Bialystoker Synagogue is at 7-11 Bialystoker Place which use to be known as Willet Street. The building was constructed in 1826 and was the Willet Street Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1905, the synagogue bought the church.
In 1966 the building was land marked and it’s one of the only four early 19th century religious Federal period style buildings in Lower Manhattan. It’s made of Manhattan schist from a quarry that use to exist nearby on Pitt Street (our guide told us it’s suppose to be Pit Street but was misspelled). Crazy, trying to picture the days when a quarry use to be right here.
Ever since I found out that Savannah is home to the 3rd oldest congregation in the USA, I’ve been on a Jewish history kick. I also have a thing for Jewish history but besides that, it’s very important to me because it’s a part of my neighborhood identity. The Lower East Side is the seat of NYC Jewish history. When I got the email from untapped cities about this tour, I booked it as soon as I could. This is what we did Easter Sunday.
Men and women have separate stairwells that lead to the basement praying area and the restrooms. Men and women pray separately because women are seen as unclean. There is a separate area covered by sheets for convalescing women and seniors to pray on the ground floor with men since they can’t get upstairs to the women’s area. This is an Orthodox Jewish Congregation.
When we walked into Bialystoker I said to Vic, “Now this is what I expect temple to look like.” We’ve been to a couple on the LES and they look like Jewish Sanctuaries whereas the ones we’ve seen in Savannah and Charleston have a very churchy kinda feel and make me feel like I’m in a church. But the churchy synagogue feel is cool too because on those tours they explain how down there they are very integrated with each other so that’s really nice too. But in NY, as I walk into temple I feel like a giddy kid learning about the curiosities I’ve always had since the day my Dad pointed out that the cemetery at Chatham Square is the oldest Jewish Cemetery in Manhattan.
As you walk in you will see the Torah Ark in the front. They believe it’s hand carved from Bialystok, Poland and shipped to New York. The guide mentioned it was appraised and they were told it’s priceless. The bema (elevated platform in a synagogue) in an Orthodox temple is in the middle but since this was a converted church it’s in the front. We also learned that they are suppose to pray facing east but this one faces west due to the conversion. The images you see on the walls were originally stenciled but hand painted over in the 1980s.
This is the oldest synagogue in NYC. The Eldridge Street Synagogue was completed 3 years after the Willet Street Church was converted to a Temple. Eldridge Street was a synagogue from the very beginning unlike a lot of converted churches on the LES. Will get to that in a future post.
I didn’t realize – we were going to visit another synagogue! The little kid in me was so delighted.
That’s where Congregation Beth Hachasidim De Polen comes in. There are a lot of tiny congregations that got together in tenement rooms, store fronts and basement, they are called shtielblach (small congregations). This shtiebl is at 233 East Broadway and was organized in 1904 and is now lead by Rabbi Moshe Stern.
Our guide, Paul is a 3rd generation Lower East Sider. It was cool hearing him talking about growing up and how he didn’t know much about the culture. He told us a funny story about this shtiebl.
Imagine 6 year old Paul who knew what Orthodox Jews look like but not much else. One day he walked was walking home alone for dinner and some old man grabs his arm. He’s wearing all black, breath smells, long yellow nails. Paul was scared. The old man says to him ,” A chew?” Paul replies, “Bless you.” Old man says again, “A chew” “Bless you,” Paul says again. Old man says again, “No. A chew?” Then it dawns on the little boy and he shakes his head yes, I’m a Jew.
He doesn’t really know what they need him for. They asked him, “Bar Mitzvah?” He shakes his head no. Now he guesses they needed someone who ‘isn’t a man’ yet. One old man makes him put on a prayer shawl and he had to bow about 15 times he thinks. When he was done with one old man he had to do it for another, then another, then another. His mom was angry at him when he got home because dinner was cold and he was late for dinner. He said after 6 times of walking by the block he learned to avoid it so he could get home to dinner on time and not be scared of the basement people who he couldn’t understand. He thinks they were from Poland and maybe Estonia.
We also learned the very old books in the shtiebl that aggravate everyone’s asthma can’t be tossed out because they have the name of God written in them. To dispose of them they have to be buried in consecrated ground. Paul said that one day when construction was going on he joked to toss the books in and they said no – not proper. It’s good to know the men in black from the basement no longer freak Paul out. Very cute personal story.