Travelling Tefillin – Warsaw, to the Wild West, to Eldridge Street

Meyer and his uncle Marcus

On June 18, 1904, Meyer Wagner boarded the ship Germanic in Southampton, England. He was bound for New York. So were his two younger sisters, but his young wife, Rose, remained in Warsaw. The couple’s three-year-old son, Walter, wasn’t quite ready for transatlantic travel.

The trip took nine days. Upon arrival, Meyer went straight to see his uncle on the Lower East Side. J. Marcus – we don’t know his full first name – lived at 100 Orchard Street. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was just a few blocks away, and when it was time to go to service Uncle Marcus took Meyer there to worship. It was an experience that Meyer Wagner never forgot. Even after he had left the Lower East Side, Meyer still spoke about its grandeur. Meyer’s grandson, Dr. Eugene Wagner, recalls, “I always remember my grandfather talking about how magnificent this Synagogue was, more beautiful than the one he belonged to in Poland.” It is Dr. Wagner who shared with us Meyer’s story.

Once in America, Meyer got a job working for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. He traveled wherever they performed. The money was very good and over the course of the next year he finally saved enough to bring his wife and young son to New York. Rose and Walter arrived in 1905, and by the time the 1910 census was taken, daughter Lena and son Albert had been added to the family.

By 1911 or ’12, Meyer had a new job:  projectionist. He operated the equipment that brought motion pictures to screens, at a time when the movie business was still in its infancy. As movies gained popularity, Meyer became a founding member of the Projectionists Union. Later his sons became projectionists as well. Dr. Wagner notes that his “reward” for having a father and grandfather in the business is that he is “an avid movie aficionado.”  Coincidentally, today Dr. Wagner lives in California not far from the glamour of the Hollywood movie studios.

Operating early projection equipment required extensive electrical and mechanical knowledge. [Photo: Library of Congress]

Meyer Wagner passed away in 1948, but he was able to attend Dr. Wagner’s Bar Mitzvah. That moment was “a great joy” for both grandfather and grandson.

In 2016, Dr. Wagner visited the Museum at Eldridge Street. He wanted to see the synagogue that his grandfather had always talked about so fondly.  Afterwards, he further solidified the connection between his family and the building – he sent us Meyer Wagner’s tefillin.  The religious artifact had been passed down from his grandfather, then to his father, and finally to him. And after more than a century, it now resides with the Museum at Eldridge Street. The Museum maintains a collection of historic objects and documents related to the synagogue, its congregations, and immigrant life on the Lower East Side. Now Meyer Wagner is officially positioned within that history. The velvet bag holding the shawl is embroidered with Meyer’s initials and with the date 1902 – when he was still in Poland.

“Thank you for allowing our family the privilege of leaving his tefillin to the Synagogue that was so kind to him,” wrote Dr. Wagner, when he sent this gift to us.  We say thank you to you, Dr. Wagner, for this wonderful gift and the touching story that goes with it.  The privilege is all ours.

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