Magazine article The New Yorker

FACE-LIFT; Dept. of Sanctuaries

Magazine article The New Yorker

FACE-LIFT; Dept. of Sanctuaries

Article excerpt

The last time this department looked into the Eldridge Street Synagogue, down in Ben Shahn country, near the Manhattan Bridge, was almost twenty years ago, when the restoration of the synagogue--the first and the grandest of the temples built by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe--was just beginning. Decades of enforced neglect had left the sanctuary sealed off and with pigeons roosting in the rafters. It was, this magazine's correspondent wrote then, "like the Twilight Zone. The room was covered with dust. There were prayer shawls strewn about, and ceramic spittoons on the floor. . . . In the ark were thirty Torahs, in various stages of decomposition." This week, at last, the work is complete, with a spiffiness that would have been inconceivable in that less flush time for the city and the neighborhood. And though the project may have set some sort of Landmarks Preservation Commission record (Longest Time for Continuous Restoration, Synagogue), it has also returned the grand, stained-glass-and-polished-wood- neo-Moorish-Yiddish-Romanesque-Renaissance-Gothic-You-Find-a-Name-for-It space back to its neighborhood and to New Yorkers. Walk down Eldridge Street now and you see the synagogue, almost hallucinatory in its luminosity, wedged in among the workaday tenements and Chinese storefronts like a bright and happy dollhouse.

Eldridge opened in 1887, when four local Jewish merchants--a sausage king, a plate-glass dealer, a banker, and a realestate guy--hired a heretofore undistinguished architectural firm called Herter Brothers to build them a synagogue. But the restoration has returned the temple to the way it was in 1907, when electricity was installed, and a row of light bulbs was used to edge a panel displaying the Ten Commandments, in the style of a marquee. The glory of the synagogue is the scale of its interior--a seventy-foot-high-by-thirty-foot-wide barrel vault, whose two-tiered design (the second tier, which wraps around three sides, rather than being just at the back, was originally meant for Orthodox women) makes it seem even higher than it is and gives it spectacular acoustics. The first thing that the founders did was to bring in Pinchas Minkowsky, a then legendary cantor from Odessa, for the then immense sum of fifteen thousand dollars, on a then unheard-of five-year contract--the cantorial A-Rod of his time.

"The synagogue was the first grand gesture on the part of the Eastern European Jews who were arriving in New York," Annie Polland, the house historian, explained the other day, as final touches were being put on hand-stencilled wall decorations. …

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