From Ellis to Eldridge: Immigrant History
Running the Congregation
The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened in 1887. Its plays an important role in Jewish Immigrant History. How did the synagogue’s early members balance Jewish traditions with new American norms?
In its earliest years, the Eldridge Street congregation was run by a small group of successful businessmen. They made the most of their professional skills and knowledge of American business practices. They elected officers, held regular meetings, drew up rules and guidelines, oversaw the care and maintenance of their grand new synagogue and filled the seats with worshippers. They also struggled to raise funds and maintain order during services, and managed the need to keep the Sabbath at a time when Saturday was a regular work day. What emerged was a congregation that was respectful of Old World tradition and belief, but that was also very much a product of America.
1885-1895, shown, excerpt from 1892
Cloth covered ledger book with entries in ink
11.25 x 5.25 inches (closed)
The Museum’s collection includes several aliyah books like this one which list successful bids by members for Torah honors. During services, using a practice called shnodering, an officer of the congregation would stand on the bimah and conduct an auction for the right to read from the Torah. Bidding wars would sometimes break out, leading to increased funds for the congregation, but also, at times, a breakdown in decorum.
The pages shown here list bids for the High Holidays in 1892, with a top bid of $150 from Nathan Hutkoff, a plate-glass dealer, who was the president of the congregation. Shnodering was an effective but controversial method of raising money, and was the subject of much debate among the leaders of the Eldridge Street congregation.
Undated, probably late 19th-early 20th century
11 inches high x 6.25 inches wide x 2.5 inches deep
This metal press is shaped like a lion, and when pressed it embosses the corporate seal of the Eldridge Street Synagogue congregation. This tool combines a traditional Jewish symbol – the lion – with the very American business practice of using a seal on important documents. The congregation’s seal attests to a willingness to adopt American ways and the congregation leaders’ desire to be sure that official paperwork complies with local laws.
November 25, 1887
Ink on paper
14 x 8.5 inches
This is one of several invoices from R.H Casey Carpenter & Builder for their work constructing the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The bill is handwritten and addressed to the trustees of the congregation. Charges are separated into two sections: “To Contract,” specifying costs agreed upon in the construction contract, and “Additional” for extra work done as construction proceeded. Contracted costs include $220 for the rose window and wainscoting; among the additional expenses is $12.60 for 180 feet of pine. The invoice tells us that a daily labor rate of four dollars is charged, but the number of laborers that fee covered is not specified. One of the ways that this invoice differs from a modern one is that it lists expenses very specifically, such as the number of nails used.
Ink on paper
12.5 x 7.75 inches (folded)
This blank seat contract is from 1887, the year of the synagogue’s opening. To raise funds, as well as to prevent arguments, the right to sit in numbered seats in the synagogue was sold to congregants, with the more expensive seats located closer to the ark and the less expensive seats towards the back. While records show that seat number one was sold to businessman Isidor Abrahams for $1,100, the average seat price was 10 dollars, and could be paid in monthly installments. The contract is written in flowery, legal English and is organized in numbered sections, ending with the stated purpose of maintaining “peace and order” in the synagogue. Decorum was important to this aspiring congregation.
In return for their payment, congregants were entitled to certain expectations: they would be entitled to get their seat money back twice over if men and women were caught sitting together or if there ever was a mixed-sex choir singing in the synagogue. This provision of the contract is testament to the congregation’s attempt to maintain Orthodoxy in the face of liberal Reform congregations that were active elsewhere in the city.
Leather bound book with handwritten entries
14 x 9.25 inches (closed)
The minutes of the Eldridge Street Synagogue provide a window onto the workings of a congregation with a thorough understanding of American economic, social and cultural trends and management techniques. In this volume and two others are handwritten entries summarizing meetings held two to five times a month from 1890 through the 1950s. The pages shown here from 1900 are signed by congregation secretary Leib Matalawsky. Among the many topics routinely covered are the admission of new members, resignations and suspensions of members for failure to pay dues, nomination and election of officers, hiring of synagogue workers, charitable activities, burial arrangements, selling and renting of seats for services and repairs and renovation of the building. Although the minutes are written almost entirely in Yiddish, by 1905 English words are used with increasing frequency, a good measure of the rate at which the congregants were assimilating.
