Category Archives: new york city

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.

Tagged , ,

A Party in the Past on the Nostalgia Train

Nostalgia Train

The holidays can be quite magical in NYC, and one of the most wonderful of the annual traditions is the appearance of the Nostalgia Train, which the MTA releases along the M line for a few Sundays from late November until the end of December. And as we are a city that can’t pass up a good opportunity for a party, on one December Sunday a group of jazz bands hoped on the train for the day and were met by revelers dressed in their vintage finery to match the spirit. Me and Elizabeth made it on the last ride of the day, so here are some photos!

Nostalgia Train

We boarded the train on the LES and rode all the way to Queens and back. It seemed like the train was going faster than even the new trains that I ride everyday, but that could also have been an illusion caused by the rumbling noise through the open windows.  The above train is from the 1930s and has wicker seats and ceiling fans.

Nostalgia Train

Nostalgia Train

Here’s one of the bands that was playing on board among the crowd. I couldn’t get a good photo, but they even had a singer on an old microphone. There was also a singing trio of women in another car, and some people were dancing and trying to keep their balance as the train flew down the tracks.

Nostalgia Train

Nostalgia Train

There was also a train conductor to announce when the train was ready to depart, and I suppose to assure people who had no clue why a vintage train was suddenly appearing at the station that it would indeed be making its stops and not time traveling into the past.

Nostalgia Train

If you’re in the NYC area next holiday season, definitely keep an eye on the subway platform for a ghost of transit history. I hear there is also a Nostalgia Bus, although it probably doesn’t have room for jazz bands with stand-up basses. The MTA with the Transit Museum also sometimes has vintage train rides to Coney Island and other places throughout the year, and you can always stop by the Transit Museum for some stationary vintage train exploring. (You can check out some of my photos from the museum here.)

Tagged , ,

Soaring with Pigeons: The Event of a Thread at the Park Avenue Armory

The current art experience transforming the Park Avenue Armory has people swinging through the air in the massive drill hall’s 55,000 square feet, with a giant swath of fabric billowing in the center of it all. It’s called The Event of a Thread and is by the artist Ann Hamilton. I’ve been three times since it has opened (I always must take the visitors to the best in NYC immersive art) to relax under the mesmerizing white sheet or soar on one of the creaky wooden swings.

When you enter the installation, you see two people reading into microphones with pigeons on either side. Their voices are being transmitted to speakers contained in paper bags around the room that look like sack lunches someone has forgotten. If you get to the installation about 20 minutes until it closes, an opera singer steps out on a balcony and sings, and then the pigeons are released to fly to their coop suspended above the hall. It is really quite beautiful. The recording of that song is then played when the installation opens the following day.

The Event of a Thread

The Event of a Thread

The Event of a Thread

The people on the swings definitely dictate the dynamic of the space. Once I went and it was mostly children, making it feel like a dreamlike playground with lots of gleeful screeching. However, when it’s mostly adults, people who probably haven’t been on a swing in years, maybe decades, it gives it a whole different feeling of nostalgic joy.

The Event of a Thread

The Event of a Thread

At the opposite end of the room from the readers is a writer at a table who is scribbling out a response to what is happening in the hall. They can see the installation reflected in a mirror above them that tilts with a swing. I wish I could have applied for this position, just look at the awesome fuzzy coat/cape the color of pigeon feathers they get to wear!

The Event of a Thread

The Event of a Thread

The Event of a Thread

One of the most amazing parts of the installation is the way the 42 swings are connected to the ceiling, in this really complicated lattice of chains and weights. There are even a couple connected accordions wheezing up there to give it a sort of strange soundscape. The lighting is also a great detail, with a long rectangle illuminating the exact path of each swing. At the end of the day, all of the light in the armory gets quietly darker except for those oblong forms on the floor.

The Event of a Thread

The Event of a Thread

While The Event of a Thread would be lifeless without the swinging people, I think the best place to experience the installation is beneath the cascade of white fabric. Looking up is entrancing as it is pulled this way and that in an erratic flow depending on how high the people are soaring on their swings. On a busy day, a whole herd of people are collapsed there, with some of the paper bag speakers transmitting the rambling narrative of the speakers, who are reading poetry, philosophy, scientific texts, and other selections. It’s all very meditative.

The Event of a Thread

I’m excited to see what 2013 brings to the Armory, as I was continually impressed with what I saw there in 2012, including Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Murder of Crows, Tom Sach’s Mission Mars, and Philip Glass’ Another Look at Harmony. If you happen to be in NYC this week, you have until January 6 for The Event of the Thread. Pictures don’t really do it justice, but hopefully if you can’t make it, this recap gave you a bit of the ethereal experience.

Tagged , ,