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|
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.|
Unfortunately no photography is allowed in the space, and it was too dark to take photos outside, so I snagged these from the internet:
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!
Now to come back with my students!