Eldridge Street Synagogue

A Site-specific Notion

Eldridge St. SynagogueAuditory landscapes are most evocative for me, evocative of people’s lives and practices, and of moods. So silence in the sanctuary of one of the oldest, most historic houses of worship in New York, the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, troubles me. The site has been restored to habitability and it now serves as a museum of urban immigration.

It is usually silent now except for footsteps and hushed conversation. But for generations the sanctuary rang with a kaleidoscope of haunting melodies, changing with the arrival of each generation of Jews finding their first American refuge on the Lower East Side.

The ancient words of their prayers and hymns are largely common to the various traditions of Jewish immigration. But for each wave of regional immigration, the melodies of the prayers and hymns were startlingly—and magnificently—different.

To enliven the silence, to evoke the life that used to teem within the old walls, I long to compose a work that would elide traditional melodies for the same words as they were sung by successive groups of new arrivals. It would be a rhapsodic treatment of liturgical, mystical and traditional songs—nigunim, and zemirot as well as liturgically based tunes that came to the Americas with Jews of divergent musical heritage. I imagine it now for choir and organ or choir and strings—perhaps with the addition of a particularly colorful instrument characteristic of one group or another (the oud, the dombek, the balalaika).

Melodies would present themselves and then slip away into the next wave of song, just as groups of immigrants moved in and then moved on as newcomers took their places. (That my beloved grandparents—and their grandparents—were among these urban pioneers in this particular place makes the project an intensely poignant and personal one for me.)

This music could function in either or both of two ways for the Eldridge Street Project. First and more obviously, its premiere could be an event that could mark a milestone in the Eldridge Street Project, whether as a concert, a focal point for a fundraising event or in connection with some other Eldridge Street function.

But more important to me as both evocative soundscape and lasting contribution to the Eldridge Street Project, it could be installed as a recorded repeating loop of music that in another time belonged there—a breathing ghost of the old Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Compositionally, such use would require a minor modification in the music so that its end would elide seamlessly with its beginning. The recording would be looped so that after perhaps 20 minutes, the end of the choral rhapsody would seamlessly connect with its beginning. It could go on for the entire times the sanctuary is open to the public, or only at specified, appropriate times in the tours.

The sanctuary would be imbued with quiet, continuous, contemplative music, profoundly evocative of its past and of those generations now gone and perhaps too seldom remembered.

The music would provide a pervasive aural landscape that could evoke both the generational linkage and folkloric diversity implicit in the history of Jewish immigration and religious practice on the Lower East Side.