The eminent architectural historian Gerald R. Wolfe captures early synagogue and community life on the Lower East Side and recent synagogue restoration efforts in his fascinating book The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side: A Retrospective and Contemporary View. The history of American Jews is very much entwined with the history of New York City’s Lower East Side. Four out of five Eastern European Jews can “trace their ‘roots’” to the Lower East Side. Close to 500,000 Jews came to the United States in the 1880s to be followed by another 1.5 million in the period between 1990 and 1924 and the majority settled on the Lower East Side. The passage of the National Origins Act in 1924, with its tiny quotas for Southern and Eastern Europe immigrants, put an end to large scale Jewish immigration.
The Lower East Side was a bustling Jewish city. In 1905 there were 542,000 people jammed into a two-square mile area. Most of them were Orthodox. New immigrants quickly established prayer groups and then shuln (plural of shul, the Yiddish word for synagogue). These places of worship ranged from small shtieclach (prayer groups) to exquisite cathedral like edifices. As Wolfe notes, these synagogues served many important functions besides being “religious and social networks.” They provided burial societies, help with illness and unemployment, and helped newcomers “forge an important human connection between the old and new world.”
By 1911, the Lower East Side had 350 active congregations and approximately 70 individual synagogue buildings. Synagogues often had a Hebrew name combined with the places of origin of the immigrants because these new arrivals gravitated towards their own landsmanshaftn (immigrant benevolent societies). There were blocks for Galicians (what is now eastern Poland, the western Ukraine), Romanians, Hungarians, and Levantines (the Ottoman Empire including Syria, Turkey, Palestine, Iraq and the Balkans) and the Russians from such towns as Bialystok and Lubz. For example, The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s actual name is Khal Adas Jesrun with Anshe Lubz (Community of the People of Israel with the People of Lubz). The Bialystoker Synagogue is actually called Bait Ha’Knesset Anshei Bialystok (the Synagogue of the People of Bialystok). Both of these synagogues have been restored and are open for prayer and viewing but most of the other synagogues folded when their congregants left to seek more affluent lifestyles.
This book stands as a loving tribute to Jewish life on the Lower East Side. It is filled with Wolfe’s erudite narrative and beautiful archival and contemporary photographs of synagogues, Jewish life, and the restoration projects. This volume is an update of Wolfe’s 1978 classic book, The Synagogues of New York’s Lower East Side. In this new volume, Wolfe kept the exquisite archival photos of Dr. Jo Renee Fine and added photos and information from a group of very accomplished Lower East Side activists and archivists including Norman Borden, photographer and writer; Dr. Celia Bergoffen, art historian and archeologist; Laurie Tobias Cohen, Executive Director of the Lower East Side Conservancy and William Josephson, founder of the Eldridge Street Project.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to all people who love to become immersed in Jewish history. Appendixes, bibliography, glossary, notes, photos (b&w) and illustrations, recommended readings.
Related: Lower East Side Reading List