Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Afternoon in Chinatown: Eleventh Annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival at the Museum at Eldridge Street

This afternoon we were in Chinatown to attend the jam-packed eleventh annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival.

We were there in 2007 and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at the event sponsored by the Museum at Eldridge Street, based in the historic synagogue at 12 Eldridge Street near Canal Street.

Last year over 8,000 people attended, but the streets of the Lower East Side/Chinatown have traditionally been wall-to-wall people, though not always having as much fun as they did today.

On the street, there was mah jongg play and lessons by veterans of the game from the Project Open Door Senior Center on nearby Grand Street and by MAES Friends.

As a kid in the 1950s we grew up thinking mah jongg was a Jewish game. Six years ago, when we were living in the Paradise Valley section of Phoenix, a group of Jewish ladies from our condo played every Wednesday afternoon at the cafe of Borders Bookstore across the street from us on Cactus Drive.

We arrived at the end of the first set by the truly great klezmer musician Ray Musiker.

We've seen Ray perform here before. He's still at the top of his form. Last month, at the Brooklyn Public Library tribute to Dave Tarras, we mentioned our love for the innovative klezmer album Tanz!, featuring Ray's brother Sam Musiker (married to our grandmother's cousin Brauny) and Sam's father-in-law Dave Tarras (married to our beloved great-great-aunt Shifra), and of course Ray himself.

City Councilmember Margaret Chin honored Ray Musiker with a plaque for his longtime service to the community and this long-running festival.

She also gave an award to the Museum of Eldridge Street, which has done great work for the community at the restored synagogue.

Following the Ray Musiker Klezmer Ensemble was a great performance by several members of the EastRiver Ensemble, a collective of top-notched musicians from north China, based in Chinatown just a few blocks away from here, which performs under the auspices of the Mencius Society for the Arts.

Drawing upon the timeless folk repertoire of the Hebei and Donbei regions of China, EastRiver plays traditional music with flair.

Unlike other Chinese ensembles, EastRiver is uniquely led by the yangqin, a Chinese version of the hammered dulcimer which showcases the beauty and precision of this music.

There were lots of folk activities from the two cultures for both adults and kids, including yarmulke making, Chinese brush painting, Chinese papermaking and paper folding and Jewish papercutting, Chinese knot tying and tzitzit tying, and more, although we were disappointed there was no math tutoring.

There was the traditional singing table, of course.

Then there was the inevitable, and as far as we know, nontraditional, face painting.

Kids also learned to make Chinese and Jewish dumplings

of the dim sum and kreplach varieties.

On the block, at 12 Eldridge Street, we passed the Buddhist Association of New York, where a worship service was underway.

We were on our way to catch a street performance by the fabulous Frank London's Klezmer Brass All-Stars band, justly appreciated by the many tall music lovers in front of us.

Four years ago, when we last saw Sifu Ken Lo, the martial arts master and all-around genius, we learned a lot about both Chinese calligraphy and Cha Dao (the Art of Tea).

Today we caught him teaching both, but here he is upstairs in the Orthodox synagogue's women's balcony, enlightening us on the mysteries of our favorite beverage.

He handed this young man a cup of tea and explained to pour it into the smaller cup and then smell the original cup.

Downstairs, Mark Sommerstein was giving Yiddish lessons. Farshtaist? It may be a legend, but we used to hear of old-style Cantonese restaurants in Brooklyn with Chinese waiters who spoke fluent Yiddish.

We heard most of a talk about the synagogue's history in the magnificent sanctuary, which we've explored before today.
Here's the Wikipedia version of its history:
The Eldridge Street Synagogue is the first synagogue erected in the United States by Eastern European Jews. One of the founders was Rabbi Eliahu the Blessed (Borok), formerly the Head Rabbi of St. Petersburg, Russia. It opened at 12 Eldridge Street in New York's Lower East Side in 1887 serving Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun. The building was designed by the architects Peter and Francis William Herter, (but unrelated to the Herter Brothers cabinet-makers). The brothers subsequently received many commissions in the Lower East Side and incorporated elements from the synagogue, such as the stars of David, in their buildings, mainly tenements.[3] When completed, the synagogue was reviewed in the local press. Writers marveled at the imposing Moorish Revival building, with its 70-foot-high vaulted ceiling, magnificent stained-glass rose windows, elaborate brass fixtures and hand-stenciled walls.

Thousands participated in religious services in the building's heyday, from its opening through the 1920s. On High Holidays, police were stationed in the street to control the crowds. Rabbis of the congregation included the famed Rabbi Abraham Aharon Yudelovich, author of many works of Torah scholarship. Throughout these decades the Synagogue functioned not only as a house of worship but as an agency for acculturation, a place to welcome new Americans. Before the settlement houses were established and long afterward, poor people could come to be fed, secure a loan, learn about job and housing opportunities, and make arrangements to care for the sick and the dying. The Synagogue was, in this sense, a mutual aid society.

For fifty years, the Eldridge Street Synagogue flourished. Then membership began to dwindle as members moved to other areas, immigration quotas limited the number of new arrivals, and the Great Depression affected the congregants' fortunes. The exquisite main sanctuary was used less and less from the 1930s on. By the 1950s, with the rain leaking in and inner stairs unsound, the congregants cordoned off the sanctuary.

Without the resources needed to heat and maintain the sanctuary, they chose to worship downstairs in the more intimate house of study (Beth Midrash). The main sanctuary remained empty for twenty-five years, from approximately 1955 to 1980. In 1986 the non-sectarian, not-for-profit Eldridge Street Project was founded to restore the synagogue and renew it with educational and cultural programs.The late Judge Paul PE Bookson was most instrumental in maintaining the Orthodox Religious services at the Eldridge Street Synagogue and its building restoration. The Eldridge Street Project completed the restoration in 2007 and re-opened to the public as the Museum at Eldridge Street, reflecting its cultural and educational mission. Congregation Kahal Adath Jeshurun continues to meet for evening services in the Beth Midrash and daytime services in the main sanctuary.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

It's definitely a worthwhile trip to visit the Museum at Eldridge Street just to see it and learn about the history of the building and the community.

The museum contains a number of interesting artifacts

as well as interactive exhibits.

It was a great pleasure to be back on Eldridge Street today. We're grateful we got to attend another Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival.