I mentioned in my last post how something can only feel complicated relative to its time period. That seems to be true doesn’t it? The further back you go the simpler things appear to be – it’s the very essence of this type of collective nostalgia we all have. You can imagine that each complex institution, institutional system or government entity that exists today was at its inception something simple – something created by people who understood what it was and could explain it forthrightly. Maybe it was complicated as all hell to them, but it doesn’t seem like that to us today, looking backwards. Today is what’s complicated. It makes me want to look at everything that seems abstruse and trace it forward from its beginnings. Start with the corporate shit before you even get into the governmental labyrinths. How did Bank of America begin? How did Verizon? At what point did they become connected to so many other things? (You know that in the private sector these days every huge corporation owns just about every other corporation you’ve ever heard of right? Incidentally, you know who doesn’t own everything you’ve ever heard of? All the rest of us.)
The Lower East Side actually seems like a good physical representation of this kind of thing: a good place to start. I mean it seems to encompass a few different levels of complexity correlated to different time periods. I need to work myself up to the public housing/workers housing/slum clearance/urban renewal projects that make up so much of its current landscape. Honestly, just dipping my toe into the history of these buildings confuses me. Confuses and excites me, too. I mean, have you ever googled Section 8? (Hey, how did google start?!) I’ll get to these guys eventually, but it might take awhile.
So let’s start with something simpler instead. Let’s start with a church that turned into a synagogue that’s now abandoned. That kind of sums up a lot of the history of the L.E.S. right there – but hey, we can understand it! We’ve heard of Jews, you know, and immigrants and all that jazz. It’s people! We like people, right?
So yes, the old synagogue for the orthodox congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (Great Study House) was first built as a church – the Norfolk Street Baptist Church to be specific – completed in 1850 in a Gothic Revival style, on Norfolk and Broome Street, at a time when the Lower East Side was still something of a wealthy (or maybe middle class) native-born enclave. Though things were changing rapidly; just ten years later the Baptist congregation sold the building to move uptown with the rich folks (they eventually became Riverside Church, right by Grant’s Tomb), as the L.E.S. was becoming an increasingly immigrant filled neighborhood (mainly Irish and German at that point.) The building was converted into a Methodist Church, which lasted till 1878, before being bought by Beth Hamedrash and converted into their synagogue – something that would become pretty common in the neighborhood as the years went on. Beth Hamedrash itself had been around as a congregation since 1852, making it the first eastern European congregation in NYC and the first Russian Jewish congregation in the United States entirely.
And that was well before the Russian Jews really started coming to America (hey, how did Eddie Murphy start?). By the time Beth Hamedrash had bought the church on Norfolk Street, in 1885, Russian Jews – and eastern European Ashkenazi Jews in general – were coming to America in epic droves. The catalyst was the assassination of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II – a liberal reformer and emancipator of the serfs. His murder in 1881 – horrifically blown up by a bomb thrown at his feet – kicked off a reactionary backlash best epitomized by the Russian state’s pogroms against its Jews. Paul Johnson in his epically amazing A History of the Jews writes, “Thus 1881 was the most important year in Jewish history since 1648, indeed since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. It’s consequences were so wide, and fundamental, that it must be judged a key year in world history too.” (If that kind of sentence don’t excite you, you’re not me.) Between 1881-1914 an estimated 2 million Jews moved to the United States; the Jewish population before 1881 had been something closer to 250,000.
And those newly-arriving Jews were very different than the quarter million that were already here. Before 1881 most of the Jews in New York City specifically were middle class, English-speaking and, just as importantly, practitioners of the Reform movement – an attempt to adapt and reform Judaism for the modern era, first begun in Germany. They were more or less assimilated into American culture, and they were happy about that. The Ashkenazi Jews arriving now were largely Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox and very poor, and coming in such numbers that assimilation would be difficult. Though again, Paul Johnson writes that in the end that may have been the blessing in disguise of these new immigrants, transforming American Jewry from “an exercise in gentility, doomed to mortify, into a vibrant creature of an entirely new kind – a free people, cradled in a tolerant republic, but shouting their faith and their nature from the rooftops of a city they turned into the greatest Jewish metropolis in the world – the nucleus of a power which in time would exert itself effectively on behalf of Jews throughout the world.” Man, like all well written history, that kind of sentence gets me excited for what happens next. Where did it start? Where is it going? Who wants a bagel?