Man, the Jews! You ever heard of these guys? I guess they’ve been around a little while. And when you’ve been around a little while you tend to be involved, you know, in history. I’m still deep into Paul Johnson’s The History of the Jews myself, and it seems like to read the Jew’s history is to read the history of the world (oh, yeah, I guess leaving out China and all that stuff. But hey, somebody’s got to be the “other.”). So cool, let’s stick with the Jews a little longer. And yeah, let’s stick with the Lower East Side a little longer too – specifically an old synagogue. I know I said eventually I’d like to work my way up to the public housing of the Lower East, but I think I need to get a little better educated first. But don’t worry, I’m getting educated! We all are right, if we’re paying attention? That’s one of the advantages of living in such complicated times: you gotta learn some shit. Though don’t you love how everybody loves to say “we live in such complicated times?” Open any magazine or newspaper and that’s what you’ll see. But haven’t we always said this? Weren’t we saying this in the 1980s? In the 1950s? In the 1880s? They were probably saying it in Rome when Augustus took control. I guess that would have been one nice thing about living in the Dark Ages. Like, “Man, what incredibly simple times we’re living in.”
I came across this quote by Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. that I thought was pretty great. “When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones….Because more complex and intense intellectual effort means a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.” Yes please!
Holmes, Jr. is one of the most cited Supreme Court Justices of all time, by the way, following a 30 year career from 1902-32. He’s also the oldest Justice in the Court’s history, retiring when he was 90 years old. Now until I Wikipediaed him I’d always vaguely thought he was some kind of poet/preacher guy. Though guess what, his father was! (Okay, more poet/gentleman/doctor than poet/preacher). Holmes Sr. was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and that whole many-named crew, and with that whole many-named crew was one of the founders of Atlantic Monthly magazine, in 1857, up in Boston. (Incidentally, Holmes Sr. was the guy who coined the term “Boston Brahmin.”)
That was seven years after – and probably a whole culture away from – the completion of congregation Anshe Slonim’s synagogue at 172 Norfolk Street. See, I didn’t forget about the whole synagogue thing. How’s that for a transition? Let’s dive into it.
Anshe Slonim’s synagogue, which is today the Angel Orensanz Foundation, is actually the oldest extant synagogue in NYC. Or at least the oldest extant synagogue that was built specifically to be a synagogue. Before it was completed in 1850, every synagogue in New York City occupied a re-purposed older building, a practice that would continue for decades and decades to come. But Anshe Slonim’s synagogue, though built in the style of a Neo-Gothic church (by architect Alexander Saeltzer), was built from scratch to house their congregation. The Reform synagogue was the largest of its day: with room for 700 men on the main floor and 500 women in the gallery (I guess even with reform they still split up the sexes). The congregation – as with most Reform congregations – was made up primarily of German Jews and was apparently the third oldest Jewish congregation in New York. We know the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (Shearith Israel) was the oldest congregation in the city (and the country); we’ll have to add finding out which one was second to the list, even if our list is getting pretty long already. Ah well, it’s probably good to have a never-ending list really.
Anshe Slonim lasted in the space till 1873 when it sold the building to Congregation Shaari Rachmim and moved uptown, like so many other churches and Reformed congregations of its day. From there the building on Norfolk passed over to Congregation Ohab Zadek (1886, from Hungry) and then a different congregation Anshe Slonim (1921, this one from Belarus). That Anshe Slonim lasted until 1974 when the building was abandoned. Again, nothing too new around these parts, at least back then (they were very complicated times we were all living in). Also not too new – for the right now – is the fact that it’s been turned over into an arts and performance space; purchased by the sculptor/painter Angel Orensanz in 1986 and since then the host of innumerable events, concerts and galas – some pretty chic , some pretty less so. As for the various congregations that once worshiped there – you can find some traces of them big and small throughout the city. Well sure, if New York is the world, and to read the Jew’s history is to read the history of the world, then logic dictates that to read the Jew’s history is to read the history of New York, right? Am I right? I might be on to something.