Lower East Side Then and Now

for all the tours I’ve done with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, I had only done a mini tour of the Lower East Side. It was time to fix that, so I joined this weekend’s tour, the Lower East Side Then and Now. Among other things, I was excited that it included Bialystoker, a building about which I’ve been curious for some time.

I can say without a doubt that this was one of the most interesting tours I’ve done, and also one of the most stunning.

It was a perfect spring day with scarcely a cloud in the sky, which I think led to the vibrant light within the buildings we visited, but I also think Bialystoker would be beautiful wrapped in black construction paper.

While Bialystoker is best known for its mazalot (great information and more and photos), I found the architectural history even more amazing. Yes, the presence of zodiac signs in an orthodox shul is slightly surprising, but challenges of dealing with the conversion of what was the Willets St. Church into Bialystoker Synagogue in 1905 was awe inspiring. I also had no idea that the Manhattan Schist from which it was built was from a quarry practically next door on Pitt St. While the building looks distinctly Jewish with its Stars of David, there are telling pieces of its christian history, including the stained glass and an altar-looking Ark of the Torah, for which the congregation received dispensation for it not facing east. That is believed to be one of the reasons for the extensive imagery of Israel in the synagogue’s interior. While I knew Shelly Silver worshipped at Bialystoker, I had no idea it was once home to Bugsy Siegel and Max Lansky, father of Meyer Lansky. Living history, not all positive.

From Bialystoker we headed down E. Broadway past:

  • some of the original buildings of the Henry Street Settlement;
  • the recently landmarked Bialystoker Center (called “one of the last remaining physical reminders of the Jewish Lower East Side”);
  • a few of the remaining shteibl of what was once Shteibl Row;
  • the Forward Building (yep, an interesting mix of then and then with Tatum O’Neal trying to buy crack in Seward Park); and
  • an unexpected view of One World Trade with the Manhattan Municipal Building.

It’s a really striking mix of then and now. While the neighborhood has changed (and will continue to change with SPURA-more on that later), there’s still a swing back that has been going on since 2000. While the old shteibl aren’t expected to survive long term as their congregations die off, the young returners are worshipping at Bialystoker again.

From E. Broadway we had a quick detour up Norfolk Street to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the shell of the oldest Russian, orthodox congregation in the US. This was the synagogue that first caught my attention back in November and which I’d thought about recently while wondering how much of the neighborhood SUPRA would touch. It turns out that in addition to the building in which the Conservancy’s visitor center is located, SPURA will come right up against the old Norfolk Street Shul. Hopefully the visitor center will find a new home within Essex Crossing, but there’s no doubt the development is going to change the neighborhood. I find it amusing or amazing, not honestly sure which, that both SPURA and the Second Avenue Subway are finally happening.

Our next and final stop was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only remaining congregation of Romaniote Jews in the Western Hemisphere. Another amazing interior, and the women’s section doubles as a museum.  This was one of the many landmarked places we saw/visited on the tour that it’s going to be interesting to see how the landmarks of the old neighborhood hit among the new SPURA buildings. I found the Museum Director’s explanation that they’re “less neurotically Orthodox” an interesting one. If not for the gorgeous torah scrolls I’m not sure I’d have realized this was an orthodox shul.

With Bialystoker today, Eldridge St. many times over and Stanton St. and Angel Orensanz last November, I think I’ve hit all the iconic synagogues of the Lower East Side. I’ve also seen some of the amazing uptown architecture, but alas I haven’t been in any. I’m especially glad that I was able to visit Angel Orensanz as it is currently closed due to structural issues and there is no timeline for when/if it will reopen.

All in all, another amazing day on the Lower East Side.

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