On the southern end of Eldridge Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, between densely stacked grocery stores and restaurants, soaring arches unfold like a pop-up book. This is the Eldridge Street Synagogue — the first Jewish great house of worship constructed in the United States by Eastern European Jews.
Chinese knotwork, Jewish stars, and tightly curved “neo-Moorish” arches jostle together here on this small city block. Today, the synagogue is under the stewardship of the Museum at Eldridge Street. In a moment of rampant antisemitism, and rising anti-Asian hate and Islamophobia, this modest yet magnificent museum has made it possible for neighbors and visitors from diverse cultures to find themselves at home.
In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of Ashkenazic Jews fled murderous pogroms in Eastern Europe and headed towards New York City’s Lower East Side. Signs in Yiddish soon hung from nearly every door in the “most densely populated Jewish community on the planet.” The wealthier Jews who had arrived in the previous decades pooled their money and labor to build an awe-inspiring house of worship.
At the community’s height, more than a thousand souls crowded in for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: scholars, seamstresses, peddlers, and businessmen prayed and sang, navigating joy and sorrow side by side.
But by the 1950s, the synagogue’s halls were much quieter. Upwardly mobile congregants were leaving the tenements for the suburbs. As money dwindled to preserve the sanctuary properly, the remaining small group of congregants met in the beit medrash in the basement. The doors were locked, and the key was tucked away.
In 1982, preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz cracked open the doors once again. “Pigeons roosted in the attic,” she recalled. “Water was pouring through one corner of the roof. Prayer books were strewn about … the dust was so thick that you could write your initials on the benches … I took one look and thought: the full story of Jews in America can’t be told without this building.”
Twenty years and nearly $20 million later, the synagogue was restored to its former splendor. But instead of making the space brand new again, the restorers have left a thin layer of history’s patina in the sanctuary so visitors can find remnants of the space’s history. Now, the floors gleam, but you can still fit the soles of your feet into the century-old grooves made by worshippers rocking back and forth deep in prayer.
Open since 2007, the Museum at Eldridge Street has carefully and lovingly curated a place where Jews and non-Jews alike can enter and learn about the origins of the Jewish culture commonly associated with New York City. Visitors can also delve into less commonly known and too often misunderstood aspects of Jewish life.
“We’re one of the very, very few museums that are housed in a synagogue and are open to the general public,” says the museum’s Deputy Director Sophie Lo. “Because of the history of [antisemetic] hate, with most synagogues, you can’t just walk in. We want to say, come see us and experience this, and learn about these cultural practices.”
Lo, a second-generation Taiwanese American, is not Jewish. But growing up above Jewish neighbors, she had a close connection with the Jewish community. They often celebrated Shabbat dinners together — one night she went home with a mezuzah to hang on her wall. Just as she found a home in Jewish spaces, so do visitors of Eldridge Street, who come from many backgrounds of faiths and experiences.
She has seemingly endless stories, sharing an instance when an elderly Chinese neighbor entered the space, turned eastward, and began to pray. A Muslim man visiting from Pakistan pointed to details on the walls that reminded him of the mosques back home. A scholar of Catholic church architecture recognized the trefoil arches in the pews and wondered if they were inspired by nearby churches. (Given the Catholic faith of the synagogue’s original architects, and the widespread cultural borrowing between Catholic and Jewish architecture, it wouldn’t be surprising.)
The museum was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, but not just because of health restrictions. Lo remembers how many otherwise visitors avoided coming to Chinatown out of the unfounded fear that there was a greater risk of infection there. Recent years have seen a spike in both Sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment) and antisemitism — two hatreds that are more intertwined than many realize. Both communities are often stereotyped in similar ways, from myths of the “model minority” to conspiracy theories suggesting that they control the world’s economy. They are also both targets of the longstanding European Protestant fear of overtly ornamented foreigners from the East.
Architects Peter and Frances Herter lined the facade and the interior with arches and arabesque flourishes that were then popular in an era of the so-called Moorish Revival. This 19th-century style of architecture in Europe and the United States took on an orientalist style. The facades of these buildings — often sites of recreation like theaters and beach houses — conjured a fantasy of the “exotic” and the “other” by harkening back to the time of Muslim-ruled Spain. This aesthetic often created a resplendent surface for violence underneath the justification for the European conquest of Western Asia and North Africa.
Scholars have struggled, however, to understand how Neo-Moorish synagogues fit into this trend. Jews in many cities experienced some liberation in the 1800s, but more rights resulted in a backlash of increased antisemitism. They were still seen as outsiders and in fact, saw themselves as outsiders as well. The grand houses of worship like the vibrantly striped Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary may have signified that Jews were reclaiming the view that they were “others” by playing to the beauty seen in “foreignness.”
Unfortunately, this added to the ire of antisemites. When Berlin’s iconic Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) was opened in 1866, the infamous German theologian Paul de Lagarde sneered: “The Jews clearly emphasize their foreign nature every day through the style of their synagogue … How can they claim the honor of being German if they build their holiest sites in the Moorish style as a constant reminder that they are Semites, Asians, and a foreign people?”
Yet for millions of us from various backgrounds, the synagogue on Eldridge Street is a symbol of home. The Museum proudly affirms its multicultural community in its annual festival of “Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas.” Thousands of visitors crowd into this tiny street each June to slurp chocolatey fizzy drinks, play mahjong, hear Nuyorican poets, and marvel at traditional Chinese lion dancers. The museum’s many exhibitions have explored topics ranging from the Jewish communities of China and the design of menorahs from every corner of the globe.
This museum-inside-a-synagogue may display Jewish art, but it isn’t just a Jewish museum, and it certainly isn’t just for Jews. Executive Director Bonnie Dimun often says: “I want a giant welcome mat outside.’’