Ways We Worship

What is a Synagogue?

What is a Synagogue? What is a Torah? At the Museum at Eldridge Street you can tour a historic 1887 synagogue and learn about Jewish faith and practice.

The word synagogue comes from the Greek word for “assembly.” It is a place where Jews gather to pray, learn and find community. The Eldridge Street Synagogue served all these functions for the burgeoning Jewish immigrant community of the Lower East Side. Jewish law does not require a synagogue to have any particular architectural form or decoration, but there are several elements that all synagogue sanctuaries have in common: an ark (Aron Kodesh), where the Torah is kept; a reader’s platform (bimah), where the Torah is read before the congregation; and an eternal light (ner tamid), which signifies God’s continuous presence. The Eldridge Street Synagogue also has a cantor’s stand (amud), where a trained liturgical singer leads the congregation in prayer and a lectern from which the rabbi delivers his sermon. Carved wooden panels and richly embellished fabrics decorate the synagogue and have religious significance as well.

Click on the pictures below to see these elements from Eldridge Street and decorative objects made for use in the synagogue.

Ten Commandments

1887, restored 1986-2007, 2009

Carved and painted wood with gilding

Above the ark at Eldridge Street, at the center of a large circular panel ringed with old-fashioned light bulbs, hang wooden tablets on which the Ten Commandments have been inscribed in Hebrew. Their presence in such a prominent location signifies the importance of the Ten Commandments as the word of God and as the moral foundation of Judiasm.


When the restoration of the synagogue was completed in 2007, the left-hand tablet was missing and was replaced with a facsimile. During the summer of 2009, as the Museum’s collection was being cataloged, the missing tablet was found. Like its mate, the paint on the tablet was peeling, its writing barely legible. Evergreene Studios, which restored all the painted surfaces in the synagogue, graciously restored the panels as their gift to the Museum, and they were reinstalled above the ark in time for the High Holidays.

Eternal Light (Ner tamid)

Original lost, reconstructed 1986-2007

Brass electric light fixture


Every synagogue has a ner tamid, an eternal light that symbolizes God’s perpetual presence. At Eldridge Street, it hangs at the top of the ark, suspended from the mouth of a golden griffin. The ner tamid had to be recreated during the synagogue’s restoration, but there was no original to copy. Lighting designers approximated its appearance from old photographs, and crafted a new eternal light from the basket of the only remaining original crown-and-basket lighting fixture in the sanctuary.

Lectern and Cantor’s Stand (Amud)

1887, restored 1986–2007

Carved walnut

When a rabbi gives a sermon or a cantor sings prayers, he stands at the amud. Located directly in front of the ark, the amud at Eldridge Street is an impressive sight. Like the ark and bimah,it is made of carved walnut. On its front, a music stand is decorated with a large Star of David and graceful cut out scrolls. The amud is adjustable in height to accommodate any cantor or speaker who might be engaged by the congregation.


When the Eldridge Street opened in 1887, congregation leaders believed that inspiring music would help fill the synagogue’s seats. For its opening season, they hired famous cantor Pinhas Minkowsky of Odessa, Ukraine. Known as the “Sweet Singer of Israel,” Minkowsky was offered a 5-year contract at $2,500 a year at a time when the average worker made just $434. Added sweeteners included $1,000 to assemble a choir and first-class tickets to America for his family. It worked. Even the poor of the neighborhood were willing to pay the price to hear the great cantor sing.

Reader’s Platform Cover (Bimah Cover)

Undated, c. mid 1930s

Velvet with metallic and silk trim

56.5 x 60 inches

The bimah is covered with a cloth before a Torah scroll is laid upon it. The decoration on this cloth must be simple and flat—it cannot include sequins or three-dimensional embroidery seen on Torah mantles and ark curtains because that kind of decoration might scratch or catch on the scroll. This bimah cover is made of pale beige velvet and decorated with a Star of David and bands of flat gold decorative trim and gold-colored fringe. The embroidered inscription at the bottom is a dedication to couple, Hannah and Rafael Goldshmid, who died in 1934.


