Most of the time, I live in one world and write about another. But now and then, the two collide, making for a lively conjunction. The other day, I was researching an article about the razing, in 1927, of Temple Emanu-El, arguably New York City’s premier Reform congregation, when it was located in the very heart of Midtown Manhattan. I no sooner finished putting pen to paper — or its digital equivalent — when I learned that Lincoln Square Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation in my neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was imminently facing the wrecking ball.
I was struck hard by the coincidence. Though separated by a span of 86 years, as well as by a radically different approach to Judaism, Temple Emanu-El and Lincoln Square Synagogue are bound together by their fate, which has little to do with heavenly matters and everything to do with the value of their respective properties here on earth. Caught up in the currents of New York’s real estate market — which then, as now, were nothing if not volatile — both congregations accepted an offer that was simply too good to refuse. The result, as The New York Times observed in a valedictory salute to Midtown’s Temple Emanu-El, was “change, change everywhere.” And therein lies my tale.
Temple Emanu-El resides resplendently on Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, where it has been since the late 1920s. Its equally glorious predecessor hugged the corner of Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street for nearly 60 years. Today, a streamlined skyscraper calls that choice parcel its home, but between 1868 and 1927, a Moorish-style synagogue with two egg-shaped minarets (minarets?!) and a pleasing superfluity of “Saracenic” detail, as one observer fancifully put it, occupied the space.
Contemporary observers were agog at the beauty of the synagogue’s interior. “Whatever splendor can be produced by modern skill and art is shown here to full advantage,” rhapsodized the Israelite, a leading American Jewish newspaper, at the time of the synagogue’s consecration. At once a statement of modernity and of exoticism, the sanctuary boasted 500 gas lights, which brilliantly illumined its vast space; a ceiling set with a “constellation of stars”; a “profuse” amount of gilding just about everywhere, as well as handsome oak pews “furnished with book-racks, foot-boards and hat-stands under the seats.” And if that weren’t enough to make worshippers comfortable, the “ventilation throughout the house,” we are told, was “perfect.”
Passersby were equally enchanted by Temple Emanu-El, especially if they happened upon the building just as the sun’s rays were about to set. At that moment, a New Yorker “may well fancy himself transported to distant lands and bygone times,” one of them related, adding that Temple Emanu-El was “one of the few distinctly Oriental examples in the panorama of New York architecture.”