Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eldridge Street Synagogue / Tenement Museum

Eldridge Street Synagogue
4/18/10, Sunday
Museum at Eldridge Street  ……….....…...  2.5 hrs
Tenement Museum …................................. 1 hr
Museum at Eldridge Street ……......……... $10 each, tour included
   Lecture on synagogue art …….........…... Free
Tenement Museum ..................................... $20 each, tour included

Eldridge Street Synagogue window
The more we get to know New York City, the more we realize that this city of immigrants is not a melting pot, it’s more like a kaleidoscope.  Manhattan and most of the boroughs are broken up into distinct regions, often with visible boundaries, defined by the widely divergent cultures, languages and attitudes of the groups that live there.  Several neighborhoods have had cultures so powerful that they became iconic, forever changing the fiber of the city in a way that echoes even after the neighborhoods have shifted and moved on.  These neighborhoods have names like Harlem, South Bronx, Hell’s Kitchen, Park Slope, Little Italy and East Village; names that evoke a zeitgeist and identity that have become part of NYC’s landscape.  Today we visited one of these legendary neighborhoods: the Lower East Side.

The Lower East Side has long been a starting point for families immigrating from far away lands.  Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Chinese and just about every other nationality that has passed through this city have settled here en masse at one time or another.  The Lower East Side includes some of the most infamous areas in NYC history (the Bowery, Five Points and Alphabet City), as well as some of the most celebrated (East Village and Chinatown).   The region is continuously reborn with each new wave of immigrants, and is a mix of old and young, rich and poor, hipsters and hippies, and small shops and large conglomerates.  Currently, this traditionally lower class neighborhood is undergoing a gentrification of sorts, but its roots are clearly visible.  Landmarks like the Essex Street market, Katz’s Deli and Gus’s pickles still do a brisk business, and old tenement buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with the gleaming glass and steel condominium towers of modern NYC.

Eldridge Street Synagogue
Not surprisingly, this neighborhood is absolutely chock-full of museums.  There are several art museums, notably the controversial New Museum of Contemporary Art.  However, most Lower East Side museums focus on the history of this great neighborhood, like the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and the Museum of the American Gangster.  Today’s museums both focused on immigrant lives around the turn of the century.  These museums were the Museum at Eldridge Street (which exhibits the Eldridge Street Synagogue) and the Tenement Museum.

Eldridge Street Synagogue woman's balcony
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is one of the oldest Eastern European Orthodox Jewish places of worship in North America.  When it was completed in 1887, close to 400,000 Jews lived in this neighborhood, and the synagogue demonstrates the wealth and piety of this community.  At the time, local press marveled at its imposing Moorish inspired edifice, elaborate brass fixtures and stained glass windows.  We fell in love with its beautiful murals, arches and spectacular circular windows.  It reminded us of mujedar places of worship that we’ve seen in southern Spain, and we both felt it was a jewel of NYC architecture.

Synagogue before restoration
For fifty years, the Eldridge Street Synagogue flourished, not just as a place of worship, but as community center where Jewish immigrants could get help, lodging, food, and jobs. However, as time passed, the congregation dwindled.  Immigration laws began to limit new arrivals, the Great Depression reduced congregants' fortunes and many Jews moved out of the city into less crowded housing in the suburbs.  In the 1930s, the shrunken congregation moved out of the great sanctuary and began to use the smaller, cheaper-to-heat house of study in the basement.  By 1950, the roof leaked, widows were broken, the inner stairs were unsound, and the remaining congregants cordoned off the sanctuary.

Thus the beautiful sanctuary room remained empty for twenty-five years, falling slowly into ruin.  Fortunately for us, New York was unwilling to let this treasure fade away, and in 1986 the non-sectarian, not-for-profit Eldridge Street Project was founded to restore the synagogue.  The restoration has been extensive, taking 20 years, $18.5 million, and legions of artists, but, with the installation of the stunning circular sanctuary window, it was finally completed in 2010.
Eldridge Street Synagogue Sanctuary Window, by Kiki Smith

The synagogue is seen with a guided tour that lasts about 30 minutes.  Our tour guide was an immigrant herself, from Eastern Europe, and her tour covered the history of the building and neighborhood, and also gave a highly informative hands-on comparative religion course on the rituals of Orthodox Judaism, all of which was definitely new to us.  We felt the grooves in the floor were men slid their feet as they prayed, learned the difference between a cantor and a rabbi, and stood at the head of the synagogue and slid open the beautiful carved doors of the ark where Torah scrolls were kept.  We loved experiencing pieces of a house of worship that were at once both foreign and familiar to us, and by the end of the tour we could almost hear the voices of ghostly cantors echoing in this beautiful building.

