It has often been said that nowhere in the United States can one find a greater collection of magnificent and historic synagogues than on New York’s Lower East Side. As the ultimate destination for millions of immigrant Eastern European Jews during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it became the new homeland and hoped-for goldene medinah (promised land) for immigrants fleeing persecution, poverty, and oppression, while struggling to live a new and productive life. A third of Eastern Europe’s Jews left for North America; four out of five descendants trace their “roots” to this pivotal neighborhood. The impact of the Lower East Side on these immigrants’ lives can be seen in how their presence transformed its streets and buildings into one of the densest parts of the globe by 1911.
This new and completely revised book includes both archival photographs by Jo Renée Fine from the original 1978 edition, as well as a series of contemporary photographs by Norman Borden that illuminate the status of Lower East Side synagogues today, bringing the story of these magnificent buildings up to date for a new generation of readers.
The first Jews to arrive in North America were the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Congregation Shearith Israel— “Remnant of Israel”) who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654, long before the waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe. These Sephardic Jews (from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for “Spain”) were descendants of Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula prior to their expulsion, typically during the Inquisition that began in 1492. Later, Sephardic Jews arrived from other countries along the eastern Mediterranean—Greece, Yugoslavia, Romania, and other Balkan nations.
Ashkenazi Jews, meaning Jews originally hailing from Western Europe, had trickled into New York in the mid- to late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By 1800, New York City’s Jewish population numbered around four hundred people. Until 1825, there was only one synagogue in New York City, the Mill Street building of Congregation Shearith Israel (1730), where Sephardic rituals were observed. In 1825, the first Ashkenazic congregation, B’nai Jeshurun, was founded on Elm Street (a now demapped northern extension of what is today called Elk Street in lower Manhattan) by a group of English and Dutch members who broke away from Shearith Israel. In the 1820s to 1840s, German-speaking Jews from a variety of areas in Western and Central Europe came to the United States.
With the political and economic turmoil in Germanspeaking areas in Europe in the 1840s and 1850s, the German-