The Lower East Side of New York
Jewish Life in America

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A Choir of Rare Musical Quality---Fervor of the Congregations---
Audiences of Humble Aspect That Enjoy Philosophical Addresses.

From The SUN, a New York City newspaper, dated August 20, 1905.

There was a time when Brooklyn took pride in its title of the City of Churches. In these days, however, Manhattan may far more justly lay claim [to] this distinction, for it is a simple fact that there is scarcely an existing form of religion known to civilized mankind that is not represented within the precincts of this borough. A revolution far more surprising is indicated by the statement that orthodox Judaism in this year of 1905 can boast of an actual following equal to the total number of Protestant communicants and church attendants in Manhattan.

Within ten minutes of the City Hall, beyond the Bowery and below Houston Street, lies a district of over a mile square where that curious hybrid tongue known as Yiddish forms the common speech of two out of every three people you meet. On all sides the chance pedestrian will be mystified by unfamiliar, outlandish characters on the signs of the shops, the posters of the theatres and the newspapers sold on the sidewalks by bright-eyed, sharp-faced urchins.

In this teeming district now dwell upward of 500,000 Jews, most of whom have immigrated to this country since 1881.

The most interesting fact about these humble immigrants and their descendants is that invariably they are faithful to the traditions of their race and their religion, and it is only on the East Side, indeed, that the orthodox Jewish worship is jealously guarded and observed as nearly as possible according to the sacred heritage of law and ritual handed down from the time of Moses.

The ghetto maintains no less than 200 organized congregations which worship in their own synagogues and are entirely self-supporting. In addition to these there are a number of floating bands (Hebrahs and Hadarim), without definite status, recruited from the poorest classes, and renting a small hall with the services of a cantor from week to week, and the People's Synagogue maintained by the Educational Alliance in Seward Park, at the corner of east Broadway and Jefferson Street.

Comparatively few of these orthodox congregations employ a permanent rabbi, for the essence of the Jewish worship lies in the reading of the scrolls and the musical service interpreted by the cantor and his choir of men and boys.

Passover Services at the Chaari Zedek Synagogue.

Within a few blocks of the Chatham Square elevated station is situated the Henry Street synagogue of Chaari Zedek, one of the oldest and most important of the strictly orthodox congregations in New York, and one, moreover, which possesses a choir scarcely surpassed in its admirable training and rare musical quality by that of any other religious corporation in this city.

The cantor of Chaari Zedek, the Rev. A. Minkowsky, came to this country with his family a few months ago from Odessa, where for twelve years he had officiated in the Great Synagogue. He was graduated in music from the Moscow Conservatory, where he was a special pupil of Safanoff, the conductor, who now annually visits America. Mr. Minkowsky came to New York partly to secure freedom from oppression and partly to educate his family, for it is a pathetic fact that the Jewish subjects of the czar are forced to bribe the officials before their children can be admitted to the free schools.

As cantor in the highest musical sense, Mr. Minkowsky probably ranks second to none in the United States, and it was mainly through his courtesy that I was privileged to attend the impressive services during the last Passover feast. This high festival, one of the three great holiday seasons of the Jewish year, and coincident with the Christian Easter, commemorates the exodus from Egypt and signifies the passing over of the Israelites by Jehovah when he smote the Egyptians.

It was about 7 o'clock on a Wednesday evening that I found myself at the entrance of the Chaari Zedek synagogue, where I was to gain my initial experience of an orthodox Jewish service. Surrounded by crowded tenement houses and cheap shops, the edifice presents a sufficiently impressive facade of Oriental design, chiefly characterized by three curved portals and an immense circular window surmounted by a gallery with a turret at either end.

Admission to this preliminary or sunset service, as well as to those of the succeeding Thursday and Friday, and of the same days at the end of the feast in the following week, required a special ticket. Inside was already assembled a great throng of devout male worshippers, and it is pleasant to record that the Gentile visitor was courteously welcomed by the official of the congregation and escorted to a seat opposite the platform, which was brilliantly illuminate by a row of seven-branched candlesticks. Then began the service which I shall ever remember for the weird solemnity of the ritual and the indescribable beauty of the music.

The cantor, in full vestments and wearing the customary skull cap, stood at his prayer desk facing the Ark at the rear, which was screened from view by a gorgeously embroidered curtain. On either side of the cantor were ranged the choir of some twenty men and boys vested in black robes and directed by a conductor in the center.

