Jewish Patriots: Independence Day at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

In 1914, a seventy-year-old woman wrote a desperate letter to the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. Many Jewish immigrants were struggling with the conflict between their traditional Jewish and new American identities, and looked to the Forward’s advice column, The Bintel Brief, for guidance. This conflict comes to the forefront in this Jewish grandmother’s dilemma:

… a new trouble has fallen on me. A few weeks ago when Austria declared war and we heard that Russia was fighting against Austria, my two sons, who are ardent patriots of Kaiser Franz Josef, announced that they were sailing home to help him in the war. When I heard this, I began to cry and begged them not to rush into the fire because they would be shortening my life. But so far they have not given up the idea of going to fight for the Kaiser.

Answer: …the woman’s two sons should thank God that they are in America, where they are free and can’t be forced to shed their blood for the Austrian Kaiser.

Indeed, freedom was one of the main motivators for Eastern European Jews immigrating to the United States. The divergence between the sons’ American freedom and Austrian loyalties illustrates the conflict of identity faced by so many immigrants. However, as the editor’s response bluntly states, Jews had come for freedom; therefore most people happily found the balance between maintaining their traditional culture and incorporating American ideals of democracy, equality, and liberty.

Many artifacts in the Museum at Eldridge Street’s collection provide fascinating insight into how the congregation assimilated certain aspects of American culture. You can read more about these items at the links below, and, of course, by seeing them in person at the Museum:

The synagogue's 1913 constitution

The synagogue’s 1913 constitution

The congregation’s constitution was inspired by the United States Constitution, and reflected adherence to American system of democracy. A document like this, written with bylaws, articles and amendments, did not exist in European synagogues.

Cast iron corporate seal press

Cast iron corporate seal press

This corporate seal exemplifies the congregation’s desire to both maintain Jewish tradition and observe American laws and values.  The press is shaped like a lion, a traditional Jewish image, while the use of a seal on paperwork demonstrates adherence to American business practices.

The congregation's minute book, from 1860 to 1914

The congregation’s minute book, from 1860 to 1914

The handwritten 1890-1916 minute book also reveals how the congregation adapted American business and legal practices for daily affairs. Although the minutes are written in Yiddish, English words are used increasingly starting in 1905, demonstrating the rate at which congregants were assimilating to American society.

The above items are fascinating in that they not only demonstrate an interaction between Jewish and American culture, but also show how this interaction impacted the daily happenings of the synagogue and its congregants. However, other elements within the Eldridge Street Synagogue speak to the deeper ideologies behind this dual identity.

Detail of the East Window, designed by artist Kiki Smith

Detail of the East Window, designed by artist Kiki Smith

Most visitors to the Museum at Eldridge Street are immediately struck by the luminous Kiki Smith/Deborah Gans window. One notable feature of this artwork is that it features not only a six-pointed Star of David at its center, but also the five-pointed stars found on the American flag. When making this creative decision, Smith and Gans drew inspiration from the original painted walls and domes in the synagogue space, which were also adorned with five-pointed stars that were likely influenced by the stars and stripes. Thus these starry details in the main sanctuary demonstrate not only the original congregation’s embracing of American ideals, but also contemporary ideas about the relation between Judaism, America, and the future.

Detail of the starry domes in the Main Sanctuary

Detail of the starry domes in the Main Sanctuary

In fact, records and artifacts from the synagogue at the turn-of-the-century show the importance of celebrating America to the congregants, including on the Fourth of July. Annie Pollard writes in her book Landmark of the Spirit that original members would deck out the space in red, white, and blue for Independence Day celebrations. One remaining artifact at the Museum are original flagpole holders, which were used to hang American flags out of the stained glass windows.

Flagpole holders

Flagpole holders

The message to be gathered at the Museum at Eldridge Street is that at its core, Jewish identity was not at conflict with American identity. In the United States, Jews were now free to practice their religion, expand economically, and live as citizens — ideals they had always sought. Despite cultural differences and the initial struggles of assimilation, America was a place where Jews were able to live with freedom and prosperity.

Happy Independence Day!

Categories: Events, History, Immigration, Lower East Side

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