Sunday, May 30, 2010

Festival Musings

When I first envisioned a Chinese Jewish Festival more than ten years ago, I thought it would be good for the neighborhood and for our mission to tell the story of the immigrants who made and make our neighborhood special. I imagined Chinese and Jewish artists and musicians sitting side by side informing the public about their traditions. What I did not expect, but experienced starting at our very first festival back in 2000, is the deep feeling of community and joy that emanates from all the participants and festival goers – this is a New York Moment.

Walking south on Eldridge Street from the B Train on Grand Street, you are in Chinatown: dumpling shops and markets sell more than 20 varieties of soy sauce and all sorts of dried foods in bins, fish so fresh that it still moves and store signs in Chinese with auspicious names like Prosperity Dumplings or Good Lock Locksmith; there is a Buddhist temple, too. However, if you look closely, you might notice Harris Levy Fine Linens and remember that your bubbe went there to buy her wedding linens; or you might see a tenement with Moorish windows and a faded Star of David on the faƧade – a sign that the building was once a synagogue.

If you've been lucky enough to visit us on the first Sunday in June over the past 10 years, you might have thought you had stumbled into a whole other wonderful world. You hear strains of klezmer music and see folks dancing a hora. If you stay a bit longer, the strains of Ray Musike’s Romania Romania slowly change into a Chinese folk song led by bandmaster Mr. Hoy and members of the Qi Shu Feng Peking Opera transform themselves into monkey kings and tigers and flip through the air. You shake your head twice, no three times, and enter the 1887 landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue. Sitting side by side is a Hebrew scribe, demonstrating this sacred art, with a Chinese calligrapher. A bit deeper into the sanctuary there is a tefillin maker, a most holy man who so loves his work that you, too become intrigued by his story and his ritual objects and you feel that you might have just stepped into a shop in Jerusalem.

You learn that the synagogue is still a place of worship but just as important that this neighborhood was always an immigrant neighborhood, that just as years ago the shops had Yiddish signs and sold yarmulkes and tallisim and prayer books, now there are Chinese signs and the mamma loshen and lukshen has been transformed to Chinese and pulled noodles and somewhere this odd juxtaposition of Chinese and Jews has turned into a day of mutual respect and sharing. It’s New York after all, where benign indifference can turn into neighborly love, and egg roll meets egg cream for an afternoon of shared delight

-Hanna Griff-Sleven, Director of Programs

Thursday, May 13, 2010

School Days: A Reader's Answer

In response to my last School Days post about the cheder at the Eldridge Street Synagogue, former Director of Education Annie Polland sent in some enlightening details. Taken from a paper she presented at a conference about the institution of the Bar Mitzvah at the turn of the last century, the following gives us a better understanding of why the congregation's school lasted only one year:

Why didn’t these congregations start Hebrew schools from the start? We know that the congregation encompassed far more activities in its domain other than merely worship. Politics, building maintenance, charitable activities, and study for adults all took on formal arrangements in the synagogue. Why then, wasn’t there room for formal children’s education? One reason for the hesitancy in building up their own school was that both individuals members and the congregation as a whole was an early and avid supporter of the Machzike Talmud Torah. Given that strong support, they probably reasoned that duplicating their efforts by exerting energy for a school on their premises would only frustrate those already underway. But by 1901, ideas had shifted: The Board of Trustees met on September 30, 1901 and discussed opening a Talmud Torah for its members: “It will be a good thing for Judaism and also a benefit for our congregation.” Several days later, when the trustees brought the proposal “of establish[ing] a school on Shul premises, to provide instruction for the children of members” and that the school should be under the directorship of the conregation” to the general meeting, it was enthusiastically received, as the members not only unanimously accepted it and appointed a committee [David Cohen at head], but opened up their wallets to pledge individual contributions.

