The Lower East Side in 1886 was the center of the German culture; but it was also populated with Polish, Dutch, Russian and other Central or Eastern European immigrants. Manhattan’s Jewish residents settled here as well—not only because of the shared ties of culture and language; but because of the still rampant antisemitism. Four years earlier James D. McCabe, in his New York by Gaslight, reflected the general attitude.
“The dealers in the street are nearly all Jews, the sharpest and most unscrupulous of their class, who do not hesitate to swindle their customers before their very eyes, and then call on the police to arrest their victims if they resist.”
In 1886 a group of Romanian Jews established the congregation Kehal Adath Yeshurin of Yassay, variously spelled Adath Jashurun of Jassy. The immigrants had come from Lasi in Romania and established their synagogue at No. 131 Hester Street. But by the turn of the century they were prepared to erect a fine new building.
At Nos. 68 and 60 Rivington Street were what the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide described as “brick dwellings, three stories, 21x 40.” Adolph Schlesinger, a tenement owner, lived in No. 60. In 1903 the venerable old houses were demolished and the congregation put architect Emery Roth to work designing a handsome synagogue to replace them.
Roth was born in Austria-Hungary to a Jewish family and arrived in the United States in 1884 at the age of 13. He would become known for his Beaux Arts-style apartment houses; but this commission would require special consideration. Like so many synagogue designers, he turned to Moorish Revival. Gothic Revival by now was identified with Christian churches, and Greek Revival smacked of pagan worship. Moorish Revival harkened to the pre-Inquisition days of relative freedom in Spain.
Roth designed a three-story brick and stone façade with cast iron details. Contrasting rows of yellow and beige bricks created a striped effect. The arched entrance was ornamented by two rampant lions each holding a shield. Dominating it all was a sumptuous arched cornice over the “circle of light.” A Hebrew inscription translated “This is the gate of the Lord where the righteous come to.” Originally, onion domes would perch upon the flanking piers.
|The Rivington Street neighborhood in 1904 bustled with shoppers and push-cart vendors.|
Construction had its snags. On August 20, 1904 the city suffered a 10-hour downpour, described by The New York Times as a “deluge.” The storm destroyed the portico, still under construction.
“Down at 58-60 Rivington Street a new synagogue is being built, and an ornamental arch of artificial stone is in course of construction. This arch was so seriously damaged that it will have to be rebuilt,” reported The Times. The lion figures had been cast in a concrete-like material which had not yet totally set.
“When the skies cleared the only things that remained of the lions were the rock pedestals on which each had rested.”
The lions were recast, installed, and within two weeks the synagogue was completed. On September 5, 1904 the congregation’s scrolls were transferred from Hester Street to the Rivington Street synagogue. It was no small affair. The following day The Times remarked “The east side yesterday saw a parade the duplicate of which, it is said, had never occurred before in this country.”