Exploring New York’s Jewish Heritage

Posted on December 28, 2016 by

Last week, I took a few days off work to visit several exhibits and to take a walking tour in New York City. I first visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I explored the exhibit “Jerusalem: 1000-1400 Every People Under Heaven.” The exhibit highlighted how Jerusalem was a melting pot of different cultures and religions from Ethiopian Christians and Indian Sufis to Spanish rabbis. I saw objects such as a gold Jewish wedding ring in the form of the Lost Temple of Jerusalem and a page from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah, with Hebrew words “Next year in Jerusalem.”

gold ring shaped like a fancy building

Jewish wedding ring, courtsey of the MET Museum.

I then walked over to the New York Historical Society where I toured the exhibit “The First Jewish Americans: Freedom and Culture in the New World.” This show chronicled how Jewish settlers came to inhabit and then change the New World all while struggling to hold onto their identity. While it focused on the early Jewish population in New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, it did mention Baltimore as well as Rabbi David Einhorn, who was a leader in Reform Judaism and spoke out passionately against slavery during the Civil War. There were several outstanding artifacts such as the 16th century memoir and prayer book of Luis de Carvajal the Younger who was persecuted during the Inquisition as well as a Torah scroll from Shearith Israel which was rescued from a fire set by British soldiers in 1776.

Photo of the entrance to an exhibit, with a text panel on the left and an illuminated world map on the right

First Jewish Americans exhibit, courtsey of NYHS

While I was in New York, I also went on a walking tour of the Lower East Side offered by the Tenement Museum. As our Education team is currently developing a walking tour of Jewish sites in Jonestown, I was curious to see how other Jewish museums deliver their tours. On our hour and a half tour, our guide discussed how immigrants lived in over-crowded tenements and worked long hours in sweatshops struggling to make a living. She mentioned many of the same themes we talk about at the JMM, such as the tension between assimilation and holding onto your traditions. We admired the beautifully restored Eldridge Street Synagogue and strolled up Hester Street which was once full of open air markets and push carts in the early 1900s. We also walked past the sites of Ridley’s Department Store and Loew’s Canal Street Theatre as well as PS 42, where generations of immigrants learned how to be “American.”

A female tour guide holds a black and white image of a street scene. She is standing in the same place the photo is an image of.

Then and Now on Hester Street, courtsey of Tenament Museum

I ended my day attending Shabbat services at Central Synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1872 in the Moorish Revival style and was designed by Henry Fernbach, often cited as the first Jewish architect in America. Central Synagogue lays claim to being the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the city. I was awe struck by the glorious sanctuary with its tall central nave and gilded Star of David, which brought to mind architectural elements present in both of our historic synagogues, Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel.

Color photo of the interior of the Central Synagogue building. The room is lit with golden light.

Interior of the Central Synagogue

Throughout my time in New York City, I was able to better appreciate the city’s Jewish heritage and draw connections to my own work at the JMM.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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