Cultural institutions are reopening as pandemic restrictions have eased, and there is a sense of novelty to walk their halls after more than a year of virtual exhibitions and online lectures. On a recent drive through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I was curious to see whether the Eldridge Street Synagogue had reopened to the public. Along with the Jewish Museum, the Center for Jewish History, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, this building is one of the leading landmarks of Jewish culture in New York.
Also known as Khal Adath Jeshurun with Anshe Lubz, this synagogue was palatial by neighborhood standards when it was completed in 1887. Its exterior has a giant rose window with a Magen David in its center and Moorish-inspired masonry framing the stained-glass windows. The interior is a celebration of colors, patterns, and historical architectural styles. It has the appearance of a choral synagogue typical of a European capital, but its identity signified a change of policy among the Ashkenazi immigrants of the time.
Rather than to purchase a former church or apartment building, members of this synagogue collected enough money to build a unique facility. Rather than representing a specific town, as was the case with many immigrant shuls, this one was designed for a broader membership.
Its history and role in the city’s Jewish life is well documented, as the building is a city landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. What I found fascinating is how an immigrant community managed to construct such a detailed structure.
Upon closer look, much of the interior architecture is the result of trompe l’oeil that matches the columns holding up the ezras nashim, and extends the interior cornices and ceiling lines. On the columns, the appearance of marble is done with painted veins that resemble the colors of the stone. Looking up, the domes are ringed with circular, geometric, and floral patterns that appear as masonry from a distance.
Considering the high cost of Orthodox communal life, any interior decorations beyond the aron kodesh seems like an additional expense that most congregants wouldn’t notice. We are also mindful that diaspora communities are temporary by definition and today’s palatial synagogue may not survive more than a couple of generations, as evident by the former shuls along the Grand Concourse and some of the former temples on Long Island.
Conversely, there is the concept of hiddur mitzvah, using a sterling silver becher rather than a plastic cup; a menorah with a meaningful design, esrogim, Seder plates, challah covers, tefilin bags, taleisim, that beautify the mitzvos performed by these objects.
As the Eldridge Street Synagogue shows, it is possible to emulate architecture on a flat surface using detailed brushwork that lends respectability to the interior, transforming a building into a work of art.
I’ve visited sizable sanctuaries, such as Bais Yosef Meir in Monsey, and imagined them transformed into architectural wonders. This particular shul has rounded windows that line up, a chandelier in the center, and windows atop the aron kodesh that resemble the Luchos. What if there were painted pediments, columns, and floral patterns on the white wall of this sanctuary? What if the windows were colored?
Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere and Congregation Anshei Shalom in West Hempstead were also built with cavernous sanctuaries that are covered in wallpaper that looks like masonry, and a ceiling that resembles the sky. Rather than a disconnect of a detailed aron kodesh but plain walls, in these shuls, the walls, ceiling, and windows match its beauty and theme.
In our home, we’ve applied paint to a red brick wall that was out of style and made the room appear dark and small. By coloring each brick in three shades of gray, the room now appears brighter, and the brick wall matches the white of the adjoining walls. On our exterior, the bricks and mortar were painted in shades of blue and purple to match the siding installed above them. The same solution that was used to beautify the Eldridge Street Synagogue was adopted in our home, at the minimal cost of paintbrushes, cans, and a few hours of intensive work.
By Sergey Kadinsky