On this day: bad press for “our down-town brethren”

This post was written by Museum intern Lila Norris.

As you may have read, last week on September 4th marked the anniversary of the Eldridge Street Synagogue opening its doors, but this week marks another related anniversary regarding press that followed that opening. On September 11th, 1887 the Reform-based publication The American Isrealite, published in Cincinnati, Ohio, released an article written by the well-known journalist Mi Yodea.

Mi Yodea had attended the long (reportedly over four hours!) opening ceremony at 12 Eldridge on September 4th. In his article for The American Israelite, he shared his opinions on this momentous occasion and the congregation itself., Echoing the concerns of other Reform observers of the time, Mi Yodea seemed to be writing with an overall tone of fear toward the Orthodox congregation of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Annie Polland, author of Landmark of the Spirit, notes that although he took the time to recognize the overall beauty of the new building, Mi Yodea’s article spends a significant amount of time mocking the traditional community. He cites their excitement and enthusiasm for the service as seemingly unsophisticated, saying “our down-town brethren have not the slightest notion of what is the meaning of decorum in the house of God.” He even mocks their devotion and commitment to their religion, taking issue with how often they worship.

Central Synagogue, at Lexington and 55th, was a popular Reform synagogue. It was built approximately 10 years before the opening of Eldridge Street Synagogue.

This opinion was most likely because of his position as a Reform observer. At the time of Eldridge’s grand opening, Reform Judaism was the norm in New York City; many Jewish immigrants had previously made significant efforts to Americanize themselves once arriving in the country. However this was not typically the case for Lower East Side Eastern European Jews, who tended to adhere more closely to their home-country values and culture. The congregation at Eldridge Street all lived within the neighborhood, which was full of new immigrants much like themselves; they could easily get by speaking only Yiddish and interacting with like-minded others.

Those in New York who had assimilated may have looked down on the group because of their non-modern customs and ways of life. The presence of more traditional Eastern European immigrants may have threatened the aspired-for image of the sophisticated Americanized Jews.

The opening of the Eldridge Street Synagogue would have been even more of a threat to them because of the way it solidified the Eastern European Yiddish-speaking presence in New York. Suddenly, that community was taking ownership of their position. The act of purchasing and investing in a great house of worship showed that they were not going anywhere. The permanence of a building, the financial investment, not to mention the amount effort and planning that went into constructing such a monument, showed the way the community was choosing to establish their roots and become fixtures on the Lower East Side and in the city as a whole.

The Orthodoxy of the synagogue and the traditions that they maintained also stated that they were going to adhere to their own values. On that festive opening day, a Rabbi from uptown was said to have addressed the congregation. His remarks focused on the education of the young people and the importance of instilling within them the knowledge about the Jewish religion, or else “in growing up, [they] leave the synagogue and join the [reformed] temples up-town.” Clearly, there were tensions between these two ideologies.

The congregation also put quite a bit of effort and money into securing a traditional and impressive Cantor from the old world, Pinkus Minkowsky. This again kept them tied to their roots and kept their traditional worship alive.

However, they weren’t against all acts of assimilation or social progress. The act of purchasing land and constructing a building in America can be viewed as the beginning of assimilation. The idea of buying into the American real estate game, of having an American mortgage, and essentially owning a piece of American soil was a way of involving themselves in American politics. It also has been noted that on opening day the congregation flew American flags out on the street from their window flag poles, and even commissioned a custom American flag for their congregation during World War II. These are all examples showing that while the congregation was more traditional than other immigrant groups in the city, they still adopted ways of life unique to their new home. And it is this balance – the freedom to practice foreign traditions while pursuing new opportunities – that all immigrants to America are so hopeful to achieve. The congregants of the Eldridge Street Synagogue may have taken some flack for their way of life, but they were engaging in a timeless tradition – combining the old world with their new home in America.

Lila Norris is a sophomore Anthropology major at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School. 

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