NEW YORK - Stand on Manhattan's East Broadway, across the street from the Seward Park Houses built for members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America union, and you may catch a glimpse of the Lower East Side's history: Steerage passengers step off ships; laborers march in picket lines; Israeli flags flutter; and Jewish faces give way to Chinese and Hispanic ones. The mural on the side of the Bialystoker Home for the Aged, painted by local students, freezes moments from the Lower East Side's history, but a glance around finds the Jewish past lingers in this once impoverished, now trendy neighborhood.
From the time that the first waves of Eastern European Jews landed in the United States in the late 19th century, the Lower East Side was their natural first stop. Before then, better-off German Jews had made their homes in the area, a German-speaking enclave known as Kleindeutschland. But with the influx of more religious Polish and Russian Jews, synagogues began to spring up around the neighborhood. With the passage of time, the Jews of the Lower East Side scrabbled out of poverty and toward the paradises of the Bronx, the Upper West Side, and eventually, suburbia. A neighborhood that once contained 500 synagogues of varying shapes and sizes is now left with a handful of mostly elderly congregations and some flourishing smaller ones housed in impromptu spaces.
The Lower East Side Conservancy, run by Laurie Tobias Cohen, has dedicated itself to preserving what remains of the Jewish Lower East Side, offering tours of the neighborhood and helping synagogues apply for money to repair and preserve their buildings. A stroll around the area reveals a success story, and a strange disjunction. A few synagogues have been refurbished and preserved, but the still-bustling Jewish life of the neighborhood takes place mostly elsewhere - in the kosher restaurants and shops along Grand Street, and along Shtiebl Row, a block of East Broadway lined with shtiebls, tiny storefront synagogues. The older, architecturally magnificent synagogues for the most part sit empty on Saturdays.
One of the few older synagogues with a significant membership is the Bialystoker Synagogue, housed in a former church constructed in 1826. During its stint as a Methodist Episcopal church, the Bialystoker is thought to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad transporting escaped slaves north. Founded by a group composed primarily of Polish Jews from Bialystok, the synagogue's interior has a grandiosity unusual for Jewish houses of worship. The Torah scrolls are housed in a hand-carved walnut ark painted with gold leaf and decorated with animal imagery: capering eagles, snakes, giraffes, and lions.
A recent afternoon visit caught the Bialystoker at its finest, sunlight blazing through the red-and-green stained-glass windows festooned with Jewish stars and billowing flowers. The more-is-more aesthetic extends to the ceilings, covered with Jewish-themed takes on the zodiac. Each month of the Jewish calendar is paired with a zodiac symbol, with some - like the month of Kislev's archer, symbolizing both Cupid and the Maccabees - religiously apropos, and others - like the lobster filling in for Cancer's crab - either a clever joke about kosher diets or an artist's mistake, depending on whom you ask.
Renovation has drastically improved the appearance of fading synagogues. Congregation Chasam Sopher, ringed by the trendy restaurants of Clinton Street, was renovated in 2006, with its ark refurbished, new stained-glass windows installed, and the interior stripped of 150 years of paint to expose the original wood. A lovely enclosed garden dotted with flower pots adds to the spacious, airy feeling of the grounds, and the new look has helped attract younger observant Jews moving to the neighborhood. The windows of Stanton Street Shul, just around the corner, are still boarded up, but the tenement-size synagogue, built in 1913, is warm and accommodating on the inside, with a flight of steps leading down to the long, narrow prayer hall.
Other synagogues bear more distinct marks of age. Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, on nearby Norfolk Street, is speckled with dirt and cracked paint on its worn tan-and-brown exterior, its rose window damaged, and the sides of the building surrounded by barbed wire to keep intruders out. Down to about 15 members, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol is mostly closed to the public, its damaged interior presenting a hazard to visitors. The First Romanian-American Congregation on Rivington Street fared even worse. Once called the "cantor's Carnegie Hall" but long unrepaired, it suffered a partial roof collapse in 2006. The damage was too extensive to repair, and the synagogue was razed. All that remains is an empty lot dotted with weeds and crushed bricks, across the street from an upscale cafe and Italian restaurant.
For some synagogues, the scars of time have become a badge of honor. At the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, located in the heart of Chinatown, the decision was made to attempt to preserve the building as a testimony to its history. And so perhaps the loveliest and most monumental of the neighborhood's synagogues has been converted into a museum, acknowledging the increased interest in Lower East Side history, and the decreased need for an Orthodox synagogue on a majority-Chinese block.
The soaring neo-Gothic interior of the onetime Congregation Anshe Chesed - the oldest structure built (1849) to serve as a synagogue in the city - has been lovingly preserved in its new incarnation as home of the Angel Orensanz Foundation. Modeled after German churches, the building had lain dormant for decades before Orensanz, a Spanish artist, bought it in 1986 and converted it into an arts center and event hall (where this reporter was married).
For the Lower East Side, history has become its most valuable property. The remaining handful of synagogues and other historic buildings have recently been joined by newly rendered homages to the past - places like the Tenement Museum, established in a formerly rundown tenement building on Orchard Street, and the upscale Blue Moon Hotel, a lovingly fashioned tribute to the old East Side, with everything from decor to the building itself (a former tenement) rendered historically accurate. The past is now an important part of the Lower East Side's future and its synagogues are one of the few surviving links to a once-vibrant Jewish past.
Saul Austerlitz, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.