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Landmark of the Spirit

Landmark of the Spirit: The Eldridge Street Synagogue

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Landmark of the Spirit
    Book Description:

    New York City's magnificent Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1887 in response to the great wave of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution in eastern Europe. Finding their way to the Lower East Side, the new arrivals formed a vibrant Jewish community that flourished from the 1850s until the 1940s. Their synagogue served not only as a place of worship but also as a singularly important center in the development of American Judaism.

    A near ruin in the 1980s that was recently reopened after a massive twenty-year restoration, the Eldridge Street Synagogue has been named a National Historic Landmark. But as Bill Moyers tells us in his foreword, the synagogue is also "a landmark of the spirit, . . . the spirit of a new nation committed to the old idea of liberty."

    Annie Polland uses elements of the building's architecture-the façade, the benches, the grooves worn into the sanctuary floor-as points of departure to discuss themes, people, and trends at various moments in the synagogue's history, particularly during its heyday from 1887 until the 1930s. Exploring the synagogue's rich archives, the author shines new light on the religious life of immigrant Jews, introduces various rabbis, cantors and congregants, and analyzes the significance of this special building in the context of the larger American-Jewish experience.

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    eISBN: 978-0-300-14283-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Bill Moyers

    Go to the eldridge street synagogue and you will see that Thomas Carlyle was right when he said, “The past is a world, and not a void of gray haze.”

    Flesh and blood, soul and bone were those men and women who built that house of worship. They pressed into its quarters in such numbers that at times a guard had to be stationed at the entrance to manage the crowd. “Lawyers, merchants, artisans, clerks, peddlers and laborers,” families, friends, visitors, and strangers gathered to hear the voice of the Lord God above the din of the tenements and the...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. ONE A Landmark Synagogue
    (pp. 1-14)

    The western side of Eldridge Street is home to a dizzying array of activities. Workers unload vegetable crates, merchants buy restaurant supplies, residents and tourists visit Chinese bakeries and noodle shops, and Buddhist priests offer sidewalk feasts to the gods. So vibrant is the mix of commerce, social activity, and religion that movie and television crews in search of a New York Chinatown scene often set up their cameras here to capture it on film. But their shots tend to omit the eastern side of the street, for there, in the center of the block, stands a synagogue. Its cream-colored...

  6. TWO Laying the Cornerstone
    (pp. 15-31)

    On sunday morning, November 14, 1886, a “magnificent parade” gathered at a construction site encompassing the lots of 12-14-16 Eldridge Street. The organizers, members of Beth Hamedrash and Congregation Holkhe Yosher Vizaner, had merged with the express purpose of constructing a synagogue. Finally, after months of negotiations, lot purchases, and a name change, the day had come for the laying of the cornerstone. The men and women of the new, merged congregation, Kahal Adath Jeshurun, had spared no expense: they had sent invitations to “upstanding visitors,” purchased new chairs, served refreshments, and decorated the site. Both local and uptown dignitaries...

  7. THREE Opening Day
    (pp. 32-48)

    On september 4, 1887, less than ten months after the cornerstone-laying ceremony, congregation members returned to Eldridge Street, joined this time by throngs of downtown residents and uptown observers eager to participate in the new synagogue’s dedication. Some of those in attendance had received formal invitations—the building committee had dispatched “thousands” of them—and others were caught up in the excitement generated by the gathering crowds. According to one newspaper, “an immense number of people” converged on Eldridge Street that afternoon, so many that “the crowds extended to the street, and order was difficult to maintain.”¹

    As people waited...

  8. FOUR Music and Money
    (pp. 49-63)

    Less than two weeks after the dedication ceremony, Cantor Pinhas Minkowsky arrived from Odessa to take his place at the cantor’s stand in the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The acquisition of Minkowsky was a coup for Kahal Adath Jeshurun: the congregation was competing with neighboring synagogues to draw crowds for the High Holiday services, and the immigrant population’s enthusiasm for cantors was such that a man of his stature could possibly trump the synagogue’s architectural beauty as an attraction. Indeed, Minkowsky’s presence in New York so thrilled theYidishe gazetenthat it delayed its review of the synagogue dedication until the...

  9. FIVE E Pluribus Unum
    (pp. 64-89)

    On a saturday morning in May 1902, two women rushed into the synagogue’s sanctuary in the midst of Sabbath prayer services. Their entrance to the male-occupied floor no doubt turned heads. The next steps they took, ascending the bimah, in the center of the sanctuary, must have attracted the attention of the entire congregation, including those seated in the women’s balcony. This was their intention. The women had come to protest what they believed to be a grave infraction of social justice, and according to tradition, matters of social justice allowed for an interruption in the Torah services. On this...

  10. SIX Patriarchs and Matriarchs
    (pp. 90-113)

    Inghetto silhouettes, a 1902 book about the Lower East Side, David Warfield describes the neighborhood’s “revered institution” as a bank, not a synagogue, and its “patriarch” as a banker, not a rabbi. At the bank, the faithful masses come “to deposit or withdraw, to borrow or indorse,” rather than to study or to pray. “Jobblelousky’s bank,” he writes, “is a revered institution of the East Side. It started in prehistoric times, that is to say, before the beginning of the great Russian immigration. The head of the house was a patriarchal gentleman, who owned several blocks of houses, all...

  11. SEVEN The Burning of the Mortgage
    (pp. 114-134)

    In january 1930 the once-thriving congregation Mishkan Israel Anshe Suwalk sold its domed Byzantine synagogue on Forsyth Street, just around the corner from the Eldridge Street Synagogue. In the wake of the Jewish exodus to the boroughs and the stemming of the great tide of immigration from eastern Europe, Lower East Side synagogues were being sold and becoming churches. The congregation’s loss of its synagogue, for years considered “one of the most prominent Jewish landmarks in the neighborhood,” struck a local nerve. The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s president, David Parnes, responded to the news of the Forsyth Synagogue’s demise by summoning...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 135-150)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 151-156)
  14. Index
    (pp. 157-164)