 A total of $569.25 was raised over two fundraising efforts in the fall of 1901 and summer of 1902. “Cash” contains a section devoted to the “Beit Sefer” and shows the fundraising efforts engaged upon by the members. In several fundraising efforts, starting in October of 1901, August of 1902, individuals pledged money, amounting to the sum of $569.25 , from which teachers were hired, ledgers purchased, and advertisements placed.


At the end of the term in December, the board studied the books and decided to continue the school, which would hold its next session starting July of 1902. Over the next year and half, the board and congregation seemed pleased with the school, continuing to support it and even overseeing construction at the Bes Medrash level for the creation of classrooms. The Cash book shows expenses for teachers, one of them Leib Matlawsky, the secretary. In 1903, there appears to be hesitation, with the congregation pledging their renewed support, but appointing a new school committee (perhaps the former one had become dormant?). The problem seemed to be a loss of funds: “To this end, the following committee is appointed to take care of this matter properly, to be knowledgeable about the finances, so that the congregation will know how much to appropriate when necessary.” In addition to their interest in the financial management of the school, they seemed to think that scholarly nature of the school needed some professionalism, and thus one of the first acts of the committee was to appoint Rav Yosef Fried, who directed much of their adult study sessions and had just published Ohel Yosef, as an advisor.


As the term continued, the financial difficulties were not resolved, and in April 1903 the general meeting debated the topic, and in May of 1903 decided to end the congregation’s formal administration of the school, instead allowing the two teachers to continue their classes in the shul for the next six months “at their own expense.” Because the Minutes do not go into any details, and the Cash book shows an imbalance between income and expense, it is hard to say what happened beyond financial failure. Around the same time, the Minutes show that the congregation had just started to debate the option of opening an uptown branch. Many of the members of the school committee were among those who were interested in the uptown branch, so it is possible that their energies and interests were simply diverted. If they had moved uptown already, then presumably their children were in school uptown, and they were less motivated to lend the energies needed to establish a new school downtown. Indeed, David Cohen—the leader of the committee and who would emerge as the leader of the uptown contingent, was himself a prime player in the movement to build the Uptown Talmud Torah. So, it is possible that just at this juncture, many of the wealthier members had or were starting to move uptown, thus shifting their educational ambitions northward as opposed to the synagogue.

Thanks, Annie! Stay tuned for more about the local public schools, the foundation of Jewish day schools and education for girls coming up over the next few weeks.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Lost Languages

Language is one of the aspects of immigration that we explore through exhibits and education programs at the museum. In our Yiddish newspaper interactive activity, visitors become editors of their very own turn-of-the-century paper, mixing articles from socialist presses with editorials from the Orthodox dailies. The display of Yiddish signs from the neighborhood shows the integration of English words into like "clean" and "fix" into the Yiddish language. A recent article in the New York Times discuss issues of language and immigration, highlighting the ways in which immigration can be a death knell for a rare language.

"Listening to (and Saving) the World’s Languages" explores how New York has become the greatest repository of rare languages:

In addition to dozens of Native American languages, vulnerable foreign languages that researchers say are spoken in New York include Aramaic, Chaldic and Mandaic from the Semitic family; Bukhari (a Bukharian Jewish language, which has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan); Chamorro (from the Mariana Islands); Irish Gaelic; Kashubian (from Poland); indigenous Mexican languages; Pennsylvania Dutch; Rhaeto-Romanic (spoken in Switzerland); Romany (from the Balkans); and Yiddish.
For many of these languages, there are more speakers in New York than in the area where the language originated ."'It is the capital of language density in the world,' said Daniel Kaufman, an adjunct professor of linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 'We’re sitting in an endangerment hot spot where we are surrounded by languages that are not going to be around even in 20 or 30 years.'" The City Room blog created a list of the least-commonly spoken languages in New York and how many people are known to speak  them. Topping the list is Cayuga, with only 6 speakers! Though the number of Yiddish speakers is considerably higher, it too is vulnerable and on the list of the Endangered Language Alliance. Once the vernacular of the Lower East Side community, it has fallen into a state of near-extinction outside of Hasidic communities.