Land­mark of the Spir­it: The Eldridge Street Synagogue

Annie Pol­lard; Bill Moy­ers, fwd.
  • Review
By – January 13, 2012

In New York’s Chi­na­town, sur­round­ed by ten­e­ments and small shops, stands the state­ly Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue. Restored to its orig­i­nal splen­dor in 2007, the syn­a­gogue is a mon­u­ment to the East Euro­pean Jews of the Low­er East Side who strove to pre­serve their tra­di­tion­al Ortho­dox Judaism even as they were adapt­ing to the real­i­ties of their new country. 

Through Land­mark of the Spir­it Annie Pol­lard, vice pres­i­dent for edu­ca­tion at the Muse­um at Eldridge Street, pro­vides a cap­sule his­to­ry of Ortho­dox Jew­ry in the Unit­ed States and the chal­lenges it faced from the estab­lished Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, who were turn­ing to Reform Judaism with its impres­sive syn­a­gogues, fam­i­ly seat­ing, and hushed deco­rum. Per­haps because of these chal­lenges, two down­town Ortho­dox con­gre­ga­tions merged in the 1880’s in order to build a majes­tic syn­a­gogue. Moor­ish in design, with ele­ments of Goth­ic and Romanesque archi­tec­ture, the Eldridge Street Syn­a­gogue fea­tured a rose win­dow with Star of David motifs, a soar­ing ceil­ing hung with an ele­gant chan­de­lier, and an impos­ing façade. 

From its begin­ning the syn­a­gogue embraced Amer­i­can life. Deco­rum was encour­aged, with spit­toons lin­ing the aisles, men in top hats, and assigned seat­ing. Women pushed aside the cur­tains that cut off their view from the bal­conies and played impor­tant roles in the syn­a­gogue, orga­niz­ing com­mu­ni­ty and char­i­ty projects. But the syn­a­gogue, led by schol­ar­ly and impas­sioned rab­bis, always main­tained and sup­port­ed tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion, learn­ing, and com­mu­nal obligations. 

As the Low­er East Side com­mu­ni­ty changed and res­i­dents left its crowd­ed quar­ters for Harlem, the Bronx, and the oth­er bor­oughs, the once vibrant sanc­tu­ary fell into dis­re­pair; in the 1950’s, dai­ly wor­ship — the tena­cious con­gre­ga­tion nev­er missed a Sab­bath ser­vice” — was held in the study hall. In 1971, like a sleep­ing princess, the syn­a­gogue and its ele­gant façade attract­ed Ger­ald Wolfe, a New York Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor; he spear­head­ed the twen­ty-year project to restore the syn­a­gogue. Declared a Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Land­mark in 1996, today the syn­a­gogue is a muse­um and edu­ca­tion­al cen­ter — with reg­u­lar Sab­bath and hol­i­day ser­vices. Illus­tra­tions, index, notes, select­ed bibliography.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions