Museum at Eldridge Street Synogogue

Art & Culture | History

Beautiful 19th-Century Landmarked Synagogue Turned Museum and Educational Center

Eldridge Street Synagogue Inside

About Museum at Eldridge Street Synogogue

 & why it made the Carpe City list

  • Built in 1887, this stunningly beautiful sacred space was one of the first and finest Orthodox synagogues in the United States.
  • After a meticulous 20-year restoration, the synagogue reopened in 2007 as the Museum at Eldridge Street. Step inside for breathtaking stained glass, opulent interiors, and incredible stories of Jewish life on the Lower East Side.
  • Between 1880 and 1924, more than 2.5 million Jewish immigrants came to the United States, and nearly 75% settled on the Lower East Side.
  • The incredibly dense and thriving Jewish community built dozens of synagogues on the LES.
  • In fact, by 1910 more than 60 synagogues could be found in the neighborhood!
  • Just because there were so many synagogues to choose from doesn’t mean Eldridge Street didn’t draw a crowd: by the turn of the 20th century, 4,000 congregants supported 3 daily services – and the High Holidays? Fahgetaboudit!
  • The Eldridge Street Synagogue was the most opulent synagogue south of Houston Street because it was built by a king…the Kosher Sausage King, that is!
    • Isaac Gellis, the deli-man dubbed “The Kosher Sausage King of America,” was one of the synagogue’s four original founders, He founded Isaac Gellis Wurst Works at 37 Essex Street in 1872. The works was a sausage factory, processing plant, deli and butcher shop. The king served as president of the Eldridge Street Synagogue from 1895-1897.
  • Speaking of being #1, the seats in the sanctuary at the Eldridge Street Synagogue are numbered.
  • To help finance the synagogue, the congregation sold seats in the Sanctuary. Buying a seat was serious business – each one came with a formal contract, which is how we know that a congregant named Isidor Abraham coughed up $1,100 for seat #1 in 1887!
  • You don’t need to sit in seat #1 to see how beautiful the sanctuary is, but you will need to get up close to the ornate marble pillars to see that they are masterpieces of trompe-l’oeil painting.
  • In this opulent and sumptuous space, it appears that fine marble and mahogany are all around you. What you’re really looking at is fine brushwork, designed to trick the eye!
  • Since all of that original brushwork was done by hand, the restoration called for hand-painting, too.
  • The synagogue’s restoration began in 1987, to honor the building on its hundredth anniversary.
  • Before preservationists started restoring the space to the glory you see around you, the synagogue had been abandoned for nearly 40 years. Locked in the 1940s, the doors were not reopened until the late 1970s!
  • To preserve that part of the building’s history, small portions of the sanctuary have been left unrestored.
Eldridge Synogogue Window
Eldridge Street Synagogue Stained Glass Window
  • But, the sanctuary’s most extraordinary element, the show-stopping cerulean stained glass window, is unlike anything that was there in 1887, or 1987, and unlike anything else in the country!
    • Synagogue records tell us that there was a stained-glass window above the ark when the synagogue opened in 1887, but there are no surviving photos, so nobody knows exactly what it looked like.
    • So, during the restoration, the conservators decided to get creative…
    • They commissioned artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans, and the two created something so unique, it’s the first of its kind in the United States!
    • The window, installed above the Ark in 2010, is made of 1,200 individual pieces of colored glass etched with over 650 stars.
    • It spans 16 feet, weighs 4,000 pounds, and sits 50 feet above the ground.
    • It lets in much more light than ordinary stained glass windows because the individual pieces of glass are fused together with silicon instead of lead, a technique that pioneered in Germany and used for the first time in the US on this window.
    • The window features a six-pointed Star of David, and several five-pointed stars. The five-pointed stars are a nod to the American flag because the Eldridge Street Synagogue stands as an American monument as well as a sacred Jewish space.


Carpe City Trivia

Synagogue Founder Isaac Gellis was not the only Top Dog to make his mark on Kosher meats on the Lower East Side

Izzy Pinkowitz, who founded the now-ubiquitous Hebrew National hotdog brand, was once known as “The Mayor of East Broadway,” where he gave out free salami during the Depression.

Egg Creams, Egg Rolls and Empanadas Anyone?

The Eldridge Street Synagogue hosts an “Egg Creams, Egg Rolls and Empanadas” festival every summer to celebrate the Jewish, Chinese and Puerto Rican history of the Lower East Side

Since so many cultures have thrived in this pocket of the Lower East Side, the festival celebrates the past, present and future of the neighborhood through food, art, music and dance!

So what's and Egg Cream?

This classic New York dessert popular with Lower East Side Jews in the first half of the 20thcentury has neither egg nor cream! It’s got milk, syrup, and seltzer – and was served by enterprising soda-jerks as an economical alternative to the more expensive cream soda or ice cream soda.

When you are in the East Village, be sure to check out Gem Spa, one of the most famous spots for an egg cream.
(Sadly Gem Spa recently closed but it was close to our hearts so it still gets a shoutout.  Gone but not forgotten!)

By: Lucie Levine

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