There was tension among the Museum at Eldridge Street board members over the Window Problem. In 1944, the original window blew out in a storm. The congregation was in decline by then, after the waves of Eastern European Jewish immigration had ended but before the Lower East Side had become hipster central. (Adam Kirsch reviewed a book about the Eldridge Street Synagogue, whose building, built in 1887 and designated a National Historic Landmark, is now the museum.) The shul couldn’t afford a new stained-glass window, so it was replaced with four columns of glass bricks, which resembled the demon-spawn of an ’80s shower stall and a AA battery. The original window had apparently been beautiful, but no pictures of it existed. The board wrestled with the question: Should they retain the hideous blocks, as a memory of a sad time in the building’s history? Or should they try to recreate what the old window might have looked like? Or, finally, should they embark on something bold, contemporary, and new?
After much arguing, the board went with bold, contemporary, and new. Excellent choice. The new window, designed by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans, was unveiled last Wednesday, concluding the decades-long, $18.5 million restoration of the building, to which more than 20,000 donors contributed. The window is a painterly swirl of turquoise and gold: Tiny stars spiraling around a glowing Star of David.
The fact that everything else in the sanctuary looks exactly as it did in the room’s heyday only adds to the window’s Modernist power. Smith says it is about “rupture and regeneration,” themes that work for a building, a neighborhood, and a community that has seen so much of both. It contains glittering little five-pointed stars in addition to the serene, central Star of David, reflecting a synthesis of Old World and New, the notion of being simultaneously Jewish and American. (Five-pointed stars play a big role in American folk art.) In the crescents of the swirling frames, and the geometry of the span of stars, there’s also a feeling of Islamic art that fits in with the Moorish design of the building.
The two layers of glass used in the window are laminated with modern silicone rather than old-school lead, allowing the designers to use much larger panes of glass in the design. The window doesn’t have the classic stained glass look of small shapes outlined with thick bands of lead; it’s much smoother, lighter, and airier, and admits more light, too. The use of acid etching techniques (on the blue glass) and silver stain (for the stars) helped Smith and Gans create an Impressionist-painterly effect.
The completed frame alone weighs more than 4400 pounds. On Youtube, there’s a suspenseful video of the six 300-pound glass panels being installed by a crane. Perhaps it has only 79 views because it is a very disappointing film for those of us weaned on action movies; no one drops the window and nothing crashes through it. This is probably better for the Jews, but still. (There is also a brief documentary about the window that ArtsBeat posted yesterday.)
There’s something touching to me about the fact that while once upon a time, women had no role in the ritual life of this building, now they’ve helped to create it. (In addition to Smith and Gans, Linda Ross of Ross Art Studio was involved in the project, casting the Star of David in the window’s center.) I’m a huge Kiki Smith fan, not just because she is one of the most important living woman artists and not just because her strange, fairy-tale-inflected, starry work speaks to me, but because she is a generous person who has done major mitzvot for my kids’ school. (Look! She designed this awesome tote bag for our PTA fundraiser!)
The museum will be hosting a conversation between Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans on Wednesday, November 17, at 6:30pm.