Often the color of the readers platform cover will coordinate with the parochet and Torah mantle, and the color itself can have meaning. White or beige textiles like this one are typically used during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Red or blue is typically used during the year.

Reader’s Platform (Bimah)

1887, restored 1986–2007

Carved walnut

 

During services, the Torah is taken from the ark and brought to this reader’s platform, bimah in Hebrew, where its decorative dress is removed. The Torah is then is placed upon the large desk on the bimah to be unrolled and read. At Eldridge, the bimah is in the middle of the sanctuary, following an Eastern European Orthodox custom that has a very useful benefit. Especially in the days before microphones, its central location insured that all in the synagogue would be able to hear the reading of the Torah, a requirement of Jewish law.

 

Like the ark, cantor’s stand and lectern, the bimah is made of carved walnut. A balustrade around its perimeter features posts at each corner topped with brass light fixtures.

Ark Curtain (Parochet)

Undated, c. 1881

Silk with embroidery and appliqués, cotton lining

85.75 x 81 inches


An Ark curtain, or parochet in Hebrew, is hung over the door of the ark where Torah scrolls are kept. This curtain predates the 1887 opening of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. It was made for the ark when the congregation was still in its former home, a converted church at 78 Allen Street. We know this because its embroidered inscriptions mention Allen Street, and because it fits perfectly on the ark now in the lower level chapel at Eldridge Street, which was moved to the newly built synagogue.


A parochet is usually made from a heavy fabric like velvet, but this curtain is made of delicate gold silk brocade, suggesting that it was donated at a time when the congregation was less affluent by a congregant who perhaps had used it for parlor draperies or a bed covering. The curtain was used for the High Holidays, as indicated by the green embroidered words “For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,” and the red Hebrew letters arching across the top that spell out a biblical inscription relating to these holidays. The lettering on the swag tells us that the curtain was a donation of the women of the congregation in 1881. At the center, a Torah crown is sewn, with The Commandment tablets flanked by standing lions, familiar motifs for synagogue and Torah decorations used by Eastern European congregations


The decoration of the top of the curtain is sewn expertly by machine.Below is another type of decoration, clearly done at a later time. Withan amateur’s hand, gold wire coils and metallic fabric have been attached with silk thread to form a tree of life, Etz Chaim, spelled out in Hebrew above the branches. Doves fly above holding pomegranates, Biblical symbols of hope and fruitfulness. When this decoration was new, it would have been shiny and golden and somewhat more in keeping with the embroidery above, but it remains an unexplained addition to this historic curtain. Perhaps it was added to cover a stain or a tear; maybe it was the work of a well-meaning congregant; or could it have hidden significance that escapes the modern eye? Most curious of all is the patch awkwardly added to the base of the trunk.

Ark (Aron Kodesh)

1887, restored 1986–2007

Carved walnut

 

The ark is the most sacred area of a synagogue because it houses the Torah. It symbolizes the biblical Ark of the Covenant, a chest described in the Book of Exodus that God instructed Moses to build to hold the Ten Commandments. Since worshippers must face Jerusalem as they pray, the ark is located on the synagogue’s eastern wall.

 

At Eldridge Street, the design of the ark mirrors the shape and decoration the synagogue’s façade with elaborately carved walnut wood taking the place of the stained glass and terra cotta seen on the front of the building. It was built as a small extension to the main building and can be seen protruding beyond the back wall. The Eldridge Street ark can hold 24 Torah scrolls, a reflection of the large size and relative wealth of the congregation in its heyday. When the main sanctuary was closed in the 1950s, and time and the elements took their toll, the ark remained tightly sealed and the scrolls within survived undamaged. The original red velvet that has lined the ark since 1887 is still in good condition today and its doors still slide open with the touch of a finger.

What is the Torah?

The Torah is central to Jewish life and practice. It contains the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and also embodies Jewish oral tradition. The word Torah means teaching, instruction or law in Hebrew.

