The Blue Star of the Lower East Side

I ended up in China Town the other day. I was ambling along Eldridge Street in Manhattan when I spotted this old building that towered above me with its many Moorish arches. The promise of magnificence drew me in. The plaque declared it to be a synagogue that has been turned into a museum. A free museum.

Now free museums thrill me. I queued up for hours outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid one freezing day, and got caught in a downpour, but did it deter me? No sir. It just meant that I spent the next few days laid down with a solid fever. Yet I had bagged a free museum visit. It is the same reason I love London so. The best of its museums are free. Now that I have mentioned the word ‘free’ enough times to reveal my inner freebie loving self, I might as well get to the subject at hand.

I was in an orthodox synagogue, built in the 1880s by Ashkenazi Jews who were fleeing from the anti-semitism in Eastern Europe. Inside, I met an old lady showing a trio around. One of them was a boy. The lady introduced him to me as a rabbi-to-be. Startled he looked at her, and said, ‘Actually I am doing my BA.’ He had mentioned studying in a yeshiva to her, and she, it turns out, had added it up in her own mind as indicative of his grand religious plans for himself. The couple, possibly in their mid-60s, were visiting their son in New York from Minneapolis. We later had a long chat about their sojourns in the various parts of India. And then there was I.

‘I am curious,’ asked this cordial old guide, ‘what brought you here today?’ This is the part where I come up with a memorable answer. Boy, I aced it. ‘Oh you see, I love visiting museums, and I was passing by, so I popped in.’ Having stunned them thus, I followed around in her footsteps, as she led us up wooden steps and antiquated wooden balustrades, past stained glass windows, the early evening light filtering in in a surfeit of colours.

Inside the main sanctuary, the senses exploded with the celestial quality of the vision that lay before us. A circular stained glass window in ethereal blues towered above us. It was the heroine of the old synagogue, this rose glass window of seemingly gossamer loveliness. I am not religious, as I have often stated, but I am swept away when the architecture of a place of prayer uplifts the soul. To make us believe that there are exalted things and beings, that there is a larger design at work.

This rose glass window, said to weigh 6000 pounds, depicts the six-pointed Star of David. Within it floats a plethora of five-pointed stars. The concept was that it should reflect the night sky by opening up to it. The main dome and the other ceiling domes, framed by rows of moorish arches, are studded similarly with glinting golden stars.

The woman who was showing us around had sat in the pews of the synagogue, as a child on a field trip from school, and she recollected its decrepit state at the time. ‘It was in the ’80s when I never could have imagined that it could look like this,’ she mused, as she pointed to a few photo canvases stacked along the pews. They were evidence that the synagogue had fallen into disrepair, its walls peeling off, the dome in a shambles. Membership dwindled with time as former members moved out of Eldridge Street into quarters like Brooklyn and Borough Park and then came the Great Depression bringing devastation in its wake. Pigeons took up residence in the synagogue till it was decided that it simply could not be allowed to fade away. Renovations began in the ’80s and the result was before us. There was something old about it, something new, and in between was that vast blue window that took your breath away.

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The Orthodox synagogue of Khal Adath Jeshrun on Eldridge Street with its stained glass windows and moorish arches. 
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The rose glass window towers above the main sanctuary where the congregation assembles on Fridays and Saturdays for services.
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There are stars everywhere you look and then there is the wonderful Moorish Revival architecture
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Elegant brass and glass chandelier
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Back to the Oculus from where I had to catch the train home. I cannot help taking multiple shots of this Calatrava ribbed structure that always makes me gawp.
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The white wings of The Oculus are for me a beloved part of the cityscape

Published by

Arundhati Basu

The great affair in my life is to travel. I count myself immensely fortunate that my partner shares this passion. We are a team that likes to spend time planning and plotting out places to go. Destination check, flights check, accommodation check, cheesy grins check. Off we go.

76 thoughts on “The Blue Star of the Lower East Side

    1. Hiya Kim, the thing with NYC is that it has enough little gems tucked into its streets, so you would need time. Next time you are there you can always swing by… Thank you 🙂 xx

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  1. The photos here are spectacular. I, like you, love museums and free is always good. However, since having children, museum visits haven’t been as relaxing and enjoyable as I would have hoped… my 10 year old is following in my footsteps though so I think it’s time to leave the others behind next time!

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    1. With your older child then, many hours of pleasurable museum browsing lies ahead. Here’s to that thought. xx

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  2. Oh yes… I love free museums. I always make sure to leave a ‘thank you tip’ if there’s a collection cup though. I somehow ended up in the Twinings museum in London some years ago. It was a lovely tea history lesson.

