Photographing New York's hidden Jewish past

A new Manhattan exhibit documents the abandoned synagogues and forgotten cemeteries that once played a key role in American Jewish life.

ny church 88 298 (photo credit: Julian Voloj)
ny church 88 298
(photo credit: Julian Voloj)
An Adventist church on Delancey Street on New York City's Lower East Side makes no attempt to cover up its former life. A cross nailed to a Jewish star offers a glimpse of the synagogue that used to occupy the space, and with it a history that is quickly vanishing. But not if photographer Julian Voloj has his way. For the last three years, Voloj has been using his camera to document New York's Jewish history. Riding around the five boroughs on his bike, Voloj has come across abandoned synagogues, forgotten Jewish cemeteries and apartment buildings with traces of their Jewish past. Now 18 of his black and white photographs are on display at the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University. The exhibit, "Forgotten Jewish Heritage: Uncovering New York's Hidden Jewish Past," is not only a re-discovery of nearly forgotten Jewish history, but also examines the way Americans approach their past, said Voloj, who is working on a dissertation about Yiddish literature in the Warsaw ghetto. "Julian is asking us to stop and take stock of a major component of the city that is fading away," said Jackie Miller, Avodah Arts coordinator for the Bronfman Center. "I was shocked to discover that in this city that continuously reinvents itself, recent pasts were so quickly forgotten," Voloj said. His fascination with formerly Jewish neighborhoods stems from his own upbringing as a Jew growing up in Germany. His grandparents, Holocaust survivors, had immigrated to Colombia but returned to Germany after the war. "I felt that I was, myself, a remnant of a once-thriving culture," Voloj said. There were remnants of Jewish life all around his hometown of Muenster, but no Jews. A barbershop in a town roughly 20 miles outside Muenster was built on top of a mikve. Growing up, there were 80 Jews in the city, and throughout primary school, Voloj was the only dark-haired student. Later a Turkish boy joined him. "I felt like I was a dinosaur - the last remnant of a species that was dying out," he recalled. Voloj was invited to New York City in 2002 to speak to American Jews about rising anti-Semitism in Europe. He met his wife there, and at the end of 2003 moved to New York City. He began taking photos during the eight months he spent waiting for a work permit, and has since started a Jewish walking tour company. The photography project started on the Lower East Side but soon expanded to all five boroughs, and includes photographs of an old synagogue in Chinatown that is now a Buddhist temple and 99 Cent store, or the Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx where Voloj found discarded heroin needles outside. A trip to the Bronx led to one of Voloj's first major discoveries. Walking around the neighborhood, Voloj came across a Supermundo department store on Valentine Avenue in a largely Hispanic section of the Bronx. Looking more closely at the building, Voloj noticed two lions holding the 10 Commandments in Hebrew engraved in the building's fa ade. Along with the photographs, Voloj has been recording oral histories he has gathered along the way. In a Hispanic church in the Bronx that was once a synagogue, Voloj was told that there were no longer Jews in New York because the Messiah came to the Bronx and brought them to Israel. Voloj was fascinated by the way in which one section of the city could be so separated from the rest. "New York is a city with so many parallel lives," he said. More than anything, Voloj began to examine the stark contrasts in how Americans and Europeans view their respective pasts. Americans, he notices, left the "Old World" and started a new life. "The future is much more important than the past" in the US, Voloj said. "Life goes on because Jewish life is so vibrant here." Europeans, he said, always look back. The November 9 opening of the exhibit, Voloj's first solo show in New York, had special significance because the date is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass" when Jewish homes, synagogues and stores in Germany were burned by the Nazis, one of the first major acts of violence in the Third Reich's attempt to destroy Jewish life in Europe. Voloj's project is an attempt to preserve, in whatever way possible, Jewish historical sites in New York City. "The project has been a race against time," Voloj said. Many of the buildings that he photographed are in bad shape and could be demolished at any moment. Voloj plans to continue this project for the next two years and hopes eventually to turn it into a book.