Rare tenement shul on the Lower East Side
By Emma Jacobs
The synagogue at 180 Stanton Street is one of the few tenement shuls still left of the 700 congregations recorded in 1918 serving the Jews of the Lower East Side.
The shul is the first American home of Congregation Bnai Jacob Anshe Brzezan ("Sons of Jacob, People of Brzezan"). Incorporated in 1893, the community of Jewish immigrants from the town of Brzezan in Southeast Galicia, (formerly Austria-Hungary, then Poland, now the Ukraine), created their place of worship from an existing structure on the site in 1913, within a thriving Lower East Side Jewish community. The shul has since changed with the neighborhood, but has struggled to preserve its old country roots.
Jews arriving in New York in the wave of immigration that began in the 1880s often organized in their new cities around hometown associations (called landmanshaftn in Yiddish) made up of immigrants from the same towns...
Interviews with Jonathan Boyarin, Yossi Pollack, Elissa Sampson, and Jonathan Shore by Emma Jacobs for Place Matters, April 5, 2007.
Cowan, Paul. An Orphan in History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1982. 173-205.
Hannah Kliger, ed. Jewish Hometown Associations and Family Circles in New York: The WPA Yiddish Writers’ Group Study.Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.
Mark, Jonathan. "Days of Awe on Stanton Street." The Jewish Week 22 Sept. 2006. 9 Apr. 2007
Mark, Jonathan. "The Fight for the Stanton Street Shul." The Jewish Week 30 Mar. 2001. 9 Apr. 2007 (http://thejewishweek.com)
Rich, Tracey R. "Judaism 101: Synagogues, Shuls and Temples." JewFAQ. 2001. 24 Apr. 2007 (www.jewfaq.org/shul.htm)
Robins, Anthony W. Excerpts from an unpublished report describing the shul and explaining its significance. Congregation Bnai Jacob Anschei Brzezan.
Tugend, Alina. "Wandering Jew - a Nosh of the Big Apple." Jewish Journal 27 Jan. 2006. 24 Apr. 2007 (www.jewishjournal.com)
[Posted, August 2007]
Stanton Street Shul
Stanton Street Shul on Stanton Street between Clinton and Attorney is a little gem of East European immigrants and survivors who now mix with American born and other immigrants to keep going the last tenement shul in that part of the Lower East Side. Abie Roth, who is at least 92, gets up and opens the shul every weekday at 6:00 a.m. so that he can say Kaddish. He is from Podacje (Austria-Hungary before WWI, Poland between the wars, Ukraine today); Gedalya Getzler and Benny Sauerhaft, who are from Blujev-Riminev; Freema Gottlieb from Scotland; Belkis Rodriguez from Venelueza; Leonardo Prizont from Argentina; and a slew of others. It's the most interesting immigrant and Lower East Side born mix of young and old in a building which for better or worse is unchanged since the turn of the century (there is no hot water for instance and we daven in school desks from 1900).
Distinctive features of the building are the crooked stairs that open to go down into the building, the broken stained glass window with the few panes of original colored glass hinting at what the magen david pattern must have looked like, the little school desks for davening, the Blujev-Riminiv broken memorial lamp, the old rabbi's kapote, the old stained talisim hanging in a rack, the Max Roth name on the middle of the fluorescent fixture that hangs down like a pre-rocket age spaceship.
We are listed on the New York State and National Registers, but we are now up against time, given the age of the daveners and the physical neglect of the building over the last 50 years. Saving the building and recording the memories of shul members are high priorities.
The Stanton Street Synagogue is one of the last remaining “tenement” synagogue buildings in the heart of New York’s Lower East Side. These turn-of-the century synagogues that were shoe-horned into the Lower East Side’s small lots, have all but disappeared. As the last of these tenement synagogues left between Delancey and Houston Streets, the Stanton Street Synagogue survives today as a distinctive architectural, cultural and religious landmark of the Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jewish community of New York City’s Lower East Side, the most famous immigrant district in a city renowned for its immigrant history.
The Lower East Side is both a historical and living Jewish community. Our synagogue embodies both. We want anyone who walks into the Shul to feel a warm connection to Eastern European Jewish life.
The survival of our small shul (one of approximately a dozen functioning synagogues in the neighborhood today) is not only a testament to the perseverance of our elderly, immigrant members, for whom it is a true home and living memorial to otherwise forgotten towns. It is also a symbol of the renewal of the Lower East Side as a neighborhood where younger Jews with their own traditions are now moving in and forming connections, reweaving the chain of generations so nearly unraveled in the turmoil of the twentieth century.
Although it is small and extremely modest, Bnai Jacob Anshe Brzezan on Stanton Street has been singled out as a fine example of the phenomenon of the vernacular synagogue building. Its 20-foot-wide façade is arranged in a typically tripartite design with a central entrance. Ornament reflects both Classical and Jewish influences. The façade’s three bays are separated by cast-stone pilasters, which carry a cornice and pediment with classical moldings. Hebrew lettering incised in the pediment spells out the congregation’s name and the year of construction. There are circular stained glass windows at the second and third levels of the central bay, each with a Star of David, but containing only remnants of the original glass.
In the interior, are 'mazelos' or astrological contstellations that are crumbling literally into ruin. They represent the traditional folk belief that the month one was born was an important component of one's destinty. Once prevelant throughout the Lower East Side and in Eastern Europe, these mazelos are now seen only in two Lower East Side shuls. While this is not beautiful art, it is representative of a generation of immigrants and is very particular to their interpretation of life in Eastern Europe and the Lower East Side. The Virgo counterpart, is a B'tullah (a virgin) but due to the prohibition on showing the face in traditonal art since it might encourage some sort of idol-worship, what is shown is the embroided cuff and hand of the Btullah holding a sheaf of wheat for the month of Elul. The embroidery is similar to what would be found on a Ukranian peasant blouse. There is also a lobster portrayed in the mazelos which we think may have had to do with a fundamental misunderstanding as to what a scorpion (admittedly a desert creature) may have looked like. There is a certain irony in the lobster having survived the test of time when more typical mazelos that were to be found in most Lower East Side shuls simply disappeared.
There are also tiny wooden and cast iron turn-of-the century school desks where the older members still pray; they have ink wells and little shelves to put prayer books.
If any of these things were to change or disapear, it would like having a page torn out of a history book that told the immigrant story. It's one thing to hear about the generation of people who migrated from Eastern Europe; it's quite another to see what they thought was pious art; or desks appropriate to their height; or look at simple but vivid stained glass windows and know that they were a very public representation of pride in beauty at having been able to create a shul building for all in the street to admire. This was not a rich congregation; they were never able to afford a boiler for heat and hot water, and the shul still uses the original gas radiators which are quite beautiful (if not up to current building code) for heat.
The shul is raising money to renovate which is desparately needed given the state of the building. The leaking roof and fire escape were done most recently. The rest of the exterior needs to be done as well as the interior and the shul is trying to raise money for this.
For more information, log onto the shul website: www.stantonshul.com. Also see the Australian Broadcast Company program on the shul: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/radioeye/stories/2006/1716097.htm.
To contact the Stanton Street Shul for general information, email email@example.com.
(Updated by the Nominator, November 2006)