World of Our Mothers

An Artist Returns to Her Ancestral Synagogue

There's a murmur in the stairwell, and a purplish light. The video image visible through the French doors is a simple one: giant hands projected onto a 40-foot curtain—a woman's hands stitching a very visible seam. She's mending something. Women's voices lilt in Yiddish, Hebrew, English.

In this shaft, steps once led to the women's balcony at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Those stairs collapsed decades ago, when the synagogue—the first built in America by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe—began to deteriorate. But artist Hana Iverson likes to imagine her grandmother and great-grandmother climbing those steps. She can't be sure which synagogue they attended, but she knows that her great-grandparents were Orthodox Jews who settled on Hester Street, just a block and a half away.

Iverson herself now lives a short walk from Eldridge Street, but getting to the synagogue with her video installation, View From the Balcony, was part of a long return journey, one whose meaning she's still contemplating. After all, her great-grandparents remained on the Lower East Side for just a few years before moving to Chicago, and Iverson was born there in the suburb of Evanston, then grew up in Toronto. "I had always thought about what brought me back to this neighborhood," she says. "I was living in an apartment I bought with money I inherited from my grandfather, who started out delivering groceries and had a grade-eight education and really lived the immigrant experience."

Hana Iverson at the Eldridge Street Synagogue: "All my work is about 'The war is over.' "
photo: Brian Finke
Hana Iverson at the Eldridge Street Synagogue: "All my work is about 'The war is over.' "

Iverson was at the end point of a familiar trajectory: not just benefiting in material ways from previous generations' struggles, but moving from the great-grandparents' orthodoxy to the parents' reform Judaism to her own disinterest in religious practice. Though living on Centre Street, she rarely explored the neighborhood to the east where her ancestors had lived, orienting herself instead toward Soho. She didn't begin to ponder her roots until she began a search for Torah parchment, thinking she might want to use it as an art material. She walked into the tiny Lower East Side store selling parchment, with her head full of current cultural/performance theory about The Body, thinking parchment could be like a skin with text. And she was thinking about the development of reading from scrolls to books to screens. It was the Torah scribe at the store who suggested she go to Eldridge Street Synagogue, where "they're looking for artists." She went immediately, thinking, "If I go home first, I'll never come back."

Now, in View From the Balcony, Iverson's hands suture the Torah parchment she found that day. Before arriving at this image, though, she spent time over a period of months sitting in the women's balcony at the synagogue, thinking about the people who sat there ages ago—thinking they probably included her own family—and looking east, which "to me meant across the ocean." The building, with its Moorish structure, 70-foot ceiling, and hand-stenciled walls, reminded her of Europe. She thought it beautiful and soulful, not "cute and touristy" in the usual overrenovated American style.

Iverson's tape is just six and a half minutes long, playing in a continuous loop. The women's voices speak the languages of "prayer, community, and assimilation": Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. Iverson mixed it as "a music of voices" because women are not allowed to sing in Orthodox services. She had to abandon her idea to install a piece right on the women's balcony because that space is structurally unsound, but she likes the empty shaftway she found instead. "It underscores the distance between the floors on which the men and women worshiped, as well as the immigrants' separation from their native countries and language."

Now surrounded by Chinatown, the synagogue still has an active congregation, which has been meeting in the basement since the early 1950s. They haven't missed a Shabbes since 1887. Around the turn of the last century, as many as 1000 attended services on the High Holy Days, but once the membership dwindled, they could no longer afford to heat the sanctuary and sealed it off. In 1978, Gerard Wolfe, an NYU professor doing research on the neighborhood and its synagogues, persuaded the caretaker to let him in. He found a sort of time capsule, with tallises and prayer books still on the pews, Torahs still cloaked in the original velvet, and an alarming amount of water. Since declared a national historic landmark, Eldridge Street Synagogue has now been partially repaired.


View From the Balcony feels completely organic in the space, as if it's always been there. Iverson sees it as part of "a journey of return and reconciliation." Part of the project not yet completed is a Web site and a computer kiosk on Eldridge Street and others at sites in Eastern Europe from which the congregation emigrated. Iverson thinks it important that people come to the space to engage in a conversation with the other sites instead of just clicking in from cyber-space. In connecting site-specifically to some motherland, "you create another circle, rejoining. It's the electronic version of the mending."

She describes that image as suturing the "wound," meaning scars that are personal, historical, and even, in this case, architectural. "There's no family that came out of a pogrom or a ghetto or an immigration experience without some level of trauma," she says. So while her own background is Jewish, she means to be universal, to talk about a history common to many Americans. Every racial or ethnic group has to deal first with issues of survival—and then along comes the generation that begins to ask the philosophical questions, the generation that has more tools and more time to just think. "My parents' generation was the first in my family to be educated," says Iverson. "But my generation can address in a self-reflexive way who we are, what we are, and what the meaning of this American journey has been.

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