In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
After spinning our digital globe once again, we find ourselves in the bustling city of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Unlike some of the other places we’ve visited in this series, Argentina is still home to a large Jewish community. There are approximately a quarter million Jewish Argentinians. They’re the sixth largest Jewish community in the world and the biggest in South America. But today we’re zeroing in on the neighborhood of Once, a place that begs comparisons to our own New York City enclave, the Lower East Side. Once was settled by Jews from Eastern Europe who immigrated to Argentina starting in the 1880s. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built by immigrants from places in Eastern Europe like Russia and Poland who immigrated at that same time, and our shul was once at the heart of a busy Jewish neighborhood.
Once is still full of fabric sellers and shmatte shops, just like the streets of the Lower East Side used to be. There are kosher restaurants and a Judaica shop or two. But over the years it has begun to change. As Jewish residents became more successful, some moved up and out of Once to the suburbs. They did here in New York, too. And like the Lower East Side, the neighborhood is now home to immigrants from other lands, changing the flavor of the barrio. But remnants of the earlier immigrant boom remain. At the heart of Once is the Gran Templo Paso, built in 1927 by an Ashkenazi congregation that had already been operating a Talmud Torah (a religious school) there for more than thirty years.
The Gran Templo Paso calls itself one of the most beautiful synagogues in South America, and it might very well be. There are few pictures online of Paso because of very stringent safety measures in Buenos Aires. Attacks like 1994’s suicide bomb at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, which killed 85 and injured hundreds, have caused them to adopt very strict security. But we’ve found enough photos to find our kinship with this shul in ways other than our neighborhoods. Let’s look at the facades side-by-side.
Paso was built forty years after Eldridge Street, but the architecture of both shuls takes cues from religious buildings – both synagogues and churches – back in the Old Country. Both buildings show a free mix of architectural styles. A row of arches lines the roofline of each – forming a large curve at Paso, and a sharp peak at Eldridge Street. Eldridge has a large, Gothic-style rose window on the façade. While Paso’s is smaller, it still commands attention. At Eldridge, we have rooftop finials that are topped with Stars of David. Paso has a tempietto – a small classical temple – at each side. Both elements enable the building to be seen from afar. Interestingly enough, the Paso rooftop temples are similar to a structure on the roof of one of our neighbor buildings, the Jarmulowsky Bank at Canal and Orchard Streets. The bank was built by our congregation’s president and is currently being restored and adapted to use as a hotel.
Going inside, the interiors of the two synagogues have certain similarities. Both have arches supporting a U-shaped balcony, and several rows of windows. Both have large, gleaming chandeliers at the center. At Eldridge, the lighting was gas-powered when the building opened, but later retrofitted for electricity. Paso, built four decades later, would have had electric fixtures from the start.
Stained glass is a more prominent feature at Eldridge Street, where 67 leaded glass windows line the walls. But at Paso, stained glass windows let in light up near the ceiling, where circular clerestory panels repeat a Star of David design from back to front on both sides. Eldridge Street has clerestory windows too – but they’re much simpler.
Perhaps the best reason for Gran Templo Paso being our Sister Shul is that back in Eastern Europe, our congregants were probably neighbors. They all crossed the ocean to escape persecution and build a better life. Both synagogues were built in lively immigrant neighborhoods that today are still home to immigrants. And the buildings themselves have a kinship, if not an exact correspondence. They are monuments, in a way, to Eastern European immigration and acculturation, of generations of worshipers making a statement about their faith and their new home.
Do you know a shul you’d like to see side-by-side with Eldridge Street? Let us know in the comments.
Nancy Johnson is the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Archivist and Exhibition Curator.