Recap: “Beyond the Facade” at the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Posted on: September 20th, 2011 at 6:18 am by

“In the Beginning…there was Schmutz.”

At the Museum at Eldridge Street this past Sunday, that quote went over even better than the knishes at the buffet.

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The tongue-in-cheek line alluded to the start of the 25-year restoration of the Eldridge Street Synagogue at 12 Eldridge Street. That restoration, completed exactly one year ago, is now documented in the new book, Beyond the Facade: A Synagogue, A Restoration, A Legacy.

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[Roberta Brandes Gratz]

At the Sunday afternoon book party, held in the stunning space, authors Larry Bortniker, Roberta Brandes Gratz, and Bonnie Dimun reminisced about the Lower East Side of yore.  Of the long journey to bring the synagogue back from years of deterioration and well, the schmutz.

Executive Director of the Museum Bonnie Dimun, who conceived the book project, welcomed everyone, and in classic Lower East Side fashion, encouraged us to eat. And eat we did, enjoying knishes, chicken, “pigs” in blankets (hey, these pigs were beef, it’s kosher!) and egg rolls.  If you go by Jewish tradition, having “enough” food means you could feed most of the five boroughs.

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Writer Larry Bortniker, read one of his passages from the book and reminisced about going to the Lower East Side as a child, describing fond memories of “diving into bins of clothing” at stores on Orchard Street. “Now THAT,” he said, “was WHOLESALE!”

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[Larry Bortniker]

Urban critic and writer Roberta Brandes Gratz discussed how much trouble she had trying to enlist people to come to the neighborhood 25 years ago. “People would say to me: Are you crazy? I spent my life getting out of the Lower East Side and you want me to come back?” (Our parents said the same thing to us when we moved here).  She then gave a riveting speech about the importance of the neighborhood, reminding the audience that preservation was not an important part of city culture until the 1970s. “Every preserved building honors what came before, which cannot be reproduced today.”

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The ever-changing cultural landscape, defined by waves of immigrants, was a topic of discussion. Brandes Gratz had us imagine going out on the street, closing our eyes, and visualizing the storefront signs – mostly now in Chinese – in Hebrew, as they had been over a century ago when the synagogue was constructed. She then added, “Who knows which immigrant group will be here in 100 years?”

Brandes Gratz said she was not that surprised by how beautiful the renovation turned out. “In my mind’s eye, it always looked like this.”

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And then, of course, we ate some more.

Review and photos by Lori Greenberg

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