Man Crush Monday: Eldridge Street Edition

by Emma Friedlander, Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern

Finding love is hard these days. We all know the complaints of contemporary dating: too many options, too many jerks, too many late nights trudging by yourself to the local bodega because after that disappointing first date you are SO HUNGRY. Why is it so impossible to find a decent man these days?! It makes me yearn for days of yore when fellas wore velvet greatcoats and actually courted a lady, rather than texting her at 1 in the morning asking if she wants to get Taco Bell.

If only I’d been searching for love during the original days of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. At the turn-of-the-century, total heartthrobs numbered amongst the congregants — just check out Victor Epstein.

A flexing Victor Epstein (yowzers)

A flexing Victor Epstein (yowzers)

Need I say more? Actually yes, since I work at a history museum and historical context is kind of the deal here. Victor Epstein grew up on the Lower East Side and attended the Eldridge Street Synagogue with his family. He then went on to become a boxer, a sport that was hugely popular amongst young Jewish men during the time. Nothing like a nice Jewish boy that can also throw a straight punch! (Full disclosure: I had to Google boxing terminology).

For those of us who value humor over glistening pectorals, Eldridge Street local Eddie Cantor is another intriguing prospect. He’s the classic rags-to-riches story: born and soon orphaned right here on Eldridge Street, Cantor (originally Israel Kantrowitz) climbed from the lowest rung of poverty to Broadway and Hollywood stardom. Hilarious and eccentric, and with a great voice, ole “Banjo Eyes” couldn’t be more of a dreamboat.

Eddie Cantor

Eddie Cantor

But I guess I’m looking for more of a professional, stable, sophisticated guy. Somebody who not only dresses immaculately and keeps it tight, but can also lecture me on the finer points of Jewish Orthodoxy for hours on end…(*swoons*)

Rabbi Idelson

Rabbi Idelson

I’m talking about Rabbi Idel Idelson, of course. Born in 1874 in Lithuania, Rabbi Idelson led congregations in Denver, Jersey City, and the Bronx before settling at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in 1931. A huge, respected representative of the rabbinic and Jewish communities, Idelson’s talents were not limited to the scholarly. Although Idelson was on the short side, his second wife’s nephew, Edwin Margolius, fondly recalls in an oral history the rabbi’s distinguished elegance. This was a guy who dressed to impress: he always wore a beautiful tailored frock coat and tailored suits, Margolius reveals, and even dyed his beard auburn!

Idelson was also an athlete. From March to October he would go swimming at Brighton Beach, and regularly jogged across the Brooklyn Bridge! (I regularly eat a donut while taking the train across the Williamsburg Bridge so we clearly have a lot in common.) We even have photographic evidence of Idelson in his bathing suit.

Yeesh.

Yeesh.

But I’m honestly being really shallow. Far more importantly, Rabbi Idelson contributed a great deal to not only the Jewish but also larger humanitarian world. As a rabbi in Denver at the turn of the century, Idelson helped found and develop the Jewish Consumptives Relief Society, a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients. Anybody who’s merely skimmed a Dickensian novel knows tuberculosis was a HUGE deal at this time, and it was especially so in Denver, where TB sufferers from around the United States flocked for its “curative airs.” Rabbi Idelson’s efforts, which began with a newspaper advertisement calling for help creating the institution and $1.20 of his own contribution, led to the salvation of thousands of Jewish tuberculosis patients in Denver. Now that’s truly heroic.

Idelson was also devoted to Jewish education and charity. In Denver, Jersey City, and New York, he championed the establishment of many institutes of learning, and also played a central role in the foundation of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. He was renowned throughout the Jewish community for his silver-tongued sermons, and also apparently GREAT WITH KIDS?!?!

Idelson Pool

Unfortunately, the men we’ve drooled over today are impossibly unavailable (which tends to be the case when your dream guy hails from the Victorian era). Still, it’s reassuring to peruse the historical hotties of Eldridge Street — maybe guys can be not-completely-awful after all. More importantly, the congregation’s history also features a bunch of hardcore ladies who deserve their own Woman Crush Wednesday – coming in just a couple of weeks!

Categories: Blog, History, Lower East Side

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