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Archive for November 4th, 2016

haggard and ghastly

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Eldridge Street Synagogue, in today’s post.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, a humble narrator was invited to a “thank you” event for the Open House NY weekend site hosts (we produced a Newtown Creek Alliance event at the 520 Kingsland Avenue Green Roof this year). The event was set for six o’clock in what is now Manhattan’s Chinatown, at the 1887 vintage Eldridge Street Synagogue, a 19th century institution which had fallen into disrepair during the middle 20th century, but which has been restored and converted over for use as a museum.


The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened its doors at 12 Eldridge Street on September 4, 1887, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays. Hundreds of newly arrived immigrants from Russia and Poland gathered here to pray, socialize and build a community. It was the first time in America that Jews of Eastern Europe had built a synagogue from the ground up.

Dozens of Stars of David decorate the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s façade. Here in America, Jews could worship openly and freely. The synagogue was a proud declaration of newly- found religious freedom for the synagogue’s immigrant founders. The synagogue was also emblematic of their economic aspirations. With its soaring 50-foot ceiling and exuberant Moorish-style interior, Eldridge Street provided an inspiring contrast to the crowded tenements, factories and shops of the Lower East Side.

For fifty years, the synagogue flourished. Men and women came in their finery, and mounted policemen patrolled the crowds. The congregation hired world-renowned cantors and in 1918 hired Rabbi Aharon Yudelovitch, the first in a series of famed Talmudists and speakers. Thousands participated in religious services in the building’s heyday, from its opening through the 1920s.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One such as myself enjoys being in the company of other historically minded folks, it should be mentioned, but I’ve always found the people I meet at these sort of gatherings to be somewhat stuffy types who take themselves quite seriously, and that my particular and inescapable sense of humor is neither appreciated nor expected by them. Accordingly, a minimal amount of time is devoted to “socializing” with the “Manhattan people.”

Instead, I wander around and take photos.

also from

“It was as though the synagogue was held up by strings from heaven,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, founder of the Museum at Eldridge Street, of her first impression of the synagogue in the early 1980s. Pigeons roosted in the balconies and benches were covered with dust. Gratz and others rallied to save the building. They formed the non-sectarian Eldridge Street Project, pre-cursor to the Museum at Eldridge Street. The synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996 and more than $20 million was raised to restore it to its original grandeur.

The Museum completed the Eldridge Street Synagogue restoration in December 2007, the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. The restoration received nearly every major preservation honor, including the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation 2008 Preservation Award. The crowning piece of the Museum’s restoration is a magnificent new stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

Today the Eldridge Street Synagogue is home to the Museum at Eldridge Street, which welcomes people from around the world for tours, school programs, concerts, lectures, festivals and other cultural events. The building also continues to be home to Kahal Adath Jeshurun. This small Orthodox congregation has never missed a Saturday or holiday service in the more than 120 years since the synagogue first opened.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The overall architectural impression received from visiting the Eldridge Street Synagogue was that a significant Moorish and or Galician influence was evident in its design. I’ve seen ruins of synagogues in Southern Europe, built during the days of the Ottomans, which this structure reminded me of – but nothing of the size nor as ornate as the one on Eldridge Street. That’s America for you, I guess.

from wikipedia

The Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the first synagogues erected in the United States by Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazis). One of the founders was Rabbi Eliahu the Blessed (Borok), formerly the Head Rabbi of St. Petersburg, Russia. It opened at 12 Eldridge Street in New York’s Lower East Side in 1887 serving Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun. The building was designed by the architects Peter and Francis William Herter, (but unrelated to the Herter Brothers cabinet-makers). The brothers subsequently received many commissions in the Lower East Side and incorporated elements from the synagogue, such as the stars of David, in their buildings, mainly tenements. When completed, the synagogue was reviewed in the local press. Writers marveled at the imposing Moorish Revival building, with its 70-foot-high vaulted ceiling, magnificent stained-glass rose windows, elaborate brass fixtures and hand-stenciled walls.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Star of David is everywhere you look on the front of the building, an elder sign meant to act as both a ward and an announcement that “we are here.” Chatting with one of my cousins about this location afterwards, I kept on coming back to the sort of “Sheols” which the Waxman clan frequented in Brooklyn. There are three forms of modern Judaism in the United States – Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox. I grew up in the former variant, and our ritual centers could best be analogized to Christian churches as being plain and unadorned in the manner of Lutheran or Presbyrterian temples. Eldridge Street was an Orthodox center, and they liked to pour it on in the sort of manner for which the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches are known for. The modern day Orthodox are fundamentalists, and eschew this sort of “glitz.”


