Thursday, January 28, 2010

The History Detective: Isser Reznik and Sons

It seems like everyone I meet has a family connection to the Lower East Side, which makes sense given how crowded this neighborhood was 100 years ago. Part of the fun of working at the Museum is helping visitors find out more about family who may have been members here and discovering more about individuals who lived and worked in the buildings that still stand right outside our front doors. Recently, Bruce Reznik shared the interesting family photograph below. Taken in front of the family storefront at 77 1/2 Eldridge Street, just down the block from our historic synagogue, the photo captures 2 generations of the Reznik family from which Bruce is descended.

Uncle Shmulkie, Uncle Max,  Great Grandpa Isser and Zehde (Jacob Cuppel Reznik)

Bruce let us know a bit about Isser and his life here on the Lower East Side:
I think Isser had 9 brothers and sisters and they all stayed in Palestine except Isser who came to the US. I think they originally came from Russia . The family had loads of money and invested it in oil during the early 1900's.  Unfortunately they lost it all.  I have a copy of an entry in the "Who's Who of American Jewry" at the time and it tells a little about him.  I know Grandpa Reznik did some designs for the materials they sold in the store.  He had patents for them and I remember him showing them to me.  Unfortunately, [his son] threw them out.  Isser had 2 wives-Zelda Rivkah Reznik (died 1/18/1927). and Sabrina Reznik (11/14/1881-11/11/1967).  Isser  died on 3/11/1944.
 This tantalizing bit of history piqued my interest. Who was Isser Reznik, a man who lived and worked mere steps away from where I now sit? Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, The History Detective, as I discover why Isser remains largely absent from the documentary trail.

Can't wait until the next chapter for more neighborhood stories? Hear all about G&S Sporting Goods, an East Side institution since 1937, in the Lo-Down's new series, "On Essex."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Winter Garden

Here in New York, winter is in full bloom. Over the past few weeks we've experienced snow, freezing rain and winds that seemed likely to lift our historic building all the way to Kansas! This coming Sunday, January 31st from 1-5 PM, join us as we wish away the winter blues with our first-ever Tu B'shvat Winter Garden Festival, a free event celebrating the Jewish Arbor Day and environmentalism.

You may be asking yourself: what in the world is Tu B'shvat? We admit, it is certainly one of the more obscure Jewish holidays, but its focus on celebrating the bounty of the earth and conservation seemed a natural fit with our building's green restoration. And there is never a bad reason for a free festival! We see this as the winter counterpart to our fabulous Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival, which we host every June in celebration of the Jewish and Chinese cultures that share Eldridge Street.

The name Tu B'shvat is actually the date of the holiday, the 15th of the month of S'hvat. The holiday is first mentioned in the Mishna, where the ancient rabbis have a little throwdown over the date. They discuss the four "New Years" in the Jewish calendar (I wonder what they used for the ball drop in ancient Babylon?):
The first of Nisan - new year for kings and festivals - The first of Elul - new year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. - The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing - The first of Shevat - new year for trees, according to the school of Shamai; The school of Hillel say: the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh Hashana:2a)
Our buddy Hillel seems to have won this argument, since the New Year for Trees has been celebrated on the 15th of S'hvat ever since. At Eldridge, we'll be green-ing out with kosher organic wine tasting from Tishbi winery, a seder featuring many varieties of dried fruits and nuts (led by me), kid-friendly planting activities, family tree making and more! Check out the event on our Facebook page for more information (and become a fan while you're there!) For a taste of spring in the dead of winter, this is one event you won't want to miss.

                                                                                                                                                                            Image via Ironic Sans

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Last Word

For a 123-year-old, the Eldridge Street Synagogue is pretty hip. A few weeks ago we witnessed the installation of a public art exhibit by artists' collaborative Illegal Art called "The Last Word." The artists behind the exhibit, Otis Kriegel and Michael Devitt, explain:
There are always things left unsaid. The perfect ending to a conversation with a stranger. A clever comeback in a debate with a colleague at work. A farewell bid to a loved one. Let’s face it; life is full of missed opportunities to get in that last word. What do you wish you had said? As the year draws to a close, we ...invite you participate in Illegal Art's newest public art project, "The Last Word." Write down and deposit your unsaid "last words." Read what others wish they had said. Take a moment to reflect on past conversations in a space resonant with history.
The Lo-Down has a great interview with Otis and Michael from the opening, which took place at the
Museum on December 6th.


In the last Op-Art piece of 2009, the New York Times featured some choice slips left at the Museum at Eldridge Street, Pratt Institute, the Spring Gallery and the Gay Men's Health Crisis:

The installation is still up, but only for a few more weeks! Be sure to make it down to Eldridge before your last words remain unspoken forever. For those of you who can't visit us-- what is your last word? Share it here!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Talk of the Town

We're the talk of the town! In the latest edition of the New Yorker, author and architectural critic Paul Goldberger writes about the Museum's exciting new project, the fabrication and installation of a new East Window in our historic space. Entitled "She Does Windows", Goldberger's article includes tidbits from artist Kiki Smith, Museum at Eldridge Street Deputy Director Amy Stein Milford and Eldridge Street Project founder and preservationist Roberta Brandes Gratz. If you haven't run out to the newsstand just yet, here is a sneak peak of what you'll find inside:
Smith likes that the synagogue already contains five-pointed starts, as well as the six-pointed Star of David. "The five-pointed star is an American invention," she said. "The people who built this were seeking their identity as Eastern European immigrants, but they were also conscious of being in the New World."...She looked up at the glass blocks. "We will make the window a picture of the sky. It will subtly give out energy and liveliness and unpredictability. It will be a rupture."

