Sunday, January 13, 2008

New Light in an Old Synagogue

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.


GIDOCTOR said...

"Indeed, the restoration of the synagogue as a museum (with a small space for worship in the downstairs study)"
To CORRECT your "mis-information":
The CONGREGATION prays EVERY Friday and Saturday UPSTAIRS, in the NEWLY RESTORED BEAUTIFUL SYNAGOGUE! Everyone is WELCOME to pray with us!

GIDOCTOR said...


Rob Snyder said...

Thanks for your comment, but is there a way that we can communicate by e-mail or talk on the phone? I'm fascinated by the difference between the Manhattan Synagogue Website, which clearly describes services at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and the Website of the Eldridge Street Project, which describes the building as "a new museum for lower Manhattan" and goes on to say that the building is "a dynamic cultural and educational center on the Lower East Side. Tours, exhibits and discovery programs tell the story of Jewish immigrant life at the turn of the last century, explore architecture and historic preservation, inspire reflection on cultural continuity, and foster inter-group exchange." No mention of services. What is going on here? Can you help me understand?

GIDOCTOR said...

You may contact Mrs. Bookson at 212-227-8780 for further discussion and information regarding "The Eldridge Street Synagogue"

gail said...

What a beautiful renovation! I attended the program on Sunday and marveled at the care and intelligence that went into the project. In fact, Ben Markowitz, z"l, was sexton for many years there, and was my mother's 2nd cousin. I'm sorry to say I don't remember ever meeting him myself so I'd like to hear from anyone who knows more about him.

Rob Snyder said...

I met him two or three times in the early Eighties. I found him a kind, friendly man who was clearly trying to hold the synagogue together in trying times. I found his commitment, and his basic decency, to be really inspiring.