Through the kindness of a neighbor I had been provided with a book of prayer containing an English translation of the glowing, exalted Hebrew ritual of adoration and praise: "Blessed be the Eternal at all times. Amen! Amen! Blessed be the Eternal from Zion. He who is throned in Jeruscahalzim.  Halleluiah! Blessed be the Eternal, the God of Israel, who alone performs wonders. Blessed be his splendid name eternally, and let the whole earth declare his glory. Amen! Amen!"

The most impressive service of the festival occurred the next morning, when the cantor, and later an augmented choir, shared the platform with the leaders of the congregation, whose office it was to read from the sacred scrolls.

And the assembly of worshippers, what of them? The men, seated in a dense mass on the main floor, wore with few exceptions over their shoulders the talads, or prayer scarves, of soft white material with black stripes at the ends. None but the truly devout would dare assume in public this emblem of a clean conscience, the tasseled fringes of which are fraught with a special holy symbolism, handed down from the time of the prophets.

The women, who had been debarred from the sunset service because of the traditional obligation to attend to home duties at that hour, filled the galleries. Meanwhile, the readers, dignified and reverent in demeanor, making the Gentile observer forget the slight incongruity of silk hats combined with the drapery of the prayer scarves, intoned from the Torah, or Law, in accents shrill or deep, and sometimes harsh, but, nevertheless, conveying to unfamiliar ears the full majesty of the ancient Hebrew tongue.

Presently the sweet, high voice of the cantor burst forth in notes of praise, while the choir responded from a distant quarter of the gallery: "Glorified and magnified be the living God, the Infinite being, whom no time limits. He is alone and on oneness is to be compared to His. He is invisible, infinite in His sole being. He has no bodily shape. Nothing can be compared to His holiness."

Subsequently the choir came down to ascend the platform and intersperse the rich volume of their responses with the strangely tender and moving outpourings of the remarkable cantor, who seemed well nigh exalted in the devout rapture of his bearing. Eventually the scrolls were returned to the Ark, after having been carried in solemn procession, led by the cantor, down one side of the platform before the audience (some of whom pressed forward to reverently kiss the pendant tassels), and returning by the opposite side.

Occasionally the congregation would arise and respond, and there was frequent repetition in the original Hebrew of the familiar passage in the Episcopal Prayer Book: "O Lord, open Thou our lips that our mouths may show forth thy praise!"

Again individuals arose here and there to unite in the prayer for the deceased, while swaying their bodies slowly to and fro.

Finally came the blessing of the people, which was the exclusive office of the high priests in the days of the children of Israel. It seems that all adult males who now bear the name of Cohen can claim descent from the original priestly tribe. So now stepped forth from the congregation some eight or ten who, however humble or plainly clad, seemed justly proud at this supreme moment of their undisputed right to the ancient sacerdotal office.

These men removed their shoes, and after cleansing their hands and enveloping themselves in robes, more voluminous than the prayer scarves and somewhat resembling the burnooses of the Arabs, they ascended the platform and arranged themselves in a crescent behind the choir and directly in front of the Ark. Then, with robes drawn completely over their heads and arms stretched forth over the people, these descendants of the lordly high priests of Biblical times bestowed a blessing upon the assembly. And truly it required no difficult feat of the imagination to picture the solemn benediction as it might have been enacted more than thirty centuries ago.

During the long service of over an hour, the members of the congregation moved about from time to time and frequently conversed with one another in low tones but all this implied no irreverence whatever.

The photograph (above) depicts the cantor, choir and officials of the Chaari Zedek synagogue as they appeared on the platform facing the audience immediately after the morning service. It should be stated of this congregation that while typically orthodox, it is also one of the oldest and most substantial in the Hebrew community of New York, and consequently numbers among its members very few of the humbler Rav or Maggid classes from Russia, which have constituted the bulk of Jewish immigration to this country since 1881.

Forsyth Street Synagogue.


Eldridge Street Synagogue.

The imposing structures of the Kol Israel Ansche Poland and the Kahal Adath Jeshurun congregation, the former in Forsyth Street and the latter in Eldridge Street near Canal, likewise date their foundations from the earlier days of the Ghetto, and many similar well built houses of worship will be found in Chrystie, Allen, Orchard, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Clinton and Hester Streets. In all these the conditions and ceremonial are practically identical with those already described in connection with the Henry Street synagogue.

So much for the worship of the more thrifty congregations of the East Side. There is another story to be told, however, of the poorer denizens of this quarter, and especially those who have but recently arrived from Russia.

