Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Manhattan Diaspora

Manhattan Diaspora is the title of a documentary project I pursued beginning in 1992. I had recently been 'downsized' from my job as systems analyst with a New York commercial financial institution and was looking to explore the possibilities of working as a freelance photographer. I was on one of my self motivated photo walks in Manhattan and happened to find myself in front of a synagogue on Rivington Street. As I read the inscription on the side of the building, memories suddenly came flooding back. The building was the First Roumanian American Congregation. 

That particular congregation had particular historical significance. It was the synagogue in which both Jan Peerce (his original name was Jacob Pincus Perelmuth) and Richard Tucker (Rubin Ticker) sang as cantors before going on to establish famous careers at New York's Metropolitan Opera. It was also the synagogue from which Edward G. Robinson was bar mitzva'd, where George Burns was a member, and where Red Buttons sang in the choir. The building was first constructed as a Protestant church in the 1860's but was bought in 1902 by the Roumanian American Congregation. 

As I stood in front of the building I remembered my father listening to old recordings of Yossele Rosenblatt, who was also a famous cantor at the synagogue, and telling me about the community in that neighborhood. The gates were locked to protect the building from graffiti vandals, so I noted the times of daily services and made plans to return. About a week later I was at the building again about a half hour before the evening services were to begin. Rabbi Jacob Spiegel (the spiritual leader of the congregation) saw me casing the building and asked what I was doing. I told him my story and he invited me in to complete the minyan (a group of ten men needed to perform certain religious rituals). I asked if he would allow me to take photographs. He hesitated for a few seconds and then agreed. I suspect his motivation was to entice me into the building for the evening service, no matter what the cost. 

Every time I walked the neighborhood to gather material for the project, which became far more extensive than covering just the religious community of the area, I made an effort to either begin or end the visit with a stop at the synagogue to do some photography. I became a familiar face to the members of the very small, but very regular congregation, and the rabbi helped to facilitate other opportunities to pursue the project. Every time I entered the building, he encouraged me to put down the camera and join him in the prayers of the hour.

I made the trip to the synagogue  on this particular day because I had asked Rabbi Spiegel to allow me to photograph the torah being read. There is an established order of ascendants to the bema which is proscribed by ritual and must follow the established order of the first person being a member of the tribe of Kohan (priests) and the second being a Levite (religious helpers). At that particular service the congregant who usually assumed the responsibility of the Levite was absent, and the rabbi knew there were no other members of his congregation who were Levites. As I stood sheepishly in the corner, hiding behind my very small Leica M6 camera, the rabbi caught my eye and smiled as he asked me if I was a Levite (I knew that I was). Other members of the cast of characters relieved me of my camera and draped a tallis over my shoulders. I ascended to the torah and said the blessings (remembered quite clearly from my bar mitzvah some thirty eight years earlier) the person holding the camera tried desperately to figure out how to work it and get some pictures of the 'photographer' at the torah. I wanted to help him, but the rabbi - understanding that this was his golden moment - took my arm and held me there to complete the ritual. 

Alas, no photos of the photographer wearing a tallis and saying the blessings over the torah. 

In this image the two men on the right of the image are the rabbi's sons, and the child being held is the rabbi's grandson (he had not yet reached the age of three at which time his hair was cut for the first time). All the services for the congregation were held in the basement chapel. The main sanctuary, which at it's peak glory was quite grand, had long since fallen into disrepair. The building collapsed before planned renovations could begin, and the location is now an empty lot on Rivington Street.

See this blog post for another in the series of Manhattan Diaspora stories. The entire portfolio of the work can be seen in several galleries at my website


  1. Beautiful picture and story Gene and I should have known it was a little boy. Thanks Hennie.

  2. I have seen your book twice on blurb. I like the documentary style in it and it´s full of great photos!