Category Archives: Religious History

The Lower East Side lost a unique relic, a ruin of historical significance

Last night a haunting and inconceivable ruin of the Lower East Side was mysteriously destroyed in a massive fire.

The abandoned shell of the old synagogue Beth Hamedrash Hagodol has been a feature of life of Norfolk Street, stubbornly nestled next to apartment buildings, a vestige of the past clinging to the present without care or purpose.

Here are a few pictures of the front of the synagogue as it looked several months ago:

Courtesy Bowery Boys

The building has an extraordinary history, important to the histories of both local Christian and Jewish communities.

The synagogue was featured in our book:

“Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, a nineteenth-century synagogue, sits in a sad, abandoned state today, as though everyone’s afraid to go near it. Built as a Baptist church in 1850, it too was converted into a synagogue in 1885. It played an important role in Jewish American history, as it was connected to the oldest Eastern European Jewish congregation in America (Beth Hamedrash, formed in 1853), and yet today it sits eerily unused. Hopefully somebody will come to its rescue before further deterioration—or the forces of gentrification—cause it permanent harm. (60–64 Norfolk Street)”

Below: The interior of the synagogue in an image taken in 2005 (courtesy Wikimedia)

Last night the ruins were gutted in a three-alarm fire. Bowery Boogie was on the scene last night, first observing the disturbing plumes of smoke that filled the Lower East Side a little before sundown last night.


This morning they got a little closer to witness the horrifying aftermath.

The Lo-Down was also there to witness its destruction. Please visit their blog today for more images of the aftermath of the fire.


The fire seems to have some similarities to that of last year’s destruction of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava, another New York City house of worship built in the 1850s with its own unique significance to the city’s history. 

The new Essex Crossing development is rising just a couple blocks north, poised to transform this area of the Lower East Side. Consider me an optimist, but I always thought the ruins of the synagogue could somehow be saved in connection with the development. Now more than ever, we need to protest as many of its treasures as possible or else risk erasing the very identity of this vital historic neighborhood.

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol is now gone.

It existed only as a crumbling ruin and now not even as that. (Friends of the Lower East Side lamented the building’s fate as “demolition by neglect.“)  Certainly it will be cleared away so the land can be used for other purposes.  Instead of even the shell of the building living on as a reminder, it will be replaced by something inevitably glass, pretty and sleek.

Pictured at top (and in the images below) — Beth Hamedrash Hagodol in 1979, in photos by Edmund Vincent Gillon.



NOTE: Two different spellings seem to be in use for this building — Beth Hamedrash Hagodol and Beth Hamedrash Hagadol

Happy Pope Day! A history of the holiest of New York tourists

Pope Francis arrives in New York City today — part of his first-ever trip to the United States — and the city is rolling out the red carpet. In fact, all available carpets are being rolled out and even some throw rugs.

New York loves Popes. (Not always of course.) Only the Marquis de Lafayette and the Beatles have been treated to more rapturous displays of welcome by New York City residents. The city has been host to four previous papal visits, and in each case, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral has naturally been the manic center of activity. In fact three such visits have been immortalized on plaques in front of the cathedral.

But with each trip, the pope in question managed to find a couple other unique corners of the city to visit as well.


Perhaps the strangest visit of all was the very first — Pope Paul VI, the controversial leader who presided over the Second Vatican Council and made a name for himself traveling all over the world. Finally in an era where a man could be both pope and jetsetter, Pope Paul arrived in New York in October of 1965 and promptly went to visit his old roommate, who was performing in a fair.


That roommate would be Michelangelo’s Pieta, on loan from St. Peter’s hallways to the Vatican pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair.

The Pope visited the Fair on October 4, 1965, on a busy day that also included mass at Yankee Stadium (the first papal mass ever in the United States), an address to the United Nations, and a meeting in the city with president Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf-Astoria.

5th October 1965: Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images
5th October 1965: Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

Many will remember the thousands of people who greeted the Pope in the original Pope-mobile (“a closed, bubble-top limousine”) during its 25-mile procession through the city. Here’s a fact to delight your friends and neighbors — the first American bridge ever crossed by a Pope in all of history was the Queensboro Bridge.

