There’s more to Philadelphia than cream cheese and a big cracked bell. There are wonderful synagogues and fabulous shoestring potatoes too. After learning in grade school about Benjamin Franklin, the Liberty Bell and the miserable winter Washington’s troops endured at nearby Valley Forge, few of us think much about Philadelphia. Yet, it is our nation’s fifth largest city. Sandwiched among much higher profile cities like Washington, New York City and Boston, Philadelphia tends to be overlooked.
When I began planning last summer’s east coast synagogue photo-safari, I was amazed to learn that Philadelphia’s Jewish population is the third largest in the USA. It has the most synagogues per-capita, and 47 kosher restaurants. That last statistic is vitally important for us synagogue photographers because schlepping heavy camera gear up innumerable narrow steps to the women’s gallery creates an urgent desire for a corned beef sandwich.
A trip to Philadelphia for the Jewish tourist is a veritable bonanza. There’s Independence Mall, part of the Independence National Historic Park, which includes historically significant buildings such as the original Continental Congress Hall, Independence Hall and the Old City Hall as well as the Liberty Bell. Adjacent to the Mall you’ll find the National Museum of American Jewish History, which in itself is worth the trip to Philly. This four story museum offers a unique view of the Jewish experience in the United States. Its exhibits begin with the first Jewish settlers in 1654 and continue to the present day.
The neighborhood surrounding the Museum of American Jewish History and Independence Mall is a mish-mash of brick and stone colonial-era townhouse buildings, peppered with newer structures and verdant squares where once our forefathers and foremothers strolled. Doing some strolling of our own through this warren of galleries, antique shops, boutiques and cafes, we happened upon Elfreth’s Alley, our nation’s oldest residential street, dating to 1702. There are 32 houses on “the Alley” built between 1728 and 1836.
In an adjacent neighborhood, comprised of small-scale Georgian red brick buildings, there’s the Philly Shul, formally named Congregation B’nai Abraham. Although there are several synagogues in the immediate area, we elected to photographically document this one as it is the oldest building in Philadelphia that was built as a synagogue and has been in continuous use as such. Founded in 1874 by Lithuanian and Russian Jews fleeing Czar Alexander II, the Byzantine structure was built exclusively by Jewish workmen. Just try and find a 100% Jewish construction crew nowadays. The Philly Shul’s eclectic design combines Doric columns, Mogen David patterned windows and Byzantine themes. With my tripod and camera gear, I was a one-man traffic hazard as I photographed this incongruously large building from the middle of the narrow 300 hundred year old street.
While the immediate area around Independence Mall is primarily colonial era, the surrounding neighborhoods are a rich ethnic mix, each reflecting the culture of the immigrants who settled there. South Philly was mostly Italian and Jewish. By 1910, “Russian-born Jews were the largest ethnic group,” according to Murray Dubin’s book, South Philadelphia. “By 1930, Jews seemed to have synagogues on every corner,” wrote Dubin.
Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel (known as the Little Shul), founded in 1876, occupies a rebuilt colonial row house. A century ago there were 155 small synagogues like it dotting the streets of this neighborhood of immigrants. Now, the Little Shul is the last operating row-house shul in South Philly.
The Little Shul stands out from the other row homes on the block because of its pillared entrance. Inside, the walls and ceiling are made of pressed tin and adorned with tapestries, memorial boards and shelves of Hebrew artifacts and relics. This is a gemutlich hangout for a few elderly Jewish men who haven’t followed their children to the suburbs where their grandchildren loiter over lattes at Starbucks.
To the north of the Mall, only a ten minute drive from the Little Shul, stands monumental Congregation Rodeph Shalom. Founded in 1795, Rodeph Shalom is the oldest Ashkenazi congregation in the Western Hemisphere. Its amazing Byzantine-Moorish design was inspired by the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy. Lavishly decorated with hand-stenciled walls, stained glass and a starburst dome light by D’Ascenzo Studio, it received the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Award in 2006 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places a year later. Verbal superlatives don’t do the building justice.
No visit to Jewish Philadelphia would be complete without a pilgrimage to suburban Elkins Park where you will be awestruck by Beth Sholom, the only synagogue ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Philadelphia is a perfect destination for the Jewish tourist. It offers an amazing variety of synagogues to ogle, the great cultural experience of the National Museum of American Jewish History and mouthwatering kosher restaurants with dishes that would make your grandmother throw away her strudel pan. All of this in a city that is so much more accessible and less expensive than New York or Boston.