Thursday, November 27, 2014

NYC Life: Tenement Museum and Eldridge Street Museum

Among a lot of people my age, New York City makes headlines for being the "party capital" or the "shopping capital." As a social studies teacher, I am much more interested in it's "history capital" status! In preparation for our upcoming unit on immigration, I paid a visit to the Eldridge Street Museum and the Tenement Museum, located just blocks away from each other on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The Lower East Side has been Manhattan's melting pot for generations, the first stop for countless different waves of immigrants. Although usually associated with Eastern European Jewish immigration, the area is predominantly Chinese today. Mandarin/English signage was everywhere. 

First stop was the Eldridge Street Museum for a 1-hour guided tour. Admission was $7 and included the tour. The museum is the first synagogue built from the ground up by Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jews. The congregation saved up $91,000 (most donated by wealthier members) and paid a pair of non-Jewish German architects to design the building. It was completed in just under a year in 1887. The (very enthusiastic!) tour guide explained that for desperately poor tenement dwellers, coming to such a bright, beautiful space was a welcome escape.  

Photo via Wikipedia since I forgot to take one :(
The synagogue eventually fell into disuse due to a small congregation brought on by a major demographic shift in the neighborhood.  It was rediscovered and restored in the 1980s. The congregation remains small, and the main space is rarely used. As was typical for the time, the synagogue blended a variety of architectural styles, including Moorish, Baroque, and Gothic. It's really a gorgeous space and well worth the visit.

We started in the womens' section. Women were not permitted membership at Eldridge Street until the 1920s (it's not a leap to assume this was in response to the political climate of the day). Until then, women were seated separately behind a curtain, if they attended. Tenement women would rarely get the chance to go to synagogue, as the Sabbath may have been their only time to bathe themselves and their children, go shopping, or otherwise care for their families.

View of the main window

Don't be fooled -the "marble" is actually expertly painted wood 
More pews and stained glass
Children were (and still are) encouraged to roam during the service. Our guide said that this is not unusual even in the most orthodox of congregations.

Then we headed downstairs. Our guide pointed out the elements common to all synagogues and filled us in a bit more about the history of the building. 

Tracks worn into the floor by generations of men rocking back and forth as they prayed

The synagogue sold seats for money. Coveted seats towards the front were very expensive. Seats at the back were cheaper, and often purchased by laborers who may have to leave/arrive at awkward points during the service.
Overall a great tour of a beautiful place. Next I was off to the Tenement Museum, just a short walk away! 

Unfortunately no photography is allowed in the space, and it was too dark to take photos outside, so I snagged these from the internet:

via Wikipedia
The building is part of a row of Tenement buildings. There are several different tours on offer, each about an hour long. I chose the "Sweatshop Workers" tour about the European Jewish experience. Each tour stops at different locations in the building. There are other tours about the Irish immigrant experience and about the German immigrant experience. Each tour costs between $20.00 and $25.00. It's a hefty price, but absolutely worth it in my (rather stingy) opinion. I recommend starting in the gift shop/visitor center for lots of book browsing and a (free) 45-minute informational movie about both the museum and the neighborhood. It really weaves together a lot of threads. Did you know that New York City was once the third most German speaking city in the world?

The Sweatshop Workers tour starts in the front hall of the building, explores an unrestored apartment, and then moves to the Levine and Rogarschevsky family apartments. These families were actual residents of the building.

Restored Levine family apartment. 8 people used to live in this space.

The tour guide was really informative, cheerful, and took all the questions we had. I definitely learned a lot! The tour is of a very cramped space, and involves some walking. Groups are small, since only a few people will fit at a time!

I highly recommend both museums, and even suggest doing them back to back. The synagogue runs tours on the hour, and the distance between the two is just a 10-minute walk. My experience was enhanced by doing both in an afternoon,

Now to come back with my students!

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