Shedding Literal Light on the Ten Commandments

The ark’s light bulbs were found intact when the sanctuary was rediscovered in the 1980s.

There’s a question I frequently get when leading a tour of the historic sanctuary, and it focuses on a curious element of the historic ark on the Eastern wall. “What are those light bulbs doing there?” many people ask as they look up at a ring of exposed light bulbs at the top of the ark. The intricate wood-carved ark has a beautiful 19th-century style, and these Edison bulbs very clearly convey a more recent time period. In a space that is so completely restored to 1800s grandeur, the light bulbs often catch the eye of admiring visitors.

So what are those light bulbs doing there? They are a proud proclamation of the early congregation’s success as a modern organization. In 1887, the synagogue was lit entirely with gas. Although electricity was gaining popularity and use, especially in cities like New York, it was not uncommon for late 19th-century spaces to continue to use gas lighting. But by the turn of the century, the congregation wanted to embrace the modern convenience of electric lighting. And fortunately for them, they had the resources to do that. So, in 1907 the leaders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue had the building retrofitted for electric lighting. All the existing 1887 were converted to work with electricity instead of gas (lucky for us, because those exquisite brass fixtures still light our space today).

This was a big deal. To put it into perspective, electric light was not installed at the Tenement Museum’s building until 1924. Many spaces were not able or interested in embracing the modern technology, so electricity was a major accomplishment for the congregation. And they wanted to proclaim this modern achievement! So, when they converted the existing fixtures for electricity, they also installed a few new ones – a ring of exposed light bulbs at the top of the ark, surrounding the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. When the Museum began the building’s restoration, this piece of history was a bit of a preservation puzzle. The bulbs weren’t original to 1887 – should they be removed? Ultimately, we decided to preserve the light bulbs. They tell an important story about the congregation, their evolution as Americas, and their use of the beloved building.

The exposed light bulbs are they appear today. Photo: Brian Kutner.

And it turns out, our ark isn’t the only one who tells a similar story. The Museum holds a modest collection of historic objects recovered from neighborhood synagogues. In the 1970s, a group called the Synagogue Rescue Project salvaged several artifacts from Lower East Side cultural sites in danger of being lost to deterioration, decay, or abandonment. Many of those pieces found a home at our building. As one of the few lucky sites being preserved and protected, 12 Eldridge Street was the perfect haven for endangered cultural artifacts. These items still remain at our site today. And if you look closely at one artifact in particular, you’ll see a familiar site.

Those holes lining top of this piece? For light bulbs! And we’re fairly certain that they would not have been carved by the original artisan. Which means that, just like our own ark, this artifact was retrofitted to include electric light bulbs near the Ten Commandments. The Commandments image is an important piece of a sanctuary – a place of prominence and significance – and it makes sense that many congregations would choose that location to be especially illuminated.

And it’s no coincidence that illuminating the Ten Commandments is an endeavor we start here at the Museum this Sunday! March 11th is the first program in a whole series that explores the Ten Commandments through a contemporary lens. All year, in partnership with Limmud NY, we’ll be dissecting these ancient decrees, how and why they still matter, and all the funny or bizarre ways that they’ve managed to creep into our daily American lives.

At 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, author and historian Jenna Weissman Joselit will present on this very topic. Her recent book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace with the Ten Commandments explores the topic in a lighthearted but substantial way. She’ll shed her own bit of light on the Ten Commandments, under the electric glow of the sanctuary’s own illuminated tablets. And as a bonus, the historic artifacts recovered from the neighborhood will also be on display throughout the day. Tickets are available online or at the door – join us for a great day Sunday, March 11!

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