Here is a roundup of some of the press the new East Window has gotten thus far:

 -Flavorpill: Eldridge Street Landmark Snags Kiki Smith
-NYTimes ArtsBeat: Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans to Design Window for Eldridge Street Synagogue
-The Jewish Daily Forward: New Light for Old Shul
-The L Magazine: Initial Plans for Kiki Smith's Stained Glass Window for the Museum at Eldridge Street Released

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chance Meetings at Eldridge

This story comes to us from Sharon, who manages our fantastic giftshop 3 days a week. Sharon has been involved with what was originally the Eldridge Street Project and is now the Museum at Eldridge Street for over 20 years! She is always ready with a quick suggestion for a local restaurant, advice about what to see in New York, or an anecdote about the Eldridge Street Synagogue from before the heat went on in the early '90s (that is the 1990s. When dealing with an old building like ours, you have to be specific.)

At a recent staff meeting, she told us all a sweet story about how the Museum brings people together. She was kind enough to write down the story to share with the blogosphere:
A lovely couple from Israel recently toured the Museum at Eldridge Street. As they were leaving after their tour, a woman entered and passed them on the stairs. Both of the women turned to eachother and started laughing. They are cousins who haven’t seen each other in 30 years! The other lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She knew her cousins would be in New York but didn’t know where or how to reach them.
They then went to lunch and got caught up. Both parties are grateful to have been at the Museum at Eldridge Street and re-establish a face-to-face connection. Maybe we should have a motto “Where families and friends got to meet and greet!"
Do you have a family connection to the Eldridge Street Synagogue? Check out our list of known members from 1887-present, taken from our historic congregation's Yiddish minute books. Use the comment section below to tell us about your family's ties to our building!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Museum at Eldridge Street Blog

Welcome to the Museum at Eldridge Street’s new blog.  Based in the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, the Museum at Eldridge Street presents the culture, history and traditions of the great wave of Jewish immigrants to the Lower East Side drawing parallels with the diverse cultural communities that have settled in America.

We use our landmark space to tell a multitude of stories and experiences. By visiting, you can explore American history, immigration history, Jewish ritual and culture, art and architecture. Our rich cultural programs bring the space to life with music, literature and laughter, and our walking tours keep pace with the history running through the local streets.

I'm Nina Cohen, Education Coordinator at the Museum (there I am on the left, hanging out in the historic women's gallery!) I'll be writing most of what you'll find here on the blog. I'm a walking-tour leading, history-book reading recent college grad, and the Museum at Eldridge Street is one of my all-time favorite places in New York. Where else can you find a High Victorian synagogue located in the heart of Chinatown? We'll also be featuring updates from our talented and creative staff, giving us the inside scoop on development, education, programs and marketing.

Our hope for this blog is to give you a behind-the-scenes peek into the inner workings of our museum. What work goes into our exhibits, tours and programs? Check back here to view videos of the fantastic musicians who perform in our concerts, photographs and quirky historic articles we’ve discovered, and updates from our creative staff. Our historic neighborhood is always evolving, and I’ll be blogging about its unique history and contemporary life.

We see the blog as a way of opening our historic front doors to the public, and letting you all in. Was that post interesting? Is there an item in our collection you'd like to know more about? How about a historic photo you'd love to see featured? We can't wait to hear from you!

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

New Meets Old at Eldridge

What happens when contemporary art and historic architecture combine? Find out at the Museum at Eldridge Street, which has commissioned artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans to create a new monumental east window for the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue. This installation will be completed in Spring 2010. Walking into the grand sanctuary, visitors will get a taste of both 1887 and 2010, Victorian architecture with a modern day interpretation.

Originally, stained glass rose windows at the front and back greeted worshippers at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on opening day. Always unstable, the East Window finally collapsed out of its frame in the late 1930s, leaving the congregation with a gaping hole at the front of the majestic sanctuary. Lacking the funds for a reproduction, the congregation replaced it with a clear tablet-shaped glass-block design in 1944-45, which remains in the wall today.

During the 20-year restoration process, the East Window became a major question: How do we restore an element for which there are no original building plans and no photographs? After an extended decision-making process, we opted for a new commission which would return an inspiring interior and offer a respectful solution to the irreplaceable original.

