Tag Archives: synagogues

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 Rosh Hashanah! Images of Jewish New Years’ past

Look to the stars children! A vintage Rosh Hashanah card manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company in the 1920s.

Rosh Hashanah is here — the first of Tishrei, year 5775.  Presented here are a selection of photographs from the Library of Congress depicting Jewish New Yorkers celebrating the new year (or, at least, on their way home to start the festivities).  These images date from 1909-1915, although most are 1912.  As most of these photographs were possibly taken (or labeled) by non-Jewish photographers, some of the meaning is a little lost.  If you have any insights into these images, please leave a comment!

And there’s some detective work to be done here. For instance, anyone recognize this synagogue?

One hundred years ago, Jewish New Year celebrations were especially fraught due to the events in Europe. Ethnics groups from embattled countries, in fear their rituals made them targets for local violence, made doubly sure to distance themselves for the politics of the day, while affirming their continuing connection to their Jewish brethren.

A leader of the reformed Jewish congregation proclaimed, “The conservative and patriotic citizenship of America refrains from endorsing the attitude of any country involved in the horrible European conflict. … [O]ur hearts go out to the 300,000 men in the Russian army who, having bled and suffered at the hands of their country on account of being Jews, are now suffering and dying for their country because as Jews they are loyal to the flag under which they live.” [source]

This one is dated September 1912 although there was not a “Jewish New Year Parade” and this is hardly an image of a parade anyway!

There appear to be a series of old Rosh Hashanah photographs focusing on boot blacks polishing the shoes of young ladies.  I doubt this was an actual custom but more a recognition of the fact that many young boot blacks came from Jewish families. (However, for Passover, people leave their shoes at the door.)

The smile of the girl at center is totally making my day:

Here’s a telling detail from 1914:  New Jersey decided to hold a statewide primary election on the same day as Rosh Hashanah that year, disenfranchising thousands of Jewish voters “who are prohibited from signing their name.” Registering to vote was quite different back in the day; luckily, there was an alternate date provided that fell before the holiday, but no attempts were made to actually move election day.  [source]

Then there’s this captivating image:

So what’s going on in the picture above, taken on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1909?  Per some commentary from a Library of Congress commenter:  “If this was photo was indeed taken around Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) as the notation implies then these people are most likely taking part in a “tashlich” ceremony. The ceremony is when the previous year’s sins are symbolically “cast off” by throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water.”

And finally here’s some rather imaginative Jewish New Year postcards that were manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company sometime in the 1920s.  While the company was located in Brooklyn, all of these were actually manufactured in Germany.