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.