|Should you go?|
|Time spent||32 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||In addition to the historic photos and artifacts the museum has a series of odd, delicate, contemporary wire sculptures hanging below the skylight.
I couldn’t find any explanation for who made them or why they were there. Google solves the mini-mystery: they’re by Judy Moonelis.
Almost all Jewish people in the U.S. are either Ashkenazi or Sephardic. Ashkenazi Jews trace their ancestry to central or eastern Europe, while Sephardic people lived in the Iberian peninsula, until they were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella. However, they are not the only European Judaic traditions. Tucked away on Broome Street in the Lower East Side is the only synagogue in the Western Hemisphere serving Romaniote Jews, a distinct, ancient, Greek community.
The congregation of Kehila Kedosha Janina occupies a modest 1927 building, currently one of the last active synagogues on the Lower East Side. And since 1997 the building has also housed a museum on its upstairs floor– open only on Sundays as of this review– presenting photographs and artifacts describing the community and its traditions.
The Romaniote Museum
As in all traditional Jewish temples, women worship separately, in this case upstairs. The second floor features seating arranged around a narrow, boardroom-table-sized opening that looks down to the main level. Above, a massive skylight offers plenty of daylight. The museum arrays its exhibits (and a modest book and gift shop) around the perimeter of this room. Chintz curtained windows look quaint but, blocked by neighboring apartment buildings, now house wall texts and display cases.
Exhibits speak to the life on the Lower East Side, telling familiar yet distinct stories of balancing assimilation while still retaining elements of a distinctive cultural heritage: language, food, stories.
It felt somewhat like visiting a stranger’s attic, or a collective attic, with all sorts of stuff families from the congregation have donated. Some beautiful things, some mundane.
The museum also speaks to what happened to the Romaniotes in Greece during the Holocaust. The short answer is, 87 percent of their population was wiped out. A wall text says that even the memory of the Romaniote presence is lost in many Greek cities and towns. So places like Kehila Kedosha Janina have an especially strong burden to preserve what might otherwise be lost.
This museum reminded me a bit of the Bayside Historical Society, or perhaps the City Island Nautical Museum. It is perhaps a museum of greater interest and importance to its own community–people who already know the story–than it is to outside visitors.
Who Should Visit the Kehila Kedosha Janina Museum?
Kehila Kedosha Janina speaks to the lives and times of a very specific group of people. The best line on the KKJ website is, “Learn about a people you never knew existed.” I think one should always seize opportunities to do that. Moreover, the Romaniote experience on the Lower East Side serves as a proxy for the experiences of all the many other huddled masses who yearned to breathe free there in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
That said, the museum is a bit of a jumble. I think this place needs a guide. Someone from the congregation could personalize the stories and illuminate the artifacts and photographs. I didn’t have a guide; two elderly gents holding court downstairs just waved me on up when I asked about the museum. Its small size and rather haphazard presentation mean I probably wouldn’t recommend it to the general museum-goer.
The Museum at Eldridge Street is a wonder of religious architecture, and it excels at relating the Jewish Lower East Side experience. But it’s a special case, a very rich congregation that wanted an iconic showpiece. I’m sure the humble Kehila Kedosha Janina building better represents how most Lower East Side Jews worshipped.
If you’re passionately interested in Jewish New York, or the Lower East Side, then visiting this place makes sense. And if you’re going to the Museum at Eldridge Street and want a contrasting view, consider a side trip to the Kehila Kedosha Janina Museum.
|Address||280 Broome Street, Manhattan (between Allen and Eldridge Streets)|
|Cost||General Admission: Free|
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