Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How to Turn Jury Duty into a Holiday! (Part Two)

Last Thurs, on my lunch break from jury duty, I ran down Canal Street to the Eldridge Street Synagogue. It’s that area east of the Fung Wah buses, past the Manhattan Bridge on the East Side. It’s an area of the Lower East Side that still has resisted gentrification, even if it is kind of an extension of Chinatown at this point.

The building is a little jewel. I went inside, paid my ten bucks and asked for a tour. A woman - the tour guide - chatted with me and said she would give me a private tour if no one else showed up.

The building was built in the 1870s. Some East European Orthodox Jews had already been here since the 1850s and had done well for themselves. One, Jarmulowsky, had become a prominent banker. So they decided they would build their own synagogue. Many of the synagogues at the time were buildings that had been converted from other purposes – Christian churches, storefronts. This time, they wanted to build a synagogue from the ground up, something that would be their own. As my tour guide said, they wanted something that would uphold all of their Orthodox traditions from Eastern Europe, but would be American as well.

They have some beautiful artifacts from the time on display. In one, they display the ashes of the original mortgage that was burned in a happy ritual in the forties. They kept the ashes in a ceremonial jar.

An NYU professor in the 70s bribed a caretaker into letting him in to see the sanctuary. There has always been a small but active Orthodox congregation, but the sanctuary was sealed off in the fifties. By the seventies, the ceiling was falling in and there were pigeons and rats everywhere. The NYU professor, who was writing a book on the synagogues of the Lower East Side, got the ball rolling. By the mid eighties, there was a nonprofit in place to restore the building, and it opened last year.

The sanctuary is gorgeous. Breath-taking. The restoration was lovingly done, with a great attention to detail. Some things were left unfinished so the viewer can see what shape the building was in thirty years ago. My guide Naomi had us look at the grooves in the floor. The floor is the original wood, just refinished. The Orthodox men wore grooves into it with praying and chanting so they kept it as it was, physical evidence of the hard work of prayer.

Naomi asked if anyone had noticed the outside of the building with its prominent Judaic symbols and Stars of David. “Do you know why they put all that on the outside of the building?” No, I said.

“Because they could.”

Here’s the thing – I haven’t felt good about my country for the last five to six years. I’ve heard our elected leaders sit and parse narrow legal definitions of ‘torture,’ I’ve heard them say the Geneva Conventions – the rules of war derived from our own Civil War – no longer apply to our enemies. I’ve heard Republican candidates for the nomination turn words like ‘amnesty’ and ‘sanctuary’ into insults. I’ve listened to our leaders extol the sacrifice of our soldiers and then leave the wounded laying in the hallways of Walter Reade Hospital. I could go on.

Going to the Eldridge Street Synagogue made me feel good about this country in a way I have not felt for a while. You can see what this country looked like to a bunch of dirt poor Orthodox Jews fleeing the Czar and enforced military conscription, rape, persecution. They came to the Lower East Side, made money and built their own house of worship and could put their name all over it, something they couldn’t do in Poland or Lithuania or Russia without inviting death and disaster. The tour guide told me of her great-uncles, who worked in bike repair shops, saved their money, and then used it to bring over the next youngest brother in turn, finally bringing Mom over. Bit by bit, nickels in a jar.

This country was the place where they could do that; live and make money and prosper and go to synagogue in broad daylight and announce who they were in the street and have kids and then move off to bigger, nicer houses. They couldn’t have that any place else in the world. Be who they were. And it made me feel proud of my country again.


Gerard said...

Here are some great images of the inside.

David Johnston said...

Those are beautiful, Gerard. Thanks for passing them on.

Martha J Mountain said...

Thank you David. It is so hard these days to remember that we still CAN be a great country. My new rule for judging politicians is this: if they resort to fear-mongering, they're out.