The Jewel in the Crown


Landmark of the Spirit by Annie Polland, which has been published by Yale University Press, tells the stirring story — in words and pictures — of how the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side was restored to its original pristine beauty after decades of decay. When it opened in September 1887, the synagogue was located at the center of one of Manhattan's most populous Jewish immigrant neighborhoods; now it's part of what the author calls "a dynamic and expanding Chinatown."

And so it goes in the ever-evolving world of ethnic demographics.

The synagogue's saga of renewal began back in the early 1970s, when New York University professor Gerald R. Wolfe was poking around the old neighborhood and, quite by chance, stumbled across the remarkable edifice. Eventually, he managed to convince Benjamin Markowitz, the sexton at the shul (which still ran services in its street-level chapel), to show him the "sealed-off sanctuary."

As Polland writes, "Although pigeons roosted in the balcony, grime covered the stained-glass windows and painted surfaces, and dust blanketed the wooden surfaces, Wolfe was amazed by its beauty … ." Wolfe also was struck by the sight of an immense brass chandelier that hung from the 70-foot ceiling; the most surprising thing, considering the disarray, was that all the fixture's glass shades were still intact.

But no matter this far from promising terrain, Wolfe and Markowitz began leading visitors on tours of the sanctuary. And, according to the author, the journalist and preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz and attorney William Josephson, hoping to preserve and then restore the synagogue, "incorporated the not-for-profit nonsectarian Eldridge Street Project (now named the Museum at Eldridge Street) in 1986, which mounted the largest independent restoration in New York City not supported by or attached to an institution or government agency."

The actual renovation didn't get under way until the late 1980s, but by the mid-'90s, Gratz and Josephson managed to secure National Historic Landmark status for the building. It took until 2007 for the fully refurbished Eldridge Street Synagogue to be unveiled, looking, says Polland, much the way it did 120 years earlier, when it greeted "throngs of worshippers," most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe.

This magnificent edifice was the jewel in the crown of these peoples' religious lives.

While the author sketches in some of the background to the massive and quite astonishing restoration effort, her real goal here has been to lay out the synagogue's history and what its impressive Moorish architecture meant in its heyday to a certain sector of immigrant Orthodox Jews who'd made the Lower East Side their home.

This beautifully produced volume contains a wide array of striking color photos that attest to the building's highlights — all those features that Wolfe was able to make out on that fateful day, and that so stirred him and others that they took action in order to preserve a significant slice of the Jewish past.


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