By 1910, according to the historian Hasia R. Diner, the neighborhood contained half a million Jews; by contrast, Vienna, one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe, had a Jewish population of 175,000, and Chicago, about 100,000. This neighborhood had one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world — and surely one of the poorest. Most of the area’s 60-some synagogues were humble gathering places named after the Eastern European towns and shtetls from which their worshipers had fled, resembling the social clubs that develop among many immigrant communities.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If you know anything about Jewish mysticism, which the Orthodox are well known practitioners of, you’ll spot instances of Kabbalist motif all over Eldridge Street. The Sephiroth and other occult concepts are omnipresent, and really seem to be governing the designs laid down by architects Peter and Francis William Herter.


This synagogue was built in part to assert the importance of this Orthodox congregation in opposition to the more liberal German Jewish population which bad preceded them. The feeling was that German Jews had become to Americanized and assimilated and had, therefore, given up many of their traditional Jewish practices in favor of the more liberal reform movement. The construction of Eldridge Street Synagogue was a statement on the part of its congregation that one does not need to abandon strict Judaism to su~ in America. The opulence and ornament of the synagogue compare to German Jewish/Reform synagogues of the same period. The architect of the building was the German firm of Herter Brothers, which went on to build numerous Lower East Side tenement buildings. This was not the first synagogue for this congregation, which was housed in earlier buildings prior to raising the capital for the construction of their own building.

Eldridge Street Synagogue is located on the block bounded by Eldridge Street on the west, Canal Street on the north, Allen Street on the east and Division Street on the south. The immediate neighborhood is a sheltered enclave, set off from the surrounding bustle in part by the Manhattan Bridge, which sits just above it. The building fills most of its lot, which is approximately 60 feet wide by 87 feet deep, but is set apart from its neighbors by narrow areaways. This block is part of the densely packed Lower East Side which is a neighborhood known for role as a point of first contact for immigrants throughout the last two centuries, a role that continues to this day. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Eldridge Street, btw, is named for a soldier named Lieutenant Joseph C. Eldridge of the 13th U.S. Infantry, who died during the war of 1812. Eldridge was butchered by the Ottawa, in a fashion horrific enough that the British actually petitioned that American prisoners taken by the Ottawa be rendered to the King’s army in exchange for a substantial bounty. Chief Blackbird told the British that money meant nothing to his people, and refused.


One of the essays in “THE WAR OF 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence” told of “The Death Of Joseph C. Eldridge…,” a lieutenant with the 13th U.S. Infantry, who was ambushed by Chief Blackbird and other Ottawa warriors. The Ottawas, from Michigan, “joined the British army during the siege of Fort George,” and that is the vicinity where was killed. An investigation conducted by Colonel William Claus, of Canada’s Indian Department, ensued at the request of the Fort George commander after it was reported that Eldridge was tortured and killed in captivity.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The second floor of Eldridge Street Synagogue is where the ladies would have been seated, but since it’s a museum now, I was allowed to go up there and get my shots. That’s a Bimah, in the shot above, incidentally.


READER’S PLATFORM (Bimah) — The table upon which the Torah scroll is read. The location, in the center of the sanctuary, follows the older European tradition. The central location is to insure that all can hear the reading of the Torah, and refers to the location of the sacrificial altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. In many American synagogues the bimah is placed in the front of the congregation near the Ark. In Sephardic synagogues the bimah is generally located in the rear.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my tripod with me on this excursion, but I did find a couple of spots where I could rest the camera for a minute. This allowed me to drop the ISO down to 100, and narrow the aperture for a greater depth of field and infinity focus. Next time I come back to Eldridge Street, I’m bringing the tripod.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 4, 2016 at 11:00 am

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