For the many people walking through New York’s Lower East Side on any given day, 70 Hester Street is just one of many historic buildings. But for 37-year-old filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, this former synagogue is home. He grew up in the loft space on the upper two floors, which his artist parents, Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, used as their studio for 45 years until they were evicted in 2012.
With a sense that 70 Hester Street would likely the suffer the fate of so many other buildings in the old neighbourhood and be torn down to make way for a new, sleek condominium or commercial space, Nozkowski started filming his childhood home in June 2012. His premonition turned out to be correct. Not long after, his parents received notice that the building was being sold and that they, as rental tenants, would have to move out.
“I went in to overdrive when we got the eviction notice,” Nozkowski told the Forward. “I started editing as I was still filming, and finished the film toward the end of 2013.” Fortunately, he completed the documentary in time to submit it for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, which accepted it for its City Limits: New York Shorts program. In its world premiere, “70 Hester Street” will be screened five times between April 17 and 27.
For much of the 10-and-a-half-minutes-long film, Nozkowski shows and tells, in almost dreamlike fashion, his family’s strong attachment to the building and its unique space and architectural details, as well as the fabled neighborhood in which it is stands. The film’s epilogue uses a more matter-of-fact approach in conveying the current fate of 70 Hester Street, whose recent asking price was just under $4 million and is being renovated into a café and two commercial gallery spaces.
Having grown up constantly discovering tiny remnants of Jewish prayer book pages in corners of his home, Nozkowski was aware of the general outlines of the building’s past. But because the congregation which occupied the building in the latter half of the 19th century, the First Roumanian Congregation (Congregation Shaarey Shamoyim), did not keep proper archival records, it has been hard for him to uncover detailed historical information.
It is generally understood that the building was erected some time between 1860 and 1880 and used as a synagogue until the congregation, which became renowned for its cantorial soloists, moved to a larger space at 89 Rivington Street (that building was demolished following a roof collapse in 2006). Later, it was used as an illegal whiskey still, and also as a raincoat and plastic shower curtain factory. Nozkowski’s parents turned the upper two floors into their residential artists’ studio in 1967, a decade before the filmmaker was born.
Although the Brooklyn-based Nozkowski had not resided at 70 Hester Street since leaving for college, it was still difficult for him to watch his parents pack up and move out after so many years. “It’s sad to see things go, to perceive myself parents getting older and myself getting older,” he shared.
It’s clear from “70 Hester Street” that the filmmaker does not completely oppose change, but he does question it. “It’s worth considering the loss of the neighbourhood’s legacy and character,” he noted. He worries that before too long, the vestiges of the past may literally disappear from the streets of the Lower East Side, and that New Yorkers walking by them will consequently lose an important visual connection to their shared history.
By making this documentary short, Nozkowski is doing his part to stop this from happening. “When I film, it’s very cathartic,” he said. “It’s like I’m protecting memories and immortalizing what has been here.”
This story "Growing Up in a Former Synagogue Sanctuary" was written by Renee Ghert-Zand.