Category Archives: history

The Celestial Beauty of the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Walking on the Lower East Side in dreary weather, I decided to take shelter inside the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a place I have long meant to visit. The gorgeous building was originally constructed back in 1887 and was the first synagogue to be established by Eastern European Jews in the United States. While for around five decades it was thronged with people, a dwindling congregation in the neighborhood resulted in the main hall that you see above being abandoned in the 1950s. An extensive restoration that started in the 1980s brought it back to its old world glory and it was reopened to the public in 2007, still operating as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, but also serving as a historical site as the Museum at Eldridge Street. The last of the restoration details was finally finished in 2010.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

The synagogue looms quietly among the low tenements and bustling businesses on the edge of Chinatown. The stately architecture is a mix of Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish (especially in the interior), with rose windows and ornate details within and on its brick and terra cotta exterior. It was designed by two German Catholics, Peter and Francis William Herter, who went out to build other structures in the area as a sort of extension of the style of the synagogue, so if you keep an eye out on the Lower East Side you might see some tenement buildings with the Star of David or other synagogue-like touches. Overall, it feels like a very proud building, and it was built to be a testament to the hopes for the future of the immigrants in the new world and the strength of their beliefs.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

There are guided tours, but I was there late in the day so I opted to wander around on my own. Much of the wood in the building has been their for over a hundred years, and you can see in the wear of the staircases, benches, and floors the phantom movement of the thousands who have been there before.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

From the second story, which is the section for women during Orthodox services, you get the best view of the absolutely stunning stained glass window that was part of the restoration. It’s a celestial swirl of stars created by artist Kiki Smith with architect Deborah Gans, and seems to absorb the star details on the painted ceilings and shades of blue in the smaller stained glass and then project it all back in a way that’s strangely galactic and entrancing.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

It’s hard to imagine how transporting it would have been to be a newly arrived immigrant in chaotic and grimy  19th century New York and to suddenly step into this soaring room of arches and swelling space rising to 50 feet at the highest dome, and gas-lit chandeliers hovering above their heads. Even today it feels like you are suddenly somewhere else in the quiet peace only interrupted by the creaking of the old floorboards.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

I definitely recommend a visit to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, especially if you are looking for an escape from the cold winter days into warm place where you can stare into a cosmic portal spiraling above a 19th century relic of New York’s rich history.

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Liberty State Park & the Black Tom Explosion

Manhattan is an impossible place to grasp while you’re on it, it’s only with water between you that you can see the density of the buildings and stratus of the architecture. Buildings indicate neighborhoods and you can see how it all ripples from impossible heights down the island. For some of the best views, I recommend traveling to Jersey City and walking through Liberty State Park, which is what Hannah and I did after exploring the park’s abandoned train station. The park was also of interest to me as the site of the biggest act of WWI sabotage committed on US soil: the Black Tom Explosion.

If you do make it over to Liberty State Park, be advised that there is absolutely no shade by the water and it is also an incredibly long park, so be prepared to walk and walk and walk. While a sprawl of green now, the area of the park was once part of the industrial waterfront. When the railroad station closed and these industries declined, the area was derelict and abandoned. The park was finally opened in 1976 and is now comprised of an incredible 1,122 acres.

The park takes you by the bridge to Ellis Island, which is quite close. We could see some of the off limits areas which I would love to someday be able to visit.

You can also get the closest to the Statue of Liberty without taking the ferry.

Getting back to the aforementioned Black Tom Explosion, the marker for it is at the very end of the park, after the skyline of Manhattan has become more distant. Back in 1916 in the middle of World War I, Black Tom island, which was near Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty stands, was used as a depot for thousands of tons of munitions that were destined for the Allies in Europe. (Origins of the island’s name are vague, but some attribute it to coming from an African American fisherman who lived there at one time.) On July 31 of 1916, a fire broke out on the island and a little after 2 in the morning it all began to explode with a force that is estimated to have been a 5.5 on the Richter Scale.

From 25 miles away in five states, people could feel the massive explosion and windows were shattered in buildings everywhere. Debris and schrapnel shot through the night, some into the State of Liberty, and the heat melted objects like the above bottle. The Jersey Journal had its clocktower stopped by schrapnel at 2:12 am, a wall of City Hall in Jersey City was cracked, the Brooklyn Bridge was rattled, and the State of Liberty’s shaken torch had to be closed and has in fact remained closed ever since. (The torch, like the rest of the statue, was never actually designed for so many visitors, and the ascent to the top of it had to be done in almost pitch black darkness, but the heavy explosion and destabilization of the arm made it even more impossible.) Immigrants who were on Ellis Island were all quickly transported to Manhattan, where people had awoken across the city among the sounds of shattering glass.

The explosion was later found to be the work of German agents, and Germany had to pay $50 million dollars for the explosion, which they finally completed in 1979.

I assumed that the grand circle of flags shown above were a memorial for the seven people killed in the explosion and the hundreds injured, but it turns out that I was wrong. They do allow you to take the most patriotic photo ever, sort of like combining all the postage stamps into one grand shot.

This is as close as it gets to an official commemoration of the explosion on the New York Harbor, a faded informational plaque bordering the picnic tables under some shady trees. Black Tom island was almost completely destroyed, and you won’t find it on any current map. All that remains of it has been incorporated into this picnic ground at f Liberty State Park.

I’ll leave you with some historic photos from the explosion:

And here is the view from the Statue of Liberty’s torch taken around 1910, six years before it was closed. Although you probably won’t be able to see this in person unless you are a very important person, you can view the National Parks Service torch cams online.

Battle of Brooklyn

Happy Independence Day! I never do much for the Fourth of July (possibly because I seem to be abroad for a lot of them), but I find the history to be very interesting, particularly since I am living on the site of the Battle of Brooklyn. Brooklyn doesn’t get a lot of attention for its role in the American Revolution, but it was the location of the first major battle of the war following the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In August 1776, British forces came to New York to try to trap George Washington’s troops, which had been entrenched in Manhattan and Brooklyn since earlier in the year. The British engaged and surrounded the Americans on the heights of the Gowanus, with the Americans having to retreat to Brooklyn Heights. The British were ready to continue the battle as a seige on the main forces there, however, Washington and his troops held their ground until night and then escaped from the city in the darkness.

Part of the Battle of Brooklyn took place in what is now Green-Wood Cemetery, and a statue of Minerva with an Altar of Liberty stands in commemoration. Her arm is stretched out in a gesture to the State of Liberty, who returns her gaze from the harbor.