Footprints of History – Reflections of Docent Roberta Berken

Roberta Berken has served as a docent for more than a dozen years, sharing the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue with visitors from around the world. Here she shares reflections on the synagogue’s floorboards, a favorite feature. Though much of the synagogue was meticulously restored to its original grandeur, these worn floorboards reveal the footprints of history.

Roberta Berken, Museum at Eldridge Street Docent

Roberta Berken, Museum at Eldridge Street Docent

Stand on the floor of the Eldridge Street Synagogue sanctuary and you can feel the past.

Shuffle your feet. What do you feel? Grooves made by the davening of the men who worshiped here more than a century ago. They rose on their toes and rocked forward and back during their prayers. These grooves created by the prayers of many help tell the story of this beautiful 19th century building. The original pine floor has been carefully restored with a minimum of sanding as well as a penetrating oil finish.

Worn floorboards reveal the footprints of history. Photo: Kate Milford

Worn floorboards reveal the footprints of history. Photo: Kate Milford

Perhaps the boots which made these grooves came from Minsk or from the shoe store on Essex Street. A prosperous man may have had new shoes. On the way to shul he may have stopped to have his shoes shined by Max the shoe shine boy there with his shine box. A working man would have walked with this oft-mended shoes on his way to shul. Both walked through the snow in winter and the hot pavements in summer.  The words and rhythm of Yiddish filled the sterets. The Yiddish signs announced: “Fresh fish!” “Fresh baked challah!” Or “Pumpernickel and 3 pounds of potatoes for a penny.”

From 1887 to the 1950s the sanctuary was a place to worship in safety and dignity.

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