Monday, March 20, 2006

Renew our days as of old

The New York Times has a piece this morning on the restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side (above). Eldridge is the first American shul built by immigrants from Eastern Europe, and it was constructed in the Victorian Gothic style with Terra Cotta carvings. Max Smith, now 91, remembers the good old days:

"There was not a seat vacant inside," recalled Mr. Smith, who celebrated his bar mitzvah at the 19th-century synagogue on Sept. 10, 1927, around the time he and his family moved to the Bronx. "And if there were people who couldn't get in, they prayed on the front steps or right here on the street."
Frankly, I find the whole thing depressing, and for several reasons. First, I understand the tastes change and styles come and go, but why can't we build shuls like Eldridge anymore? Why are we satisfied only with store fronts and basements? I say "only", because even when the Eldridge shul was in its glory, there were, around the corner, dozens of small storefront congregations on a block known as "Shteibel Row" (East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery.) Nowadays, though, it seems shtiebels are all that we build. Have Jews become poorer? Do we suddenly lack the funds for magnificent structures? Or have we become cretins who no longer value architectual beauty?

Second, Eldridge's story reminds me of my childhood shul, a big beautiful shul, that served as the centerpiece of our neighborhood. Like Max Smith, I can remember our shul when every seat was taken, when folding chairs were set up along the back aisle to accommodate the crowds. Now both the shul and its members are broken down by old age and hard use. The seats are empty, with the still-observant, still-growing, and still-properous community having forsaken the big shul for the intimacy and convenience of shtibels. Are they impervious to the old and well-proven idea that good architecture, like a good view, or a good piece of music, is good for us? When the Temple is rebuilt, will it be avoided by postmodern Jews who've become comfortable with smaller and less inspiring prayer spaces?