Once the most densely populated district in the world, the Lower East Side of Manhattan has witnessed significant changes over the past century. However, one site that has remained — sort of — is the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which was built in 1887 as the first great house of worship by Eastern European Jews in the United States. Designed by German Catholic architects Peter and Francis Herter, the synagogue embodied the promise of religious freedom and the formation of Jewish-American identity.
For decades, the synagogue thrived. But in the 1920s, many Jewish families were moving away from the Lower East Side and new immigration restrictions curbed the Jewish population even further. Post-World War Two, the congregation made the decision to close the main sanctuary and meet for worship in the basement. In 1987, though, the Eldridge Street Project was formed to restore the synagogue to its former grandeur. Twenty years and $20 million later, the building reopened as the Museum at Eldridge Steet. And right around the museum are many Jewish cultural sites and more hidden nods at the Jewish-American experience from a century ago.
On August 26, take a tour inside the stunning Eldridge Street Synagogue and Lower East Side with the Museum at Eldridge Street. With Museum at Eldridge Street docent Richard Soden, stroll through the neighborhood’s 100-year-old history with the street smarts he’s earned as a long-time Lower East Side resident. Learn about what life was like for Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century, where children played, where people shopped and ate, how they received the news, and even where they banked.
While there, discover tenement architecture and locate Jewish motifs on buildings throughout the Lower East Side. Visit upscale fabric shops and clothing stores dating to the 1890s. End up at The Pickle Guys, the last of the Lower East Side’s 60+ pickle shops. At The Pickle Guys, you can purchase over 30 different types of pickled treats, making them “the old0-fashioned way.” You’ll also explore the more recent history, including how the neighborhood has been transformed and adapted to new trends and cultures in the 21st century. The event is free for Untapped New York Insiders (and get your first month free with code JOINUS).
Eldridge Street Synagogue and LES Tour
As grand as today’s Eldridge Street Synagogue is, the first locations of worship for the congregation were in makeshift spaces that included in an attic, below a carpenter shop, above a saloon, and even in a former church. It was not until 1887 that the doors were opened to the building on 12 Eldridge Street. One would think that the first grand synagogue to be built by the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe would be well maintained over the years, but after the main sanctuary was abandoned just a few decades later, the interior was left in great disarray. The dust inside was so thick you could write in it, and cobwebs hung between the pillars. There was extensive water damage to the dome, with water pouring in from the openings. Pigeons had even taken roost in the balcony.
From a distance, the walls and columns of the Eldridge Street Synagogue appear to be made of fine marble. Get closer, though, and you realize they are actually painted to look like it. Fluted columns on the ark in the downstairs sanctuary are the same. In the front of the upstairs sanctuary, trompe l’oeils on either side of the ark show a traditional curtain over the ark doors, painted to look real. Even for the restoration, though, everything was painted by hand, still far more expensive than a simple coat of paint. Additionally, the ark and bimah, the sacred areas of the synagogue, are made of fine walnut.
While there are no photographs of what the original stained glass window looks like, artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans designed a stunning rose window made of 1,200 individually shaped pieces of colored glass, etched with more than 650 stars. However, not all of the art in the synagogue is visible at first glance. There’s a hidden heart on the ceiling instead of a spade, which was “perhaps put there by a romantic artisan” according to the Museum. And not every part of the renovated synagogue is polished — a historic wall deliberately left bare along the left balcony of the upstairs sanctuary allowed the synagogue to look not “like a newborn baby but rather a well-maintained and absolutely loved 120-plus-year-old building,” with aspects of its authentic history present.
Beyond the synagogue, vestiges of the area’s Jewish heritage are still reflected on Hester and Essex Streets, as well as on Grand Street. These include Judaica and clothing stores, delis and bakeries, remnants of the Yiddish Theater District, and other Jewish cultural and religious centers.
On August 26, take a tour inside the stunning Eldridge Street Synagogue and Lower East Side with the Museum at Eldridge Street. The event is free for Untapped New York Insiders (and get your first month free with code JOINUS).
Eldridge Street Synagogue and LES Tour
Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets of the Lower East Side!