NEW YORK — Generally speaking, when someone talks about the shul they grew up in, they are referring to the synagogue they regularly attended when they were young. When Casimir Nozkowski speaks of the shul he grew up in, he means it absolutely literally.
Nozkowski’s boyhood bedroom was in the U-shaped women’s balcony of an old synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1967, a decade before he was born, his parents, artists Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, moved into the building at 70 Hester Street, between Orchard and Allen. They turned what was once the original home of the First Roumanian-American Congregation into a two-floor artists’ loft apartment/studio, decorating the walls, ceilings and floors with their paintings and sculptures.
“Art is their religion,” Nozkowski tells The Times of Israel about his Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, who met as students at Cooper Union, and ended up living for 45 years in a synagogue that is believed to have been built in or around 1860.
After the congregation abandoned the building for a larger one at 89 Rivington Street (which was destroyed more than a century later when its roof collapsed in 2006) and before the couple moved in, it was apparently used as an illegal whiskey still during Prohibition, and later as a plastic raincoat and shower curtain factory.
Now, 70 Hester Street is about to assume yet another identity — an art gallery and café. Renovations are underway and expected to be completed by some time in December.
Although Nozkowski, a 36-year-old filmmaker, moved away from 70 Hester Street when he left for college, he is still very attached to the place. Watching his rental tenant parents be evicted from the building last year when it was sold to a new owner, was emotional for him.
To document his unique childhood home and try to make sense of his feelings as his parents were packing up to leave, Nozkowski made a short (and as of yet, still unfinished) film about the building and what it was like to grow up in it. He reflects on every nook and cranny: the stained glass windows, the skylights, the curved balcony banister, the cracked original wood, the faulty heater, and the hidden passageways.
Poignantly, he shows little pieces of 100-year-old prayer book pages that always kept appearing, seemingly out of nowhere.
“We used to find these tiny flakes of paper in corners. We thought maybe they were newspaper, but when we looked closer we could see the Hebrew letters,” he recalls. “There seemed to be no explanation other than that the prayer books were coming out of the walls.”
‘There seemed to be no explanation other than that the prayer books were coming out of the walls’
In the film, he speaks of “our synagogue,” and wonders, “what will it be next?” He assumes the building, like so many others in the gentrifying neighborhood, will most likely be torn down to make way for a contemporary, sleek edifice.
Nozkowski was surprised to hear that the new owner decided not to demolish the structure and to renovate it, instead. Carlo Enzo Frugiuele, a principal at Urban Office Architecture and the architect for the project, showed The Times of Israel around the renovation site, pointing out how he tried to retain the synagogue building’s unique character while bringing it up to code.
“The building was pretty rundown and we found that some of its major systems were put together in an improvised fashion, with some even being dangerous,” Frugiuele says. “It’s a fantastic space, so it is disappointing to see that it was so mistreated.”
The building has long been divided in to three spaces (each no larger than 1200 sq. ft.), all of which are being retained. The top two floors, where Nozkowski and his parents lived, and which originally served as the shul, will be a gallery space. The street-level floor will be an ultra-modern café, and the lower level will be either commercial space or another gallery.
The building had an asking price of $3,999,999, and the two-story gallery space is currently on the market for $14,500 per month.
“This building is not zoned as historic, but it does have valued historic features,” notes the architect. Unfortunately, the stained glass windows, with their star (though not Star of David) designs could not be saved. But Frugiuele has been able to salvage almost all the original wood flooring and detailing, as well as the skylight.
The most striking element of Frugiuele’s design is a bridge with glass railing panels that he is building across the open area between the two sides of the women’s balcony. The bridge allows people to stand high above what would have been the main floor of the synagogue (probably directly above where the Torah ark once stood) and gaze out and down at the entire space.
While 70 Hester Street’s immediate future is clear, its long-ago past is less so. Nozkowski, for instance, has no proof that the building was once a whiskey still, but he remembers that elderly neighborhood characters would sometimes come by and reminisce about how they used to buy illegal liquor there. Nozkowski is also convinced that the peephole with the swinging cover in the sliding door that led to his family’s apartment was a sure sign that someone was hiding something in there.
Inquiries made by this reporter at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Museum at Eldridge Street led to conflicting information about the exact origins of the congregation that met at 70 Hester Street, as well as the date the structure itself was built.
The majority of accounts indicate that the First Roumanian Congregation (Congregation Shaarey Shamoyim) was organized by Romanian Jewish immigrants around 1860, and that the members met at 70 Hester Street, which was at the time a new building.
A pinkas, or minutes book, from the congregation stated that the congregation added “American” to its name in 1885. By 1890, it had grown to the point of needing a bigger space and it acquired and moved to what had been the Memorial Methodist Church at 89 Rivington Street.
No photographs or records appear to have survived from the early years on Hester Street.
Amy Stein Milford, deputy director at the Museum at Eldridge Street, lived with her family for 15 years in the space below the Nozkowskis’ studio/loft.
“According to lore, the lower floors, where we lived, served as an informal beit midrash,” she says. “But pretty soon after that they began to be used for retail.”
Lara Rabinovitch, a historian whose work has focused on early Jewish Romanian immigration to New York, is not surprised that little is known about the congregation’s first building. In her research, she only found archival material documenting the Rivington Street building’s dedication.
She is somewhat skeptical that there was a Romanian congregation as early as 1860.
“Romania became a state in 1861, and there were only a handful of Romanian Jews in New York pre-1880,” she points out. She theorizes that Congregation Shaarey Shamoyim retroactively took the name “First Roumanian” only once more Romanian Jews arrived and joined the shul after it was already on Rivington St.
“In any case, Little Roumania was known more for its restaurants than its shuls,” Rabinovitch says, referring to Romanian Jewish immigrants’ reputation for being eaters, drinkers, dancers and singers, rather than prayer utterers.
Indeed, in the first half of the 20th century, the Romanian musical tradition ruled, as the First Roumanian-American Congregation became a mecca for great cantors, like Yossele Rosenblatt, who established their reputations by chanting prayers at the synagogue. Cantorial greats Moishe Oysher, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker all launched their careers at the “Rumanynishe Shul.”
Although he is not a practicing Jew, Nozkowski has been deeply affected by having lived at 70 Hester Street.
“I had a cool childhood. It was a great run,” he shares. “It always felt special to be surrounded by all this inspiring history. I felt I was luckier than other kids.”
Undoubtedly, growing up in an old shul is a highly unique experience.
“It’s a feeling of being in touch with the authentic, of being frozen in time and connected to the past in a city that is always changing.”