Show and Tell: Our “Treasures from the Archives” Tour
by Nancy Johnson, Museum archivist
As an archivist, I look to artifacts and documents to discover the story of a person or place from an earlier time. Often I am working behind the scenes, but on January 27, 2016, I get to share some of my favorite items with visitors on our new Treasures from the Archives tour.
During our typical tour for visitors, staff and docents tell the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. We talk about the immigrant congregation that came together and built the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which is the first grand synagogue built by Eastern European Jews in the United States. We tell how restrictive immigration laws, the Great Depression and suburban exodus led the Eldridge Street congregation to shrink to the point where it could no longer take care of its grand home. We show pictures of the deterioration of the space by the 1970s and 80s and tell how a grass-roots effort restored the historic synagogue to its former grandeur. On the Treasures from the Archives tour, I’ll relate these stories, too. But I also will do some showing along with the telling.
On a test-run of the tour that I led last week, I shared one one my favorite artifacts, an ark curtain that is one of the oldest objects in the Museum’s collection. Here is a picture of the exquisite embroidery at the top of this curtain:
This beautiful artifact is not on display at the Museum because of its large size and very fragile condition. It was so nice to take it out for a special viewing. What stories does it have to tell?
By definition, an ark curtain is used to cover a synagogue’s ark, the cabinet in which 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 the curtain’s embroidered Hebrew 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 in 1887.
We also know that it was made for use during the High Holidays. Green lettering across the top of the curtain says “for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.” A biblical inscription in red that curves across the top relates to these holidays.
The embroidered inscription on swag at the center of the curtain indicates that it was donated by the women of the congregation. This tells us that it was not just the men who were active in this group of immigrant Jews.
There are also stories that can be inferred. Usually ark curtains are made from fabrics like velvet that are both luxurious and sturdy. But this curtain is made of fragile gold silk, the kind that might have been used for draperies or a bed cover. It is likely that it was made from a re-purposed household fabric donated by a congregant. Looking at this regal gold fabric, embellished with elaborate embroidery, we can imagine a congregation that wanted an impressive statement for the high holidays, a time when the synagogue would be filled with worshippers.
Now let’s look at the curtain as a whole (click on the picture to enlarge it if you’d like). At the bottom of the curtain is a different kind of embroidery. With an 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.
I like to think that the life of this object and the stories it tells become a metaphor for the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue itself. The original embroidered curtain was made with the energy, care and pride of its original congregants, just as the synagogue was. The additional embroidery and repair are signs that the curtain was watched over by subsequent generations who sought to keep it viable, saving it in whatever way was possible, even if it was not the most elegant result. And finally, we look to the curtain today – its beautiful beginning, its troubled later years, its will to survive — and treasure it for the story it tells.
Our visitors were intrigued by artifacts like this one that they saw our Treasures from the Archives Tour, so much so that we will do it again on Wednesday, January 27 at 1 pm. Click here for more information and to reserve a space. These artifacts are the next best thing to the people of Eldridge Street themselves – if only we could bring them back, too.