When I discovered the Eldridge Street Synagogue in the early 1980s, it felt as if I had encountered a remnant of an all-but-vanished civilization. But thanks to careful restoration by the Eldridge Street Project, the building now presents itself as a sturdy bridge between past and present.
When I first ventured inside I was a graduate student in history planning walking tours on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The aging sexton (Mr. Markowitz, if I remember correctly) not only showed me the downstairs study where a few congregants still worshipped, but let me venture up a rotting staircase into the main sanctuary. There, the Moorish revival architecture, the ornate woodwork and the dust-covered chandeliers were at once breathtaking and forlorn.
For years, I meditated on the irony of the building's history: it was clearly built to last when it opened in 1887, but by the 1930s it was losing membership and headed into a long decline.
So much of immigration history back then seemed to be about the retention of customs from the Old World, but here was a sign that even the most permanent-looking of buildings had outlived its heyday in less than fifty years. I increasingly concluded that Jewish life on the Lower East Side was less a story of permanence and more a story of adapting to changes that came faster than anyone anticipated. Indeed, the restoration of the synagogue as a museum (with a small space for worship in the downstairs study) helps visitors understand just that process.
Thanks to the reopening of the building in December 2007, visitors can explore the changes and continuities that define Jewish life on the Lower East Side. As the Project's Web site points out,
Our restoration philosophy is attuned to the history, stories and aesthetics of an old building. The Project's architectural master plan calls for the restoration of the Synagogue to it original grandeur while leaving intact elements and areas that evidence the building's history. The building's original gas fixtures will remain, as will floorboards worn down by decades of prayer. In addition, there will be areas within the sanctuary that are not aesthetically restored and pay testament to the building's decline as its congregation left the Synagogue and the Lower East Side for more affluent neighborhoods.My one visit to Eldridge Street left me with just enough time to savor the Project's thoughtful restoration and too little time for one of its regular guided tours. I'll be back for one before too long.