In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.
Our virtual travels around the globe bring us this time to Italy and the spectacular Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Florence. At first glance this massive building seems to have little in common with the Eldridge Street Synagogue. But a closer look reveals striking similarities in its design and in the intent of the original builders.
The Jewish community in Florence is one of the oldest in Europe, dating back at least to the 15th century. For over 250 years, Florentine Jews were confined to live in a ghetto, segregated from the rest of the city. But in 1848, they were finally liberated. This new era of emancipation led the Jewish community to act on a long-held desire to build a great house of worship, especially after David Levi, a Jewish leader in Florence, bequeathed the funds necessary to build “a monumental temple worthy of Florence.” Before liberation, worship spaces had been discreet and hidden away.This grand new building would openly declare, for the very first time, the Jewish community’s presence. Their temple would stand proudly among the city’s other architectural landmarks and announce their newfound place in society. It was a symbol for this Jewish community as much as it was a space for prayer. Building the Tempio Maggiore began in 1874 and was completed in 1882. The architects were Florentines: Mariano Falcini, Vicente Micheli and Marico Treves, who was Jewish.
The founders of Eldridge Street had a similar desire to mark their presence on New York City’s Lower East Side. In many ways, their own emancipation had come when they arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe and were no longer subject to oppressive government rules, restrictions and persecution. Like the community in Florence, Eastern European Jewish immigrants wanted to declare their presence loudly and proudly by building a grand synagogue. They wanted a building of their own that would command the neighborhood and rival uptown shuls. The motivation, to establish a symbol of their social arrival and aspirations, was the same. That motivation influenced the design of both buildings. In Florence, the dome of the Grand Synagogue claimed its place in the skyline, rivaling the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the 15th century Duomo. In New York, less dramatically, but with the same intention, the finials atop the imposing Eldridge Street Synagogue could be seen from near and far, calling attention to this grand house of worship.
In the design of their buildings, both the Florentine and Eldridge congregations hired local architects who created designs that combined Moorish, Romanesque and other elements. The results, especially on the exterior of the buildings, are very different, but the objective was the same: to use the vocabulary of religious architecture that was primarily derived from churches and cathedrals, and then add to it elements that would distinguish the building as a Jewish house of worship. These were the Moorish elements, often used in 19th-century synagogue architecture, but not in church design.
Inside, every surface of both synagogues is decorated from top to bottom with painted designs – arabesques, scrolls, floral motifs and geometric patterns. In Florence, the interior is the work of Giovanni Panti, who used a palette of red, blue and gold. At Eldridge Street, the painters’ names are unknown, but their designs are similar – some stenciled, some painted freehand. This original paint was restored using traditional methods during the course of the synagogue’s long restoration.
The Tempio Maggiore did not make it through the 20th century undamaged. During World War II, 9,000 Italian Jews were deported or killed, including 500 from Florence. The Great Synagogue was used for storage and was severely damaged; its ark still shows scars of Nazi bayonets. Flooding in 1966 brought new problems. But the Great Synagogue was restored after the war and the flood and has been continuously maintained throughout the years. Most recently, a restoration project repaired the cupola in 2017.
Eldridge Street, of course, did not face damage from war or floods, but it did suffer when its dwindling congregation could no longer afford to maintain the building properly. Our building wasn’t maintained continuously in the same way the synagogue was in Italy and therefore required a much more massive project to preserve the very badly damaged structure. Our extensive 20-year restoration was completed in 2007.
Both the synagogues have been returned to their original majesty, beautifully declaring the aspirations of their original congregations to new generations of worshipers and visitors.
Do you know a synagogue 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.