Beyond the Facade & Memories of the Lower East Side
This Sunday, September 18, the Museum celebrated the publication of “Beyond the Facade: A Synagogue, A Restoration, A Legacy.” The book, published just in time for the synagogue’s 125th anniversary year lovingly chronicles the founding, decline and glorious renewal of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. At the event, author Larry Bortniker shared his memories of the Lower East Side, which are excerpted here.
The last time I addressed a large group of people from a bimah was at my bar mitzvah, so it’s taken me a while for a return engagement. Like then, I’ll be reading selections from a book, in this case, one I wrote, my first one, in fact, so today qualifies as another rite of passage for me.
I first came to the magnificent Eldridge Street Synagogue back in the 1960s, when I was a kid and the synagogue was not so magnificent. My father Ben owned a store in Hoboken that sold what used to be called dry goods—which meant everything from women’s bloomers to painters pants to table cloths to army/navy surplus. Every Sunday Ben, my brother Brucie and I would drive through the Holland Tunnel in dad’s green Plymouth to buy wholesale on the Lower East Side. We shopped at places like Motel’s on Ludlow, a walk-down hovel with hundreds of enormous shipping boxes torn open so as to display the merchandise inside. One enormous box might contain 500 men’s solid cardigan sweaters; another might be packed with 1000 summer muumuus. Brucie and I were small enough to climb into the boxes and search for sizes and colors. And let me tell you– that was wholesale! Then we were off to Preger and Werthenthal on Delancey for underwear and socks; then to Max Penchina on Canal for curtains and bedspreads. For lunch we ate at the Garden Cafeteria, a vegetarian factory where everything was boiled, or at Isaac Gellis or Mark’s for the much tastier assortment of triglycerides.
On two rare occasions, the lunar calendar contrived that my father’s yahrzeit for his parents should fall on a Sunday with an early sunset. So Ben brought us here, to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, where he said kaddish, before we headed back home to Jersey. We never stepped foot into this breathtaking sanctuary because it was boarded up at the time and looked less than its best. Rather, we took the dark stairs down to the dark bes medresh below. It would please my father greatly to see the Eldridge Street Synagogue still standing and looking so grand and bright, even though the Lower East Side he knew no longer exists. And that is the miracle of this place, which we’ve chronicled in Beyond the Façade. I know my father would feel honored to have his name mentioned here today, and it’s for his memory that I read this selection from our book.