These also, as Orthodox Jews, although perhaps biding their time to become American citizens, are strict observers of the religion of their fathers, and pray to God as instinctively as they eat, drink or sleep. In many instances a score or more will band together and rent a small hall from week to week. Every now and then in the crowded streets the passerby will notice a sign in Hebrew, usually above the first floor, sometimes fastened to a fire escape, that will prove nine times out of ten to indicate the meeting place of a floating congregation.

But far more interesting to the outsider than any of these last is the People's Synagogue, sustained by the Educational Alliance.

The People's Synagogue.


Henry Street Synagogue.

The plan of operation this organization is somewhat analogous to that in vogue in many of the Young Men's Christian Associations in the United States. Thus ample privileges of instruction in the English branches, besides courses in art, music, political and domestic science, telegraphy, stenography, etc., are provided for merely nominal fees, while facilities are afforded for entertainments, clubs and various kinds of social recreations.

Naturally, however, the principal aim of the alliance is to satisfy he religious needs of the less prosperous or floating portion of the teeming population of the ghetto. While no one is denied admission to the meetings at the People's Synagogue, there are many who gladly pay a small sum for the privilege of yearly membership.

Early one morning of late I made bold to mingle with the jostling throng that was pouring into the auditorium for the regular Saturday service. I found a seat on a slightly elevated platform in the rear, from which I could conveniently overlook the entire scene.

five or six ushers were busy effecting an even distribution of the worshippers, who finally filled every seat and even lined the walls and parts of the aisles. There was no choir this morning, as the members were taking a rest after the exhausting daily meetings during Passover week. A cantor was in evidence, however, and several men from the congregation took turns in reading at length from the scrolls.

At the close Dr. Radin, the regular rabbi, delivered a brief address. While the platform was furnished to resemble that of a synagogue, the auditorium was nothing more than a plain, rather low ceiled hall, with seats sloping gradually down to the front.

In Henry Street the elaborate ceremonial and beautiful music combined to make such a telling appeal to the senses that the assembly of worshippers was almost ignored. In this primitive place, however, it was quite the reverse, for I found my interest and attention almost exclusively centered in the study of the audience.

Indeed, the devout earnestness and perfect simplicity of these people impressed me no less deeply than had the stately platform services in the larger synagogue. No matter how wretchedly they might live or by what means they managed to eke out a scanty living, these wanderers from the Old World, many of them refugees, it may be, from persecution and oppression, came hither that morning with but one thought--to enjoy the blessed privilege of worshipping, unmolested, the god of Israel. "Because on account of our sins we have been driven far away from our land, we cannot any more appear before Thee in Thy great and holy house. Eternal, our God and God of our forefathers, may it please Thee to return and have mercy upon us," etc.

Young, middle aged, venerable, smooth shaven or heavily bearded, in nondescript attire marked here and there by the cherished, if shiny, long-tailed frock of the Sabbath; revealing sallow, unwholesome faces, stamped with all the racial signs, and alas, too, often those as well of patient suffering and want, this motley assemblage presented a composite picture that was at once pathetic and strangely impressive.

The majority wore the prayer scarves, which they brought concealed inside their coats and wrapped invariably in a sheet of some Yiddish newspaper. And with what reverent care would these men unfold their oft times slightly bedraggled symbols of a clean conscience, to drape them over their shoulders!

Half a dozen women were visible on one side of the hall, but somehow they seemed out of place in this curious crowd of behatted and bescarfed men. The photograph, showing a view of the congregation from the rear, was taken by special permission of the Educational Alliance.

One evening shortly afterward I again visited the auditorium at the invitation of the Rev. Hirsch Masliansky, the famous orator of the ghetto, who delivers a lecture here on some moral topic every Friday.

The subject of this occasion was Philo of Alexandria, the scholarly Jew who was born the same year as Jesus Christ, and who, as an ardent Neo-Platonist, sought to influence Judaism with the essential virtues of Greek philosophy. Once more this whitewashed room was filled with a vast audience, which listened with rapt attention to the words of burning Yiddish eloquence that poured fro the lips of the speaker.

Seated on the platform, my interest was equally divided between the impassioned orator and the eager, responsive gathering of students, peddlers, small shopkeepers and schoolboys, who surely, as a body, must have represented culture and intelligence of no mean order to attend from choice a philosophical symposium like this.

Mr. Masliansky himself is a highly educated Russian Jew who, since his arrival in this country ten years ago, has made it his mission under the auspices of his exiled brethren, to acquaint them with the history and literature of Judaism and to teach them to become good American citizens.







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