Docent Experience – Maxine Simson

On my first day as a summer intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street some questions came to mind: “Who are the people that come to the Museum every day, and why do they come here?” Upon my first step into the building I was met by voices of varying cadences talking about their grandchildren, the day’s news, or their walk to the Museum. These voices belonged to the docents – the people who lead tours of the building. Every day I have the privilege of speaking with and learning from them. I learn not just about the Museum, but about what brought them to the Museum, what their hobbies are, their interests, and their families. The following Q & A is with Museum docent Maxine Simson, a native New Yorker who has long roots in the Lower East Side neighborhood.

Q: When did you start as a docent at the Museum at Eldridge Street and what drew you to be a docent?

A: I became a docent about three years ago. I recently retired from a career in public relations and one day with my new found freedom, I wanted to show my friend where my father had a place of business, where he had his jewelry shop. We spent the whole day walking on the Lower East Side. I showed her the store and then we walked a little further and saw the façade of the Museum at Eldridge Street. It was like a magnet. I said to my friend, “Let’s go in.” We went inside and something happened. Docent Joyce Shenker gave a wonderful tour and the whole while I looked around and said to myself “I could do this.” I love the idea of this museum, so I trained and I started and it was just like I was back to my roots.

Q: Tell me about your father’s store.

A: My father opened a store just after World War II. I was five years old. He first had a small import and export store on Broadway and then moved the shop to 46 Eldridge Street just a block away from this synagogue. The name of the store was G. P. (Gerald Philip) Simson and Company. It existed between 1949-1956/7. My father learned the jewelry trade from his father and he thought he would make a go of it as a jeweler. My memories are few, but I did come on the train with him from Long Island where I grew up to work with him once or twice. I remember passing the Eldridge Street Synagogue when I came to work with my father. It was as overwhelming then as it is now. I was only as tall as the barrels at Guss’ Pickles. In recent years the former site of the store was home to the very popular Prosperity Dumplings until last year.

Both of my parents are gone and being a docent at the Museum at Eldridge Street just seemed to me to be a new place in my life. It is a way to connect with my father, to be with him. Many times I will sit on the little concourse on Allen Street outside during lunch and just think, “Here I am. Look at the big circle I have made. I am back in the Lower East Side.”

Q: What are some special places that you have in this Synagogue/Museum?

A: I would not describe my favorite part about the Museum as a place, but as a moment. When I give my tours I make my introduction of the synagogue and Museum including the remarkable story of Jewish immigration and the Yiddish culture of the time, but I condense it so as to move to the sanctuary as soon as possible. I often run up the stairs to the vestibule, always ahead of the group, in order to close the doors before anyone can see inside to the sanctuary because I want to blow them away when I open those doors. But I do keep my groups in the vestibule a little longer than usual because there are so many things to say about this one small area. Kids count the Jewish Stars of David. We discuss why this symbol is significant. I talk about the size of this area, and build up to the main sanctuary. Then I open the doors and I love to watch their reaction. That’s my favorite moment.

I also find the museum special because I learn something all the time. I learn about the history, the space, and I also learn a lot from the visitors who connect to the immigration thread whether they are Jewish or not or people who have restored their own homes and can connect with the story of the restoration. People always bring something to the Museum.

Q: What is your favorite spot in the city?

A: The Lower East Side. After my father’s store closed I didn’t really come down to the Lower East Side, but since becoming a docent I realize that there is a pulse down here for me.

Q: If you were to tell a group of visitors about a hidden gem in the city, what would you tell them?

A: There are jewels all over the city. I always tell visitors to discover the Lower East Side. To experience New York I would visit all the neighborhoods I can from the little cobblestone streets in Greenwich Village to the grandeur of Saint John the Divine, and Little Italy and Chinatown. These and so many others are what make the city.

Written by Sydney Bergman, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern

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