Fridays at the Synagogue are my favorite. For many years, the Museum was not open on Fridays, as we must close at 3 pm. Sharing space with an Orthodox community has its perks. One has to prepare for the Sabbath so the kosher shops on the Lower East side close at 3 even in the summer (Sabbath begins at sundown, but candles are lit 20 minutes before). I am usually the only staff member at the Museum on Fridays. We have one or two docents and at least one intern (this semester we are fortunate and have 3 interns in). We have visitors but it feels like everyone is on their best behaviors on this Erev Shabbat day (Sabbath eve). I open the register and get the schedule in order and wait for the docents and interns to arrive. Some days I give the first tour if folks are late or delayed. This Friday everyone was on time so that I only had to open and work the front desk for about a half hour until one of the interns relieved me.
I went to the office to try and work on my class for Monday. I tried the writing prompts with two of the interns who were in the office and it worked! One of them knew lots of the family history behind the names and had lots to say and knew it. The other one started off telling me she was not named after anyone. She started answering the prompts and a lot of family stories came out—it was fun to hear her realize that her name did have meaning and stories that related to family tradition.
I got a phone call from the front desk: a couple was visiting and had roots in the Lower East Side and were CERTAIN their family had been members here. I took the name and went to the archives and the name was not listed. I went upstairs to meet the couple and told them that their family had not been members and explained to them that there were over 100 synagogues on the Lower East Side back in the day and explained how people chose one over the other. I questioned them more about their background and found out that they were from a Rumanian background. “Aha,” I told them, “the Rumanians mostly lived north and a bit east of here.” They had their own Synagogue on Rivington Street and it was a beauty. Sadly, it fell into neglect and literally fell down about ten years ago. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was one of the first synagogues to have people of many different backgrounds, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, mainly as their members. Romanians and Hungarians pretty much stuck to their own synagogues. The couple, although a tad disappointed that their family hadn’t worshipped here, was grateful to hear about the other synagogues in the area.
A brother and sister who were visiting from Rochester, New York and New Jersey wanted to eat at a kosher restaurant in the neighborhood. I told them that aside from bagels and bialys, a real kosher restaurant down here was not to be found. How could that be? I told them to look at the neighborhood. It’s not Jewish anymore and even though the Tenement Museum and we get many Jewish visitors, it’s not enough to support a kosher restaurant. There are two kosher style—Russ and Daughters Café and Katz’s deli—they were disappointed. As a folklorist I find it fascinating how many people still expect to see Jewish pushcarts and peddlers on the streets when they exit the subway and kosher foods all around. It’s as if they don’t see the now and are in some sort of time space continuum focusing only on the synagogue and the past history. I convinced the brother and sister to eat at the Greek diner on the corner that has its own place in history and made a good tuna melt.
I stayed at the front desk, as it was time for the interns to take lunch. We had a docent out on tour so all was good. Although the morning was a bit slow, the afternoon started to pick up: people from Australia, the Netherlands, France, California—15 people all told were ready for their tour. Our docent Bette, a retired cantor and full of vigor was pleased to have such a large group and sailed away with them.
The interns returned from lunch and one took my spot and I started to work on the written program for next week’s concert. A phone call from the front desk told me that a board member was here. I went up and it was one of my favorites, a very generous man (he had funded next week’s concert) was here with an old friend and fraternity brother. They wanted to have a cocktail party here for their fraternity and wanted some information on logistics. I talked with them for a while about how we do things like that and the best days to have one and then told him to call the boss on Monday. A perk of working in such a beautiful space is that so many of the board members feel the beauty and are proud of it and bring by friends and use the space for events from parties such as these or even weddings and baby namings. It is a pleasure to have these people so engaged with the space.
And then it was 2:30 and we had to put away the gift shop and get the place ready for worship by the congregation that evening and for Saturday morning. We put everything away and closed up and wished everyone a good weekend and Good Sabbath and went home!