June is shaping up as a big month for the Museum at Eldridge Street. This coming Sunday, they’ll be holding the annual Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Festival, a celebration of the neighborhood’s Chinese and Jewish cultures. Then a week later, a brand new visitor center inside the historic synagogue building will be unveiled. Recently we spoke with Amy Stein-Milford, the deputy director, about both events.
First, the festival, which was conceived 14 years ago by Hanna Griff-Sleven, who was at the time with the New York State Council on the Arts. Today, as the museum’s director of cultural programs, she has the responsibility for organizing an event that grows in popularity each year. As always, there will be Chinese opera and acrobatics, klezmer music, Yiddish and Chinese language lessons, mah jongg, scribal arts, food and folk art demos, crafts and synagogue tours. Stein-Milford said more food is being added this year. There will be kreplach and dumpling makers leading demonstrations and the Essex Street Pickle Guys are now in the mix.
The other day. we stopped by the museum to have a look at the visitor center, which is still a work in progress. The synagogue building, which was the subject of a nearly $20 million restoration effort, is one of the Lower East Side’s most spectacular public spaces. While there have always been interactive displays on the lower level, the “museum” section of the Museum at Eldridge Street was not a primary focus for most visitors.
Once the center opens June 12, there will be several improvements, including a more obvious entryway and information desk, more robust interactive guides and displays for various historic objects related to the original congregation. “The lower level of the building,” Stein Milford said, “will be a place to interpret and provide context” for the upper level grand sanctuary. It will also be a place for the museum, as well as visitors to share stories about the Lower East Side.
The museum’s archivist has uncovered some remarkable photos of congregation founders and early members. There’s a detailed map that shows countries of origin for eight founding members. There are also photos showing some of the earlier, less elaborate shuls on the Lower East Side where congregants prayed when they initially came to this country. There’s a large rendering showing the original design of the synagogue building.
Stein-Milford says she sees the opening of the visitor center as a significant event in the museum’s history. Eldridge Street reopened in 2007 after the restoration project was completed. In 2010, a beautiful stain-glass window by esteemed Lower East Side artist Kiki Smith was unveiled. “This is the next big step,” she said.
The new center offers a chance, she explained, to ‘welcome visitors and introduce them to the back story and to allow them to meet the people who helped this synagogue thrive.”
But first things first: Egg Rolls & Egg Creams. The festival takes place on Eldridge Street, below Canal Street Sunday from noon-4 p.m. It’s a free event sponsored, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts, NYC Councilwoman Margaret Chin, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, NYC & Co. Foundation, and the New York State Council on the Arts.