Today a rounded bench, or exedra, sits in Flushing Meadows park honoring the moment Pope Paul visited the Pavilion. (It seems that whenever a Pope hovers in a place for more than a few minutes, a plaque or monument springs up in its place.)

By the way, I found this extraordinary page full of great photos about that first Pope-mobile.

Length of his visit: 13 1/2 hours

AP Photo/Courtesy New York Daily News
AP Photo/Courtesy New York Daily News



But it’s Pope John Paul who’s the real New York favorite; he held the papal throne for so long that he managed two trips to Gotham City — in 1979 and 1995.

His October 1979 trip was like a rock concert tour, also swinging through Philadelphia, Boston, D.C., Chicago and Des Moines. Part of the enthusiasm was because John Paul, at 58 years old, had just been appointed the year before.

In 1969, as a cardinal, he had held mass at Yankee Stadium, so by the time he did it again on October 2, 1979 — as the Pope — he was as much a fixture as Reggie Jackson. Rain greeted over 9,000 cheering worshippers — or fans — and, according to legend, when the Pope mounted the ballfield to address the crowd, the rain showers stopped. And as a blessing for Mets fans, the next day the Pope also held rapt an audience of 52,000 at Shea Stadium.

Below: the Pope at Yankee Stadium

Courtesy US News and World Report
Courtesy US News and World Report

But like all rock stars, the Pope couldn’t complete his New York odyssey without a performance at Madison Square Garden. Although John Paul also addressed the U.N. and a Saint Patrick’s audience during that trip, he’s best remembered by many for his inspirational address on October 3rd to 19,000 city children.

Saint Patrick’s honored his Holiness’s visit in 1979 by installing a bust. But he would be back. On almost exactly the same day, sixteen years later.

Length of his visit: Almost 48 hours


New York City in 1995 was a vastly different city and John Paul returned for a longer visit — four days in total in the entire New York area — on October 4th. This time, instead of just delivering messages to the clergy gathered at Saint Patrick’s, he spontaneously decided he wanted to walk around the block. And why not? You’ve got shopping, Saks, street vendors selling Pope souvenirs!

Below: In the Pope-mobile, riding by Saks Fifth Avenue

Courtesy Wall Street Journal
Courtesy Wall Street Journal


The Pope also finished off his collection of performing in gigantic venues for mass — holding court in Giants Stadium, the Aquaduct Racetrack in Ozone Park and eventually to 100,000 people on the great lawn in Central Park.

From there, the elderly leader of the Catholic Church gave the city the ultimate shout-out: “This is New York! The great New York! This is Central Park. The beautiful surroundings of Central Park invite us to reflect on a more sublime beauty: the beauty of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God. Then you can tell the whole world that you gave the pope his Christmas present in October, in New York, in Central Park.”

Length of his visit: Almost four days! He couldn’t get enough.

Courtesy Chris Hondros/Getty Images./New York Daily News
Courtesy Chris Hondros/Getty Images./New York Daily News



Pope Benedict XVI came to New York for three days, two nights (April 18-20), arriving in Manhattan on a military helicopter and breaking the apparently holy tradition of visiting New York in the early Fall.  (Still would have needed a light sweater or vestment.)  But Benedict, as the cardinal formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, actually visited the city in that lesser role in 1988, where apparently he was met with protest from gay activists and shunned by some prominent Jewish leaders.

He hit all the “usual” Pope spots — Saint Patricks, the United Nations, Yankee Stadium — but added a couple interesting detours: Park East Synagogue, St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, and the World Trade Center site.

Below: The Pope viewing the World Trade Center site

 April 20, 2008 Courtesy MSNBC
April 20, 2008 Courtesy MSNBC


Length of his visit: Almost 72 hours


Pope Francis’ exhausting itinerary can be found here.  He’ll make stops first for evening prayer at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, then to the residence of the Apostolic nuncio at the United Nations to sleep.  He speaks to the U.N. Assembly in the morning, then down to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum by lunchtime.