Constitution of Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun
6.875 x 5.125 inches
This document from 1913 is a testament to an immigrant congregation’s desire to adopt a very American system to run their place of worship. The text is published both in English and Yiddish, reflecting the dual heritage of congregation members. But the format of the document, which includes bylaws, articles and amendments, and the fact that they called it their “Constitution,” is purely American. The Constitution provides guidelines for annual elections, rules of worship, study, communal service and synagogue leadership. It also includes a history of the 1909 merger of the original congregation, Kahal Adath Jeshurun, with Congregation Anshe Lubtz.
Life at the Eldridge Street Synagogue
In addition to being a beautiful house of worship, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was a place where congregants found community, where they celebrated life cycle events and found support in good times and bad. Life at the synagogue reflected the needs, hopes and habits of its congregants. Use the links below to learn more about what it was like to be a member of this historic congregation.887.
March 29, 1921
Printed paper form with handwritten entries
10.5 x 8 inches
Marriage licenses are a goldmine of information. From this certificate, which was filed with the New York State Department of Health, a whole story takes shape: Harry Replansky was born in 1898, and came to the United States from Volpe, Russia. He lived on the Lower East Side at 114 Chrystie Street and worked as a chauffeur. On March 29, 1921, he married May Wohl, a stenographer, who lived at 55 Avenue C. It was the first marriage for both bride and groom. Mae was born in New York City, but both her parents, Jacob Wohl and the former Gussie Shaffer, where born in Austria. At 22, Mae was a year younger than her new husband.
Morris Dubrin, who was the shames at Eldridge Street, presided over weddings from 1907 to 1927, leaving a cache of marriage certificates for the Museum’s archives, including this one. Couples did not need to be Eldridge members to be married by Dubrin, and the ceremonies did not always take place in the synagogue. In an oral history, Dubrin’s daughter, Gussie, recalled: “A lot of people would come just with their parents. They didn’t want a big wedding, so they’d come to the house. They’d bring some cakes and schnapps. I remember that they didn’t always have a minyan. So my father would go down to Seward Park and ask the people to come up for schnapps and a piece of cake. I remember that very clearly.”
Undated, probably early 20th century
Printed paper map
9.75 x 6.75 inches
A Burial Society at the Eldridge Street Synagogue offered an important service to departed congregants and their families. According to Jewish tradition, a person should ideally be buried within twenty-four hours after their death. Considering all of the tasks of ceremonial nature that must be attended to surrounding a death, many people chose to let the congregation handle the burial services and cemetery arrangements. The Eldridge Street congregation had plots at several cemeteries, including Macpelah Cemetery in Queens, shown on this map. The section of the cemetery for Eldridge Street’s congregation, Kahal Adas Jeshurun, can be found on the upper right hand corner of the map. Harry Houdini is buried in another section of Macpelah and an annual ceremony takes place at his gravesite.
Other burial records in the Museum archives, which date from 1907 through 1964, include records related to other cemeteries where members of the synagogue were buried, such as Bayside, Beth David, Elmont, Union Field, Washington, and Mount Sinai.
High Holiday Ticket
Printed colored paper
3 x 6.5 inches
By 1909, more than 70 percent of the congregation’s income was derived from what the community called, the “busy season for piety.” The practice of selling tickets to services is still extremely common in synagogues. The ticket shown here is for the Rosh Hashahana and Yom Kippur holidays in 1923. It is written in Yiddish, and is numbered to correspond with a specific seat in the sanctuary.
The Constitution of the congregation clearly states that a person cannot be a member of the synagogue if they publicly violate the Sabbath. Many people had to work on the Sabbath and so they could not be members, but thanks to the sales of tickets they could still attend services.
Glass jar with stopper containing burnt paper
6.75 x 4 (diameter) inches
In 1887, the congregation took out a $50,000 loan from the East River Savings Bank in order to pay for the construction of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. In the fall 1944, the synagogue’s members finally raised the $10,000 needed to pay it off. The following March, at a celebration advertised in the Yiddish newspaper, Morgn Zhurnal-Tageblat, and featuring a performance by a leading cantor, the congregation ceremoniously burnt their paid-off mortgage. The remains of the document are contained in this jar, whose top is stamped with the image of the synagogue’s façade. Outright ownership of their synagogue building was a huge cause for celebration for a congregation whose members were dwindling and whose finances had been precarious, at best, for years.
