Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tiyyul in Philadelphia

The institute where I am spending this academic year as a fellow arranged for a walking tour, or in Hebrew a tiyyul (this being Jewish studies and all), of historic Jewish Philadelphia led by a Penn professor of American history; so I walked through the city today, looking at colonial, federal and revival architecture with a gaggle* of medievalists. If that kind of morning isn't high up on your list of the very best ways to spend a Sunday morning, you might as well stop reading here.

It was definitely a challenge to take even good tourist snaps while keeping up with a group, so these really are totally for illustrative, documentary purposes. (Although I hate suggesting that documentary photography = sloppy work.) I'll definitely walk back through this neighborhood and rephotograph it over the course of the year and visit some other sites (again, both of general and Jewish interest) that we didn't have time to visit today.

One of the sites that we visited today, shown above, was Carpenters' Hall, originally a trades-union hall  that became important as a meeting place. The most interesting thing that our guide talked about here was how a lot of the open green spaces in the historic center of town are the result of a 20th-century reimagining of what colonial Philadelphia would have looked like — idealized, pastoral and very much in keeping with William Penn's original vision for the city. But in fact, the reason this building was so important for the early revolutionaries is because it was surrounded by a warren of small alleys that were all packed full of buildings and so it was possible to come and go for meetings without anyone really noticing. Modernity has invisibly rewritten the history with a wrecking ball. Sounds a bit familiar, really.

This is the Powell House, the home of a wealthy late-colonial, early-federal family. Here we learned about the tiny details in the façade that were shows of ostentation by wealthy families like this one and those that aspired to wealth, especially the large windows and the quarried limestone bars on each floor. After the Powell family, the building was turned into a bristle factory and store by a more middle-class Jewish merchant, demonstrating the ways (economic as well as religious) that central Philadelphia was integrated. One of the major rooms of the house was removed to the Met, and so what's there now on the interior is another a reproduction; I'm looking forward to taking a lunch hour to go visit since the house is open to the public during the week.

This building represented an interesting intersection of the general national significance of the city and the sites specifically of Jewish interest: It was originally built as a fire house run by one of the private fire insurance companies that were a major innovation that was brought about in Philadelphia (and more specifically by Benjamin Franklin). Later, it was converted into a Yiddish theater; apparently the inverted onion motif on the façade of the building is characteristic of Yiddish theater spaces and other Jewish meeting places. (Incidentally, I didn't have the time to snap a photo of the former Jewish event hall that is now home to a pole dancing gym.) I didn't notice that my reflection had actually showed up in this picture of what is now the front door of a seriously swanky apartment building.

This used to be a synagogue. Now it is an antiques shop.

*This is the gaggle of medievalists in question. To the point, though, I'm open to better collectives to describe such groupings. The aforementioned gaggle (troop? congress? (no, that's reserved for Leeds) swarm? hive? drove? clutch? quiver?) is standing in front of an example of a row-house shul. These small synagogues, which served specific ethnic groups, were built to look just like the row houses that are common in the area. Apparently this is a practice that was adopted from Catholic congregations during the colonial period (and that was even more common in less tolerant colonies like Massachusetts) whereby they would make their churches fit in with the other residential buildings in the hope that  the protestant majority would, when riled up, not notice the purpose of the building and leave it and its inhabitants alone; and this simply became the architectural vernacular for religious minority groups in British North America.

In these last two photos, on the left our guide is standing on the steps of the Society Hill Synagogue, which is apparently now part of the Reconstructionist movement. Originally a Baptist church (in other words, pretty much anioconic and easy to turn into a synagogue), this became, as the legend on the lintel reads, the Great Romanian Synagogue in the mid 19th-century. Though apparently, transmitted to us on the authority of one of the greats in our field who was himself a Romanian Jew, Romanians didn't use Yiddish in the way it is used on the face of the door (die grosse romanische schul) and so that, too, is a sort of American reimagining of Eastern European Jewry.

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