RATING: Eldridge Street Synagogue 
Pauline: 9 out of 10.  Stunning architecture, interesting history and a great tour.
Paul: 9 out of 10. A beloved building built by a community, for a community and saved by a community.

The Tenement Museum
A few blocks from the synagogue is the Tenement Museum, a museum in an old tenement apartment building.  Tenements were once the first homes of the newly immigrated in New York City and this building is the complete opposite of the synagogue; instead of beauty, wealth and spaciousness, tenements are ugly, poor and cramped.  Yet despite the surface differences, its interesting to note these museums cover the same time period, and the same people who lived in these tiny, crowded apartments may have worshiped at the synagogue down the street.  The contrast for these people must have been staggering, as it certainly was for us.

Stairway in entrance hall of tenement apartments
The museum is in a real tenement building, which served as extremely high density housing from the time it was built in 1863 until it was shuttered in 1935 for not meeting building codes (codes requiring un-reasonable things like heat and toilets).  As with the synagogue down the street, the building was a near ruin by the time it was discovered in 1988, but, as it had been uninhabited for 50 years, the building had never been restored and was still in largely original condition, which was exactly what the museum founders were looking for. 

The museum is only seen via guided tours, with each tour telling the story of the actual families who lived in the building and showing their apartments.  An estimated 7000 people lived in this building between 1863 and 1935; the museum has identified 1,300 of them and focuses on just a few families.  You learn about their day-to-day lives: what they did for a living, what they did for fun, their tragedies (like the deaths of their children) and their triumphs (like starting a successful business).  Every fact has been meticulously tracked down from public records (births, deaths, census and tax records), neighbors and descendants.  The museum has also done thorough dissections of the walls and floors in order to restore the original look of the apartments, and the appropriate furnishings were determined from floor marks, living descendants and crime scene photographs.  Every piece of every apartment was meticulously researched, from soap to sofas, and it definitely feels authentic.

Jane Moore, daughter of James and Bridget
We’ve visited the museum twice now and taken two tours: The Moores (an Irish-Catholic family) and Getting By (German-Jewish and Irish-Catholic families), and they covered different parts of the building and had very different stories.  To me, the Moores had the most impact.  This tour focused on people fleeing the Irish Potato Famine, covering the childhood of Bridget Meehan during the famine, the price of her escape and her new life in 19th century New York married to Joseph Moore.  We heard the details about the horrors of the public outhouse (only 4 toilets for the entire building including the bar downstairs), sanitation levels in the neighborhood (garbage and rats everywhere), and the scandalous milk scam that took the life of at least one of Bridget’s children.  It really brought home what early immigrants were up against, and the miracle that many members of the Moore family not only survived but thrived.  Even though Bridget herself died at the early age of 36, her descendants are alive and well in NYC and elsewhere.

RATING: Tenement Museum 
Pauline: 7 out of 10.  Interesting and accurate history, but tours can be inconsistent.
Paul: 8 out of 10.  Excellent preservation of a part of New York's history that should never be forgotten.

The Tenement Museum is one of New York’s newest museums, and has received a ton of attention from the local press.  This museum has been touted as a new kind of museum, one devoted to the contributions of the common man instead of the wealthy.  Hence this museum is very popular, and we ran into dense crowds on our weekend visit.  Also, the museum is not well organized and we’d advise a little preparation work before your visit

Despite the sign, this is not the entrance.
The first problem is finding the museum entrance, which is actually in an unlabeled gift shop across the street from the museum’s address.  Once you enter the shop you’ll see a counter with a crowd milling about in front and a chalkboard behind.  Names are written on the chalkboard, with times and check marks underneath.  After you elbow your way to the counter, you’ll need to get today’s handout, which lists the tours available.  These tours have the names of families covered by each tour.  Each tour covers only one or two apartments, and no tour covers the entire building.  Compare the handout with the chalkboard to determine what is sold out.  We recommend cruising the tours listed on the museum’s website ahead of time to determine which you want to go on.  With an admission price of $20, the Tenement Museum is one of NYC’s most expensive museums, so make sure you pick a tour that interests you.  If you’re really organized, you can purchase in advance and skip the crowds.

Proceed with some caution: the Tenement Museum has worked hard to restore six apartments, but the building is still a work in progress.  Most floors have construction zones, and other areas have been left deliberately un-restored to show the original condition of the building.  You’ll see holes in the walls, exposed plumbing and hanging wires on every tour.  Additionally, due to the fact that this building was built before most building codes, it’s a rough place to walk.  Stairs are step and narrow, hallways are dark, floors are uneven, and rooms are very small.  The museum is not handicapped accessible, and if you prefer not to navigate the stairs and cramped quarters, the museum also gives several good walking tours of the neighborhood.