The Torah is meticulously handwritten by trained scribes on sheets of parchment that are joined together to make a continuous scroll. The scroll is rolled onto long wooden staves for support. The Torah is read in the synagogue in front of the congregation on the Sabbath, Mondays and Thursdays, and on holidays. It takes a year to read in its entirety.

Torah reading is often the most dramatic part of the Jewish prayer service. The entire congregation stands as the Torah ark is opened and then carried to the bimah to be read. The Torah, which can be more than two feet tall, is an impressive sight.

Click on the pictures below to learn more about the Torah.

Torah Pointer (Yad)

Date unknown, probably late 19th–early 20th century
Silver and silver filigree
11 x 1.5 (diameter) inches

A Torah pointer is called a yad, from the Hebrew word for hand. Traditional yads
like this one have a miniature hand at the end with the index finger
pointing outward. Torah readers use the tiny finger to point to the part
of the densely written text they are reading so that they do not lose
their place. Yads serve another practical purpose as well. They
protect the parchment from the damaging effects of continual handling.
Most importantly, a yad is used because it is considered disrespectful to touch the Torah.

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Torah Stave

Undated, probably mid-20th century

Wood with carved ivory finial

41 x 7 (diameter) inches

 

This stave is one of a pair on which a large Torah scroll measuring 25 inches high would be rolled. Staves are also called rollers or Etz chaim, from the Hebrew for “tree of life.” The carved ivory finial at the top of this stave, which is decorated with a small crown, and the wooden bottom handle are used to handle the scroll without having to touch it. The circular wooden discs rest against the rolled scroll, keeping it in place. A silver ring around the top disk carries an inscription from two congregants who have donated the stave in loving memory of their parents.

Torah Fragment

Date unknown, probably late 19th–early 20th century

Ink on parchment

23 x 26.75 inches

Gift of Rabbi Kevin Hale in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Eric Ray, 2010

This large parchment sheet contains text from Deuteronomy, one of many pages handwritten by a scribe to form a complete Torah. Before beginning to write, the scribe used a stylus to draw a grid of colorless indentations on the parchment to guide the placement of the Hebrew letters he will write. The text is written in columns, and proceeds from right to left. Scribes are specially trained and they work with great concentration and awareness of their sacred task. Torahs may not contain any mistakes, so the scribe must scrape off the ink and rewrite anything not written correctly. But if he makes a mistake in writing the name of God, the page cannot be used because the name of God may not be erased.


Parchment tabs are visible at the sides of this sheet. These were used to attach this page to sheets, now lost, that contained the text that came before and after. A complete Torah contains 248 columns of writing and as many as 80 pages. Completed pages are sewn together by the scribe, then rolled onto specially made staves.

Dressing the Torah

The centrality of the Torah in Jewish life and practice is emphasized by the way it is embellished. Torah dressings are based on the garb of a high priest described in Exodus Book 28, and consist of a cloth mantle or dress, a sash, a crown or finials and a breastplate.

Many of the Torah ornaments in the Museum’s collection feature the same decorative images, all relating to the importance of the Torah. Ten Commandment tablets signify the supremacy of the word of God. Regal symbols like the Torah crown and lions suggest that the Torah is the “king” of the Jewish service. The lions also call to mind the Lions of Judah, symbolic of an Israelite tribe in the book of Genesis, and suggest strength, power and a feared creature, alluding to a general fear of God. These symbols are typical in Ashkenazi (Eastern European) congregations of the late 19th through the mid 20th century.

Click on the pictures below to learn more about Torah ornaments.

Wimpel

c. 1803

Polished linen with applied paint

8.75 x 137.5 inches

Gift of Adriana Baker and Family, 2009

Wimpels are a unique kind of Torah binder that also have a very special personal meaning. They are made by an infant boy’s mother after his bris (religious circumcision) and then used at life-cycle events as he grows. This wimpel was made for a boy named David who was born on November 15, 1803, making it one of the oldest artifacts in the Museum’s collection. David’s mother cut the cloths used during his bris into strips and stitched them together to form this scroll, which is more than eleven feet long. On it she painted the words of a Hebrew blessing asking that God grant that her son be “raised in the paths of the Torah and be escorted to the wedding canopy and good deeds.” She decorated the wimpel with flowers, trees and animals, and an image of
the Torah.


