’s eclectic, using Spanish-Islamic or “Moorish” revival motifs, combined with Gothic and Romanesque or Late Antique. Yet the more time I spend in this space, interacting with its architecture, the harder I find it to stick to even those vague, but simple, labels. A synagogue in the Lower East Side, in the late-19th century, is as much a statement of identity as a space of worship. Meaning, the congregation probably took liberties with the design of their space in an effort to express aspects of their identities outside of religion. There’s a lot more to consider than just simple architectural trends. We say the synagogue has an eclectic blend of styles, but how unique is that blend? Why would the congregants of the 1880s have chosen such a unique mix of motifs and imagery in the first place? Or use some decorative elements that might call Christianity to mind? Examining the historic and cultural context, then, helps to locate this building in a larger history of Jewish spaces of worship, and provides insight to questions of identity in a sacred space.
Jewish law does not, in fact, state design requirements for synagogues. They are a curious phenomenon in this sense – they have no standard elements and thus no architectural standard against which any one can be judged (however, any interior does need an ark, bimah, and eternal light to truly be worthy of the name). Almost any attempt to classify synagogues across the Western world produces words like “exotic” and “eclectic:” attempts to apply the canonical terms for Christian European architectural styles to structures that have, for much of their history, housed the communities persecuted and/or oppressed by those same Christian institutions. Yet these words do seem to be the most fitting, and there is no denying that the Herter Brothers (the German Catholic architects who created the Eldridge Street Synagogue) and the lay leaders of the Kahal Anath Jeshurun congregation pursued their own unique combination of styles.
Jewish congregations have a long tradition of making their synagogues on the sites of, or in the same buildings as, previously used religious houses. (And oftentimes these buildings go through many such adaptations.) Excavations at Dura-Europos (in modern-day Syria) yielded the remains of what is now regarded as one of the oldest synagogues in the region, if not the world: rich wall-paintings depicting biblical scenes decorate the walls of this third-century synagogue, adapted from a Mithraic temple when the city of Dura-Europos was an earlier Roman colony. The site was later converted into an early Christian church, further underscoring the often adaptable nature of synagogue construction. In these cases, it is advantageous that the synagogue has no clear requirements for design or floorplan; the spaces can be adopted and adapted many times over.
Historic violence and persecution against Jews has also impacted the way synagogues have been designed. By the Medieval period, many cities and towns enacted laws that forbade Jewish synagogues to be visible from the street. With such restrictions, it is obvious why there is such a scant record of synagogue architecture from this period. There are a few exceptions, but still, extant buildings from this early period are often concealed behind unassuming facades. Padua boasts a richly decorated 16th/17th-century synagogue, complete with ornate marble and woodwork and intricate Baroque accents. But all that decorative intricacy is in a plain building whose facade is practically identical to the other modest, crooked buildings lining its narrow street. This practice, evolved from the Medieval necessity of concealing synagogues behind unassuming facades, was one that left a lasting mark on Jewish communities – it is even evident that Jews brought it with them to the United States in the 19th century, establishing countless stiebels (storefront synagogues) in the Lower East Side. It’s easy to imagine that the legacy of persecution and destruction of sacred space would lead many congregations to prefer inconspicuousness, and deter them from creating a legacy of uniquely Jewish architecture and ornamentation.
Yet the Eldridge Street Synagogue veered definitively away from these practices of concealment and pragmatism, drawing cultural inspiration from an emerging trend toward bold, distinctive architecture found in European synagogues, especially Germany. In 1886 the congregation’s lay leaders laid the cornerstone for the first great Jewish house of worship built from the ground up by Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States. Far from the first synagogue in the country (that honor goes to the Mill Street Synagogue, c.1730), the Eldridge synagogue, it seems, sought to announce itself as a definitive symbol of the Jewish Orthodox presence in New York. Drawing on the contemporary fervor for Spanish-Islamic (“Moorish”) styles present in Europe, its facade features elaborately carved finials and a row of blind arcaded keyhole windows, alongside a Gothic rose window and broad, deep-set Romanesque windows and stonework. The interior is perhaps an even more jarring mixture, even more “eclectic”. So just what was the original congregation (and their architects) aiming to communicate with such a blend of styles?