Metal box built into synagogue wall
Tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity, is considered a social responsibility that promotes acts of justice. This metal box with six coin slots is built into the wall in the lower level of the synagogue and was used for collecting Tzedakah donations for six distinct charities. It actually has 2 sides: one for men (shown here) and another on the other side of the wall for women. Congregants could choose between six charities: Meyer Bal-ha-Nes, supporting Jewish settlements in Palestine; Tikkun Seforim, a fund for the preservation and repair of the congregation’s holy books; donations for Yesiva Etz Chaim, the first Jewish school of higher learning in America which was established on the Lower East Side in 1886 and evolved into Yeshiva University; Hazkarat Nishamot, collecting contributions in the name of those who have passed away, which were believed to dignify and elevate their souls; Bedek Ha-Bayis, for general repairs and maintenance of the building; and finally Tzedakah Gedolah, a fund supporting a network of Jewish charitable institutions. There were just six slots because money may not be handled on the Sabbath. The choice of these charities sheds light on the activities the congregants thought were worthy of their hard-earned coins.
Free Loan Society Records
1934-1945, shown, excerpt from 1934
Ledger book with handwritten entries
12 inches x 7.25 inches (closed)
The Eldridge Street Synagogue provided many services to congregants, including interest-free loans. Administered by the congregation’s Free Loan Society, this financing was made to both men and women and was an especially appreciated service during the Great Depression. The pages shown here record loans made in early 1934, listing payments without interest for loans of $25 and $100. This support was a special bonus to members of the congregation and perpetuated a sense of community and trust. Free Loan Society records found in the Museum’s collection begin in the 1890s and continue through the 1940s, a period characterized by changing economic times for the congregation. Still, even as the congregation’s fortunes waned, it maintained its commitment to charity and supporting its own members.
50th Anniversary Journal
Paper pamphlet with metallic paper cover
11.125 inches x 8.25 inches (closed)
When the congregation was running low on funds in 1934, they came up with a unique solution: celebrate their 50th anniversary three years early. The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened in the fall of 1887, but on December 30th, 1934, an anniversary banquet was held at the Broadway Central Hotel, 673 Broadway at East 3rd Street. Local merchants and big businesses paid up to $40 for a page to advertise in this golden souvenir pamphlet, which was given to guests. Manischewitz Food and Wines purchased a quarter of a page to advertise their new ‘Manna Wafers’ alongside congregant Hyman Foont’s pharmacy on Canal Street. The pamphlet also provided information about the congregation and offered greetings from various committee members. The committee greeting ends with a message of gratitude and optimism during the Great Depression: “Our warmest appreciation and thanks are extended to our advertisers and we highly recommend them to our members and friends. with thankfulness and hope, with courage and strength renewed, we will continue onward.”
Undated, probably late 19th – early 20th century
5 x 7.5 (diameter) inches
Spittons in a synagogue? This glazed ceramic bowl reveals the tobacco habit of Eldridge Street congregants. Since observant Jews are not allowed to strike a match to light a cigar or cigarette on the Sabbath, they turned to chewing tobacco or snuff as a way of satisfying both religious tradition and their personal desires. Spittoons were placed on the floor and served as receptacles for excess juices produced from this smokeless tobacco, and a century or more ago, they were not uncommon sights on the floors in both public and private places. Ledgers in the Museum archives show that the congregation ordered new spittoons each Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They were likely kept all around the synagogue, and most certainly close to the built-in snuff box on the bimah in the lower sanctuary, another evidence of the congregation’s dedication to an unhealthy habit. In an oral history, Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Judiasm’s Reconstructionist movement who worshipped at Eldridge Street as a boy, recalled that the sanctuary was “strong with the smell of snuff”.
Around the neighborhood
Today, Eldridge Street and the streets nearby are home to recent immigrants from the Fujian province of China, part of a continuously expanding Chinatown. Most storefronts feature signs lettered in Chinese, grocers sell Asian goods and restaurants specialize in the cuisine native to the neighborhood’s residents. A century ago, in the years following the 1887 opening of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, this neighborhood was the largest Jewish community in the world. Merchants advertised their wares with signs in their native language, Yiddish, a fusion of German, Hebrew and other dialects written in the Hebrew alphabet. These merchants catered to the needs of a transplanted Jewish community, selling prayer shawls and prayer books, kosher meats, offering the services of a mohel or a mikvah.