When David reached age 13, the wimpel would have been used to bind the Torah at his bar mitzvah, and later when he married, it would be draped upon the chuppah (wedding canopy), a scene his mother painted on the cloth with great love, if not great skill. This wimpel had been kept in David’s family for more than two hundred years, until it was donated to the Museum by his descendants.

Torah Shield

Unknown (estimated after 1909)

Silver with gold accents

14.5 x 10.5 inches

Torah shields, which are often called breastplates, are an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) tradition. As part of the Torah dress, they are hung by a chain from the Torah staves so that they rest flat on the Torah’s mantle. This shield has a familiar design, with a Torah crown at the top with standing lions at the sides. The Ten Commandment tablets are hinged to open, revealing a tiny golden Torah inside. Below, a small box with a hinged door holds interchangeable plates that are inscribed with the names of holidays, festivals or simply “Shabbat.” The plates have a practical purpose, indicating the reading to which the Torah scroll inside has been rolled. Like the Torah crown and finials, shields often have bells attached, drawing attention to the Torah as it is lifted and carried through the congregation as a part of the service.

This Torah Shield is inscribed “Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun with the men of Anshe Lubz,” indicating that it probably was acquired—and definitely engraved—after the merger of the two congregations in 1909.

Torah Finials

Date unknown, probably early 20th century

Cast silver

16 x 5.5 (diameter) inches

When dressing a Torah, finials are often used instead of a Torah crown. Their hollow ends are fitted over the tops of the staves on which the Torah is rolled. This pair has a typical three-tiered shape, with a crown at the top. Bells on two levels are held in the mouths of dragons, and cut out floral and leaf designs decorate the lower tiers. Standing birds perch on top of each finial. For Torah ornaments made in the United States, an American eagle sometimes took the place of the traditional dove.

Torah Crown

Date unknown, probably early–mid 20th century

Silver and silver filigree

18.5 x 12 (diameter) inches

A Torah crown is the most ornate part of a Torah’s dress. At its base are two short rods that fit over the staves on which a Torah is rolled, so that the crown rises above the scroll. The design and shape of a Torah crown varies depending on where it was created. This crown has an Eastern European design, with three tiers, and typically Polish filigree detailing. The attached bells draw attention to the Torah as it is lifted and carried during services. The bird at the top of the crown could be a dove, released by Noah after the flood to find land and a symbol of hope. Or it could be an eagle, one of four “holy animals” for Jews or a reference—intentional or not—to the American icon.

This crown has the imprint of a Polish silversmith named Perlman stamped onto its base. Although the Eldridge congregation included may Polish immigrants who might have brought this crown from the old country, experts believe the hallmark on this crown is a forgery, and is likely an American copy of an Eastern European design. Torah silver with similar designs was readily available in New York. An identical Torah crown is advertised in an almanac published in 1941 by Meyer Wolozin, who owned a Lower East Side Judaica store.

Torah Mantle

1918–19

Silk with applied materials

27 x 15 inches

A Torah mantle is a decorated cover that is used to protect the Torah from outside elements and also to call attention to the scroll as it is taken from the ark to the bimah to be read during services. The design of these mantles varies greatly depending on where and when they were made, but most of the mantles in the Museum’s collection are typical of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) design of the later 19th to mid-20th centuries.


During the early 1900s, congregants at the Eldridge Street Synagogue would have seen this mantle as the Torah was raised during services. It is inscribed with the congregation’s name, Kahal Adath Jeshurun with Anshe Lubtz, and its pale color suggests that it was made for use during the High Holidays. The decoration of this mantle differs a bit from the traditional Ashkenazi design because it features a menorah in the place usually reserved for the Ten Commandment tablets.


This Torah cover was likely mass-produced in one of the many Judaica workrooms on the Lower East Side. The embroidered congregation’s name and date would have been added after purchase. Commercially-produced textiles like this one do not often find their way into museum collections, but they are typical of what was used every day in the synagogues of the Lower East Side.