Smith and Gans’ design, a galaxy of golden stars against an ever-changing blue firmament, recreates in stained-glass the blue and gold star pattern painted on the walls immediately surrounding the new window. According to their statement, “The new stained-glass window will use the features and motifs of the existing synagogue in a new way so that the mind and eye reflects back on the interior space as they are drawn into the space of the window. The wall pattern of five pointed gold stars against a blue sky will be extended across the window.  The ribs of the window will radiate from a Star of David at the center.  In pattern and shape, this window will be similar to the existing ceiling domes of the synagogue and also the trompe-l'oeil windows to either side of the arc. The current technology of flash glass makes it possible to etch the yellow stars into a blue field without any outline or leading so that they will appear as more intense sources of light within the glow of the window.  The translation of the traditional motif of the synagogue with this material and structure will intensify the floating qualities of the synagogue space and surfaces.”

To inaugurate the new East Window and investigate the challenges of restoration, visit the Museum at Eldridge Street every Wednesday at 1 PM for a special preservation tour. Be sure to keep reading for more about our exciting East Window initiative!

New Year, New Tours

Visitors to the Museum currently have the option of going on our standard tour, Landmark of the Spirit, which focuses on the synagogue’s history, the Jewish East Side neighborhood, and the American immigrant experience. They can also explore our surroundings through our menu of walking tours, which range from the thrilling Gangster, Writer, Rabbi to the moving Love & Courtship.

Our building, however, is multifaceted—not just a historical site, but a significant portal into architecture and religious practice. In order to explore these planes and present them to the public, we are in the process of developing two new visitor experiences.

The Architecture Tour will debut in Spring 2010, and will explore the award-winning restoration of our National Historic Landmark. It will draw parallels with other prominent sites in New York City, nationally, and around the world that have faced preservation challenges and responded in innovative ways.

This tour is a collaborative project between the Museum at Eldridge Street and the preservation programs of Columbia University, Pratt Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. Students are researching and writing about aspects of the building and design that will help the public to engage in the building and its architecture.

Questions to be answered include: Does the design reflect the process of Americanization? What choices were made in its restoration? How does it fit into the museum’s preservation ethos? Are there examples at other sites that might be meaningful? Ultimately, we will hear back from the students about preservation projects that use green technology or sustainable practices, sites that provide creative examples of adaptive re-use, using the case study at Eldridge Street, among others.

We’ll be keeping you updated as this project develops further.

The Church of Sea and Land

While looking into the history of Eldridge Street, I came across a fantastic e-book digitized by Project Guttenberg about a historic church in the neighborhood, located on the corner of Henry and Market Streets.

The Kirk on Rutgers Farm, written by Frederick Brückbauer in 1919, celebrates a century of worship in what began as the Dutch Reformed Church, was then the Church of the Land and Sea, and is now the First Chinese Presbyterian Church. The land was deeded by Henry Rutgers in 1816, and the building on the lot has been standing since 1819.

Learn more about the history of the building.

The introduction by George Alexander describes the history of the church, and the incredible spirit of the worshippers who retained their prayer space even as the walls crumbled around them:
Of the sanctuary, which, for one hundred years, has stood on the corner of Market and Henry Streets, the author, like many others who have put their lives into it, might well say: 'Thy saints take pleasure in her stones, Her very dust to them is dear.' The story of 'The Kirk on Rutgers Farm' is one of pathetic interest. In its first half-century it sheltered a worshipping congregation of staid Knickerbocker type, which, tho blest with a ministry of extraordinary ability and spiritual power, succumbed to its unfriendly environment and perished.
The last line of the paragraph stuck with me, as it so reminds me of our synagogue building and its dramatic rescue. “Those of us who in our unwisdom said a generation ago that it ought to die judged after the outward appearance. Those who protested that it must not die, took counsel with the spirit that animated them, saw the invisible and against hope believed in hope.”

What Is an Eldridge?

To those of us who work here, the name of our street sounds completely natural. One day, Miriam Bader, the Director of Education and I were sitting around discussing walking tours when we suddenly realized that we had no idea for whom our own street was named!

I suggested that it must be a bird, thinking that Eldridge sounds remarkably like partridge, but Miriam found the winning answer: The street is in fact named after Lieutenant Joseph Eldridge, an American soldier in the War of 1812 who was killed after being scalped in Canada by Indians.

As reported in this 1813 letter, “In July 1813, the Ottawa chief, Blackbird, with 150 warriors, joined the British army which had invested the American position at Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. On 8 July, British and Canadian troops and their aboriginal allies ambushed an American patrol outside the fort. The fighting was vicious and casualties were heavy on both sides. During the action Lieutenant Joseph Eldridge of the 13th U.S. Infantry was killed by Blackbird's warriors. American witnesses claimed that he was murdered after being made prisoner and the American commander at Fort George lodged a protest with his British counterpart over this supposed atrocity. That officer asked the superintendent of the Indian Department to investigate the Eldridge incident and, on 15 July 1813, he visited Blackbird to admonish him and to point out that a reward of $5.00 would be paid for each American prisoner his warriors took alive.” Read more here.

In 1817, five streets on the Lower East Side were dedicated to the memories of men who died in the War of 1812: Ludlow, Chrystie, Allen, Forsyth and our good old Eldridge.

Find out more information on the 1817 naming.