Garden Cafeteria Sign
Undated, probably mid-20th century
Enamel on sheet metal (neon tubing now lost)
The Garden Cafeteria, just a few blocks from the Eldridge Street Synagogue, was famous well beyond its Lower East Side neighborhood. Located at 165 East Broadway at the corner of Rutgers Street, the Garden Cafeteria not only fed locals but and was home to local Jewish intelligentsia, including Nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer who held court there. The offices of the Jewish Daily Forward were next door and journalists were also was an important part of the scene at the restaurant, oftentimes writing about its colorful patrons.
As shown in the photograph here, the restaurant’s large, three-part sign remained on the building after the Garden Cafeteria closed in 1983. The Museum purchased the sign in April 2005, as the site was being renovated by its new tenant.
Undated, probably early to mid 20th century
Painted metal in wood frame
24.5 x 16 inches
A revered or well-liked cantor was a great source of pride for a congregation, as well as an important way to attract new members. This sign is an advertisement, posted to encourage people to come hear the synagogue’s cantor sing and pray. It has a blank line where the name of the current cantor could be written in, evidence of the transitory nature of the position. The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s first cantor was Pinhas Minkowsky, famous in Eastern Europe, who was hired in 1887 for the astronomical sum of $2,500 per year, more than five times the average New York City’s worker’s wages. This sign probably dates from a later period.
The sign reads: This Sabbath our cantor prays [with space at the bottom for a specific canor’s name]
Sign About Preparing for Passover
Undated, probably early-mid 20th century
Painted cardboard mounted on wood
13 x 21.5 inches
This sign was posted by the congregation advertising services to help members get rid of leavened food – chametz – before Passover, when only unleavened goods may be eaten. The sign tells congregants that they could bring any unused chametz that they had cleared from their homes to the synagogue, where the rabbi would offer to buy it. The chametz would then be disposed of, sold, or distributed to non-Jews. This service encouraged congregation members to keep up tradition. The sign also tells congregants that another Passover tradition would be observed. To commemorate God’s kindness in sparing first-born sons during the final plague of Egypt, first-born sons of many Jewish families fast on the day before Passover, then gather to hear the conclusion of the reading of a chapter of the Talmud that they had been studying.
This sign reads: Sale of leavened products and the conclusion of a chapter will take place in the synagogue and be conducted by the rabbi.
Sign for a Religious Court
Undated, probably mid-20th century
Painted metal in wood frame
24 x 28.5 inches
This sign is an advertisement for a rabbinical court of law which settled “all sorts of arguments and difficulties.” The sign encourages everyone to “come and participate in this rabbinical opportunity.” The rabbinical court was an alternative channel to the civic court for settling disputes, relying on a religious and moral code for judgment rather than US federal or local law. Although the courts were an attempt to promote the importance of religious life and law, few people in America went to them to work out their issues.
This sign reads: Religious Court of Rabbi Abraham Pranman of the Shavat Achim Anshe Slonim Synagogue. All sorts of arguments and difficulties are handled here. Everyone come and participate in this rabbinical opportunity. 231 3rd St Brooklyn, NY. Telephone Evergreene 7-2852
Sign for Synagogue Services
Undated (probably early 20th century)
24 x 25 inches
This sign reveals an immigrant congregation trying to maintain tradition in the face of the modern reality of their new home. Prayer services are offered at 5:30 in the morning, early enough for congregants to attend before going off to work. The red letters in the middle read “All are welcome,” an invitation, perhaps, to those who needed to work on the Sabbath. Additionally, in an amusing compounding of English and Yiddish, the sign promotes work done by the congregation’s caretaker who will “ge-clean” and “ge-wash” prayer shawls and “ge-fix” prayer fringes. Even the fact that a sign was used to communicate with congregants was a new, American development.
This sign reads: Announcement: Here in Brezezaner Synagogue Sons of Jacob the first prayer service will be at 5:30 in the morning. Every day. All are welcome. The shammos of this shul cleans and washes prayer shawls (talesim) and fixes the prayer fringes (tzitzis).