The Meaning of Independence Day at Eldridge Street

This week, I will give my first tour as a Summer Intern with the Museum at Eldridge Street. If there is one thing I have learned already, it is that delivering a proper tour requires more than the memorization of historical dates and names. Lots of heart goes into recounting the story of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which is a story about Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the United States to sacrifice for better lives. As July 4th approaches, this idea becomes particularly relevant.

Flagpole Holder at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

A flagpole holder at the Eldridge Street Synagogue was used to suspend the American flag on national holidays like Independence Day

Patriotic symbols abound throughout the synagogue’s original artisanal work. On our women’s balcony, three flagpole holders are nailed into the sills of three stained glass windows. Each holder is emblazoned with a five-pointed “American” star as opposed to the six-pointed Jewish Star of David. For decades, these flagpole holders displayed American flags on national holidays and other significant dates including World War One Armistice Day on November 11th in the year 1918. Five-pointed “American” stars are also hand-painted across the synagogue’s internal walls.

Synagogue board members at Eldridge Street quickly adopted a democratic system in which decisions were made on the basis of majority consensus. From the years 1890 to 1945, the congregation kept meticulous records of weekly meetings, written in Yiddish. There is no doubt that the structure of these meetings was intended to mirror the American values of informed debate and voluntary service.

Fourth of July being celebrated at a tenement apartment, 1915

Fourth of July being celebrated at a tenement apartment, 1915

Jewish American poet and New York City native Emma Lazarus devoted her life to aiding in the resettlement and assimilation of these Eastern European Jews to America. She died in 1887—the very year in which the Synagogue at Eldridge Street was built—and her poem “The New Colossus” remains inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’ poem brilliantly evokes turn-of-the-century national character and the timeless spirit of the Fourth of July in its final stanza:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Thanks to Julie Hartman, one of our wonderful summer interns, for this beautiful blog post commemorating Independence Day! 

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