Of course, the sheer crowdedness of the wall painting and trompe l’oeil designs filling the interior space of the synagogue present a compelling argument for one explanation: that the congregation’s lay leaders, as well as the Herter Brothers, were likely trying to present a space that was the very height of contemporary taste. Horror vacui, or the ‘fear of empty space’, was a common signifier for late Anglo-American taste (just picture those overcrowded photos of Victorian living rooms). A Jewish Orthodox congregation’s choice to commission such richly detailed imagery could speak directly to a desire to appear modern and savvy, and perhaps therefore decidedly American. Perhaps they were thinking that if their synagogue were the very word on modern decor, then the Orthodox presence in New York could be more easily accepted and even respected.
The stained glass windows, both in the rose window on the facade and in the repeated colorful windows along the aisles and nave, fit this interpretation as well. Stained glass, while often associated with Christian churches, became a lasting fixture in American synagogues for the same reason it did in churches: it allows the light of the ‘divine’ to enter a space while blocking views of the outside world. Eldridge Street’s stained glass is entirely abstract and geometric – the Orthodox congregation chose, then as now, to strictly interpret the Second Commandment ban on graven images. Not so in all synagogues, however: the nearby German Anshi Chesed Congregation, of the Norfolk Street Synagogue, famously took years to settle a controversy over the stained glass windows depicting the Ten Commandments that it installed in the 1850s. The issue at hand was more specifically about whether it was acceptable to display the Commandments on something other than tablets – an issue which, given the traditions in Judaism (both Reform and Orthodox) as well as Christianity, many New Yorkers of both faiths would easily have found jarring or at least novel when the windows were installed. And although anonymous rabbinical authority eventually settled the matter within a couple years by claiming the glass display did not violate any sacred laws, many congregants remained upset with the imagery long into the following decades, claiming it to be an unwelcome sign of modernity. Yet by the end of the century stained glass had become a fixture in American synagogues, with many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s own clients belonging to the Jewish faith. The windows at Eldridge Street then are another signifier of a contemporary taste.
The Norfolk Street Synagogue borrowed another design element from its Christian contemporaries; it was originally done in a strong Gothic Revival, rather than the ‘eclectic’ style of our own synagogue. Perhaps this Reform congregation felt more comfortable drawing from its Christian neighbors than did the Orthodox leadership of Kahal Adath Jeshurun. Yet this, too, introduces another complication: if the congregants at Eldridge Street were simply seeking to assert a clear Orthodox Jewish presence in New York, why did they commission two German-born Catholics to design their house of worship? (There is speculation of proximity to the Herters’ offices or familiarity with their tenements, but neither prospect fully explains the choice). Indeed, much is often made here at the Museum of the Herter Brothers’ involvement: they had made a name building tenements in the neighborhood, and may have never set foot in a synagogue, something I have heard used to explain why the interior of the synagogue looks so “church-like”. But as we know, there are no sacred laws or requirements for how a synagogue should be laid out, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue is hardly the only synagogue to have rows of wooden pews or stained glass.
So how can we begin to interpret the architectural or cultural inspirations and influences of congregants almost 140 years ago, with only the building they left behind as evidence? Perhaps this Orthodox Jewish congregation felt that the ostracization of centuries of persecution could be put to use in marketing their image as an intriguing novelty – indeed, we know that in its first years, New Yorkers of all faiths and cultures often flocked downtown to visit the synagogue, simply to take in its beauty or witness a famous cantor. Or perhaps we risk the common mistake of many art historians in simply reading too far into the intentions of an artist or patron. It may be equally likely that the congregants sought only to ensure their Orthodox faith would maintain a firm hold on the chaos of immigrant life, and to do so through a synagogue whose design would leave no doubt about where security and community lay in the Jewish Lower East Side. We may not have confirmation on any of the inner motives of the Kahal Adath Jeshurun, nor indeed the Herter Brothers and their outsider’s lens on the goals of an immigrant-driven Jewish Orthodox congregation. What we do have is a fascinating facade and a richly decorated interior full of the imagery that the leaders of this congregation felt reflected their aims and beliefs. Maybe in giving that imagery and those details the attention they deserve, we can begin to make sense of the way such a unique (and indeed ‘church-like’) building has shaped, and been shaped by, the people who have created and used it for over a century.
Emma just finished her sophomore year of undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College, and will spend the next year abroad studying at the University of Leeds in England. She grew up in Springfield, IL and is studying European/American art history and history.