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    1. The Twinings museum must have been lovely. That is a good tip. I should practise it more often. Thank you for pointing that out. I do it only when I have change. Mostly I am cashless. xx

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  3. Loved reading about your serendipitous visit to the synagogue museum! The stained glass is beautiful and stunning. So glad to hear that it was restored and not destroyed. A funny story about your tour guide and the student. The photo of the contemporary skyline is a great counterpart to the historic Moorish architecture of the museum. Wonderful! – Neek

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    1. Thank you for that lovely comment, Neek. I enjoyed reading it 🙂 I find that contrast between the old and the new utterly charming. Have yourself a fun weekend 🙂 xx

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  4. I just love that New York has so many jewels tucked into nooks and crannies. I don’t think it’s even possible to discover them all, which is part of the beauty. I remember when you were preparing for the move. It makes me really happy to see you enjoying the exploration.

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    1. Thank you sweetie. It does have its individual charm, this great wonderful city. It is growing upon me steadily but surely. xx

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  5. What an amazing find on your wanderings! Wow, that blue window is something else. Thank goodness it’s been saved frankly. I love that you have written about a tiny corner of the city in such detail. It’s the small places that delight, isn’t it?
    Xx

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    1. Thank you Sophie. The hidden gems are the best finds during one’s explorations of any place. So yeah small places capture my heart too 🙂 xx

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    1. Hey Amor, yes poor boy indeed. I was amused by the look of utter astonishment on his face. Thank you my lovely. Hope you have a great week ahead. xx

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  6. Very nice, it’s amazing to bump into gems like these. Which reminds me that there is a fine looking medieval church right down the street from where I live which I have yet not bothered to visit , for past three years would you believe that, even though every time I cross it, I am stuck by its very antique self stuck between two very modern glass buildings xx

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    1. Go give it a go one day? It might pop a nice surprise 🙂 I am fascinated by the contrast between the old and the new. xx

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    1. I get it that you were confused about the comment getting lost. Well I have both now 🙂 Yes, I do Love the British Museum. Actually, I love most of the London museums. Thanks Brianji.

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    1. It was in the spam folder. Apologies for the wonky spam folder 🙂 Thank you for reading the post. Hope you are having a good week.

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      1. It is a fabulous novel by Boris Vian. Not too sure what the English title is… Froth on the daydream… Hmmm. No. Somethng is wrong about the translation. It happens. 🙂
        Hope all is well with you ma’amji.
        (Just laid my hands on the Ministry of utmost happiness. Daughter #1 finished it!) 🙂

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      2. Oh I have been eyeing it. I shall get cracking on reading it too. Her style of writing is utterly fabulous.
        I am good, busy writing and daydreaming about this summer.
        I will look up the novel in the library. Hopefully I can lay my hands on it. I thought the translation was a bit off. But I got the gist of it.

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      3. Well we plan to do a few trips around us. Let us see how my husband’s work lets up. It has been awfully hectic for him.
        Hopping back to the UK. Now that is more like a long-term plan 😉 Our big trip is going to be India and Hong Kong (possibly) at the end of the year. Adi has not been to HK and I wanted him to have a taste of it. How about your plans?

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      4. India and HK sounds good. I definitely need to put India on the “list”. (I would want to re-learn Hindustani first though) 😉
        Tickets and accomodation are fully booked for Paris in July-August. (Can’t wait)
        Best of luck for your husband’s job. It takes a while to settle down.

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      5. If you know Hindi (somewhere at the back of your mind), maybe it would not be that tough. Though I find the gender thing quite annoying. As for Paris, I would not want to wait too! We were dithering about it this time, but we decide on Asia for now. Hope you are having a nice weekend.

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      6. Thank you m’amji. As for Hindi… I only remember a few words of Urdu. So, yes, it probably wouldn’t be too hard. (I always find it fun to learn a language). Cheers

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      7. Well I would love to learn French. I keep learning it fits and starts, and wish I could speak it like a Parisian, with flair.

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      8. French sounds like a good objective. Much more complex than English which has virtually no grammar to speak of. I wonder whether there are now courses on line? (Flair will come naturally) 🙂

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      9. Well in fact I am on those online lessons from time to time. I have got to just sit through them at a stretch. But I believe when you live somewhere, the language just becomes a part of your daily living and that is what makes all the difference, non?

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      10. It does. There is no better way to learn a language. I did learn a bit of Hokkien in December in Singapore and Penang. Fun. I love languages.
        Continue avec les leçons en ligne. Tous les jours… 😉
        Attchah? (Pardon the spelling)

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      11. Achcha, I shall endeavour 🙂
        Hokkien…interesting! Languages are fascinating.

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      12. Bilkul… I will try to commit that one to memory. It does sound vaguely familiar. But so many things are but illusions. My parents would have know, they spoke fluent Urdu. (Bilkul!)
        Au revoir, ma’amji.

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      13. I am sure you must have used it at some point along with the head nodding. Quintessentially Indian. Bonne soirée Brianji.

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