Museum at Eldridge Street

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 50 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Kiki Smith’s contemporary stained glass replacement for the museum’s original enormous rose window is extraordinarily beautiful. More about it in the review below.

Museum at Eldridge Street

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the various Jewish communities of the Lower East Side were coming into their own. Immigrants were doing what they do in the Land of Opportunity, pulling themselves up from abject poverty, starting businesses, and finding degrees of prosperity. A group of successful Orthodox Jews decided to build a house of worship that reflected their heritage as well as their new lives in the United States. That was the genesis of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which opened in 1887.

Museum at Eldridge Street

Decline, and Rebirth

Fast forward to the early-mid 1900s.  As happens so often in New York, families moved to new neighborhoods, up and out of the Lower East Side. Eventually, the congregation dwindled and those who remained couldn’t maintain a huge, fancy house of prayer. So they shut it down, meeting in the basement. (A small congregation still meets here to this day). Sealed up, the space declined, and not genteelly. Glass broke, brass tarnished, and pigeons nested and pooped all over the place.

And yet, they never tore the building down. It wasn’t extinguished, just hibernating.

At the turn of the 21st century, the old synagogue on Eldridge Street emerged as a focal point for a movement to commemorate the Lower East Side’s Jewish community in a tangible way. They raised $20 million, which paid for a thorough restoration of the roof, stained glass, woodwork, paint and plaster, and the building re-opened in 2006.

Reviewers throw around words like “dazzling,””extraordinary,” and “miraculous” an awful lot these days.  The Eldridge Street Synagogue restoration, however, entirely merits them.

Museum at Eldridge Street
View from the women’s section

The Building Today

The main thing to see at Eldridge Street today is the building itself. Inside and out it’s a wonder.

Museum at Eldridge StreetThe facade is stone, with Moorish arches and a giant rose window. Superficially it looks a lot like a church — an aspect of “assimilation” maybe? However, even if it borrows some of the architectural traits of a church, this building is confidently not Christian.

The interior overwhelms the senses with its beautifully carved woodwork and elaborately painted walls and ceilings. And some early 20th century high technology: the congregation had the building wired for electricity in 1907. Both the massive chandelier and the Edison bulbs surrounding the 10 Commandments bespeak sophistication.

Museum at Eldridge Street

The Rose Window

Nearly all of the Eldridge Street Synagogue was restored as closely as possible to how it looked in its historic glory, with two exceptions. They replaced a staircase with an elevator, and they added a new piece of art.

The building’s original round window on its east facade was destroyed in a hurricane in 1938. It was replaced, economically, with conventional windows using plain glass blocks.

Museum at Eldridge Street
Kiki Smith, Rose Window Design

For the restoration, the creators of the Museum at Eldridge Street commissioned an enormous round stained glass window from artist Kiki Smith, and it is extraordinary. Riffing off the synagogue’s starry blue ceilings, it depicts an entire universe in glass, with five-pointed stars (“American stars” in Smith’s phrase) swirling around a central Star of David. It’s glorious. For my money this is the most beautiful piece of contemporary stained glass in New York City.

Museum Tales

The Museum at Eldridge Street tells three stories:

  • The story of Jewish immigrant communities of the Lower East Side. This focuses on how they balanced the competing imperatives of maintaining their individual traditions, coming together as a larger group, and becoming American.
  • The story of the building and how synagogues work. That will probably be old hat if you’re Jewish, even more so if you’re Orthodox. But it is invaluable if you’re not.
  • The story of the restoration. In an interesting, meta way, this is a museum to the creation of the museum.
Museum at Eldridge Street
Lighting and woodwork

The restoration hit what I think is a nearly perfect balance between bringing back the building’s beauty and maintaining the feeling that this place has seen a lot of use. The woodwork shines, but at the same time, it’s worn in spots where people stood, or walked, or touched frequently over the decades. The illusionistic paintings — of draperies and marbling on the columns, is deliberately not “perfect” because the originals weren’t perfect. One restorer in a museum video called it “folk work,” and what it lacked in perfection, it more than makes up for in warm humanity.

Displays in the basement tell the story of the Lower East Side’s Jewish communities, speaking to things like entrepreneurship and the rise of Yiddish literature. Three videos speak to the creation of the museum, the history of the Lower East Side, and the new rose window.

Museum at Eldridge Street

I strongly recommend taking a guided tour if you can, particularly if you’re not familiar with Jewish religious practices. It’s a stunning piece of architecture no matter what, but even better to have someone who knows and loves the place to speak with and learn from.

The Museum at Eldridge Street Among New York Jewish Museums

New York City has a myriad of places to explore and learn about Jewish culture, art, and history. To rattle off just a few:

But even in a fairly crowded field, the Museum at Eldridge Street stands out. It evokes its community authentically and joyously. Plus, as I’ve already said ad nauseam, it is an architectural treasure. It almost feels like some higher power was keeping an eye on this building as it slipped into decline, ensuring that we didn’t lose it completely, and that it would still be there when the time was ripe for its rebirth.

Museum at Eldridge Street
Looking for a higher power

Whether you’re Jewish or not, if you have any kind of interest in the history of the city or the immigrant experience, the Museum at Eldridge Street is for you. Ditto if you love fine craftsmanship, or appreciate contemporary stained glass. Finally, if you at all enjoy the sense of the numinous that beautiful, spiritually imbued surroundings can invoke, get thee to Chinatown and visit this place.

For Reference:

Address 12 Eldridge Street, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $14
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