Perhaps the most intriguing stop will come in the afternoon, meeting with students from Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. Whereas the first Pope to come New York fifty years rode through East Harlem in his covered Pope-mobile, Pope Francis will chat with a third-grade class filled with children who will have quite a story to tell their grandkids.

Afterwards he will travel through Central Park and arrive at Madison Square Garden for Mass. At rush hour! Oh right, all the streets are closed. In fact, Fifth Avenue right now is contained in a large fence, easily the tightest security I’ve ever seen here.


But Pope Francis is a man of many surprises. Could he decide that he wants to walk the High Line? And how can he visit New York and not even visit Brooklyn? Is the Pope a Girls fan?



This is a heavily revised version of an article that originally ran in 2008 when Pope Benedict visited New York City.



Day of Atonement indeed: The Yom Kippur riot of 1898

When I hear of riots in the Lower East Side during the late 19th century, my mind goes disgruntled newsies or agitated garment workers, rising up for fair wage and employment. Or maybe a vicious street gang like the Whyos primed to wreck havoc. I don’t immediately think of the orthodox Jewish community.
But it was indeed dissatisfied members of this group that staged a bit of chaos on the corner of Canal and Division streets during Yom Kippur in 1898.

According to the New York Sun, the violence centered around a Russian Jewish coffee house owned by the Herrick brothers at 141 Division Street, a popular gathering place for ‘political spell-binders and labor agitators’ with likely a more casual atmosphere than the many Jewish restaurants surrounding it and certainly popular with young men.

Here’s an advertisement for Herrick’s in a chess journal from 1904:


Herrick’s was in the heart of Jewish social life in New York City.  The Yiddish theater hangout Schreiber’s Saloon was around the corner at 33 Canal Street and other Jewish-operated cafes were steps away.

Even as sundown approached and traditional Jewish places closed their doors for the holiday, Herrick’s cafe stayed open, with tables occupied with young men in apparent disregard for the custom of fasting. The article makes a point to label most offenders as ‘American-born’ and ’16 to 18 years old’ — as in rebellious, with an implied lack of respect towards tradition.

The Herricks had actually planned this display of defiance, going so far as to advertise in an ‘anarchistic‘ newspaper that they would remain open for the holiday. They were prepared for some opposition, certainly, but certainly not for what came next.

Below: Under the Division Street elevated, 1910

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

According to the Sun, at sight of the violation, angry orthodox mobbed the place, throwing stones and smashing the cafe windows.  The New York Times reports that ‘several thousand Hebrews’ soon arrived to protest in the surrounding streets. The police from the local Madison Street station were called to quell the violence and asked the proprietors to close their cafe for the evening.

Below: The headline from the New York Times on September 27, 1898


But violence further escalated the following day, when one of the brothers reopened the cafe the next morning ‘for customers, Jewish and Gentile, all day, at the usual prices’.

Hat stores on Division Street, below the elevated train and a bit west of the action in this article. Picture is from around 1907 (NYPL)

Fearing a repeat of the evening’s disruptions, police cordoned off the street to no avail. When diners left the cafe this time, they were met by “several thousands* [who] gathered and threatened dire vengeance on those who would eat on the holy day.”

Many offenders were chased down the street for fear of their lives. Eventually, the angry protesters even managed to storm the restaurant again where they “overturned tables, smashed dishes and threw crockery at the proprietors.” One diner was doused in hot tea. Another diner, with his three friends, happened to be military and ‘fired off a revolver to attract police’, scattered the crowd in fear. Police did arrive, with clubs drawn.

Soon the violence spilled into the streets and devolved, like so many riots of this type, into fisticuffs among angry young men. By the end of the day, several rioters were taken into custody, and the neighborhood quickly returned to its peaceful celebration of the holiday.

As for Herrick’s, well, the advertisement at the top is from 1904, so they obviously continued stirring up ‘political spell-binders’ and controversy in the neighborhood for many more years.

*Early news reports are never very good at estimating crowd numbers, so ‘several thousands’ could also mean ‘several hundreds’. Given how crowded this neighborhood was in the 1890s, most could have simply been trying to figure out what was going on!