For the past two weeks, I have witnessed the Museum at Eldridge Street transform into an opera stage, but also a home where mothers and daughters squabble and comfort each other, where lovers make plans and love, and where people come together to remember those they have lost.
Last Sunday, Museum at Eldridge Street finished hosting On Site Opera’s Morning Star by Ricky Ian Gordon, an opera about the Feldermans – including the matriarch, Becky, and her three daughters, Sadie, Fanny and Esther – as they navigate their new life on the Lower East Side. Among other events, the family is directly impacted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, a tragic fire in the factory that killed 146 garment workers, many of whom were young Jewish immigrant women. Our historic sanctuary acted as both the Feldermans’ home and the crowded streets of the immigrant neighborhood. Throughout the opera, the cast zipped from the women’s balcony to the ark to the bimah to the pews to the ark to the bimah, and around and around. As an audience member, I twisted and turned my body in order to physically follow their stories, and the synagogue felt alive to me in a way I had never experienced before.
When we tell the history of the synagogue to visitors, one of the ways we think about the building itself is as a window into what life would have been like on the LES. For example, the numerous multi-colored stained glass windows in the sanctuary acted as relief from and a contrast to the harsh and drab everyday life in tenement buildings and sweat shops; and the numerous Stars of David on the façade of the building and painted inside on the walls also act as symbols of religious freedom, because many of the congregants would have fled religious persecution in Eastern Europe. This new land called the United States of America, and this new synagogue at 12 Eldridge Street, held new meanings about the struggles and triumphs of everyday life.
It is those new meanings I felt come to life as I watched the drama of the Feldermans’ life unfold throughout the sanctuary. Their stories merged with the history of the synagogue and were reminders of the kinds of lives congregants of the Eldridge Street Synagogue could have led, and some of the hardships they were a part of or witnessed.
Morning Star reminded me again and again that our landmark building is a portal to the countless LES lives still yet to be considered and commemorated. Our work at the museum continues.
Taylor Baker is the Visitor Services Associate at the Museum at Eldridge Street.