The Syn­a­gogues of New York’s Low­er East Side: A Ret­ro­spec­tive and Con­tem­po­rary View, Sec­ond Edition

Ger­ard R. Wolfe; Joseph Berg­er, fwd.
  • Review
By – April 23, 2013

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 Syn­a­gogues 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

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions