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The Synagogue Is Dead; Long Live The Synagogue!:The Eldridge Project At Christie’s

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Modernity has created a culture of dispensability. Everything comes in a convenient size and a disposable plastic bottle. The problem generally features too few trash receptacles for too many throwaways. As specialization has precluded the knowledge of how to fix, we generally find it much easier to trash and purchase anew. Not surprisingly, we experience our museums as we experience our bagged lunches and our outdated computers.

To most museum-goers, art and architecture co-exist in a timeless continuum. Never changing, the art sits atop the walls, upon the pedestals, or in the columns, always there as eye candy for the viewer. And yet, behind every major museum and every architectural landmark lies a preservation and conservation department. The viewer always sees fresh, new art, but only the really astute observer sees the new coats of paint and the refurbished surfaces and the hours upon hours of painstaking labor to maintain the artifacts.

“There is never any lack of cultural materials needing a conservator’s attention,” reads an article from the website of Washington based non-profit organization, the Washington Conservation Guild (WCG). “Many conditions, natural and man-made, cause things to age and deteriorate. Light, extremes of humidity and temperature, insects, pollutants, accidental damage, and neglect hasten the breakdown of wood, stone, metal, paper, adhesive, leather, fiber, glass, and other materials which make up historic and artistic objects.”

The Eldridge Street Project (ESP) is an endeavor to preserve “the Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first great house of worship built by East European Jews in America, as a site for historical reflection, aesthetic inspiration, and spiritual renewal.” This project presents a massive effort
to modernize an aged space. Like all maintenance work, particularly architectural, the project aims to face-lift while still retaining the original facade. An ESP news bulletin calls it “the soul of the building.” The project includes electrical work, plumbing, an elevator, air conditioning systems and many other technological improvements.

“Next winter, for the first time in more than 50 years, it will be warm in the main sanctuary,” says construction manager Terry Higgins.

Based on the Lower East Side, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was built in 1887 as the first house of worship constructed by Eastern European immigrants. The synagogue carries a tremendous history with it (it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996), and also much aesthetic weight.

“The exhibition received steady and enthusiastic attendance and for many Jewish New Yorkers, was a first glimpse at the treasures in their own back yard,” said Howard Zar who promoted the event. “While many have been to Prague, Amsterdam or Venice to visit the great synagogues of Europe, few New Yorkers have been willing to take the number six train
downtown to see the treasures in their own backyard.”

The exhibit that hung at the Christie’s auction house in Rockefeller Plaza last month explored the synagogue’s history as well as its art. The exhibit featured photographs, textiles and a variety of ritual objects from the synagogue’s storage room, including Yiddish-labeled seltzer bottles and New Year greeting cards.

There were two spittoons on display – one featuring an Oriental blue and white design with flowers, and the other design in umber, with a more African look. These spittoons reflect how “Congregation KAJ’s [K'hal Adath Jeshurun] officers made rules of decorum and appointed ushers to enforce them. 

“The ‘Contract for the Sale of Seats’ at Eldridge Street stipulated that individuals purchasing seats ‘must adhere strictly to the rules for maintaining peace and order of the service,’” one reads on the American Jewish Historical Society’s (AJHS) website. “The minute books cite frequent incidents and fines imposed on congregants for interrupting the service, loud talking (especially during the reading of the Torah), late arrivals, unclean language and spitting on the floor. Between 1885 and 1909, the decorum committee purchased dozens of spittoons.” The spittoons are almost crass in their pragmatism, but quite stunning in appearance.

A Russian brass samovar from the late 19th century sits in a corner of the exhibit. A beautifully crafted vessel, it demonstrated the immigrants’ reluctance to abandon their tea drinking habits. Like the spittoons, this vessel proves an exercise in functionalism and aesthetics. It blends tradition, aesthetics and food, revealing a cultural significance entirely lost in modern day coffee pots and the like.

A deep red paroches (ark cover) contains the traditional design of two lions leaning on the Ten Commandments, adorned with a crown: the Crown of the Torah. Beneath, electric green leaves and white flowers complement the reds above, lending the entire piece an Art Nouveau
feel, endemic to the late 19th century.

Finally, a photograph of the interior of the sanctuary prior to the restoration shows a tremendous field of sienna colored pews and exquisite woodwork. The bima is flanked by masterful metalwork with bells, a chandelier and a menorah. The sanctuary reminds us that synagogues can also contain tremendous sculptural forms. In the Eldridge Synagogue, ritual objects happily wed functionality and form in an equal balance.

The Eldridge Street Project recalls the Hashmona’i priests navigating a maze of Grecian statues and digging through the rubble of the Temple to find one pure jug of oil. An important symbol of Diaspora Judaism, the Eldridge Street Synagogue in its restoration marks a point in Jewish history of repair and enhancement. The restoration is especially poignant today, as we hear of synagogues being vandalized in France and elsewhere around the world. The restoration represents a message to the antagonistic community that our service is alive, well,  and beautifully carved, with tremendous detail.

The Eldridge Street Project Exhibit at Christie’s from July 19th to August 5. For more information about the Eldridge Street Project, call (212) 219-0888 or visit www.eldridgestreet.org. For more information on Christie’s, see their website: www.christies.com.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

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About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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