Ghostly, transparent dresses hung in the women’s gallery of a derelict synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side. The Eldridge Street Project had invited artist Carol Hamoy to create a site-specific version of her Welcome to America installation in 1997. The Project took advantage of the building’s decay to host innovative artwork engaging memories of the building’s history while it pursued restoration of the once grand 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue. Hamoy studied the synagogue’s archives and conducted interviews with descendants to learn about women in the synagogue’s original congregation. She crafted eighteen ethereal dresses from old wedding gowns, bed linens, scarves, and undergarments. Hanging from filament, they floated in the breeze of visitors’ movements.
Was Hamoy’s carefully researched and emotionally evocative display a work of history or memory? I view the installation as an expression of a standardized American Jewish nostalgia, a wishful affection or sentimental longing for an irrevocable past. Thinking about nostalgia in this way complicates scholarly conversations about Jewish memory, history, and heritage, those popular accounts of the past that give it meaning in the present. It also highlights the role of memory in religious emotions and practices. Scholars and cultural critics often deride nostalgia as kitschy “coffee table longing.” In contrast, I see nostalgia as not just reductive but also productive. It reduces complicated histories to an accessible narrative, but it also produces personal and communal meaning, including religious meaning.
For her exhibit at Eldridge Street,Hamoy tinted and stained the white garments and imprinted them with gold text memorializing twenty-five immigrant women from Central and Eastern Europe. Chaye Soret was remembered as a “design prodigy from Pinsk.” Rose’s baby developed measles on the transatlantic journey; “she kept him wrapped in a pink blanket to offset his face,” allowing the child to pass through immigration inspections with an undetected illness. Anna “regarded the Eldridge Street Synagogue as her synagogue.” The spectral dresses materialized the absent congregants of an earlier era. The dresses created the illusion of a communal memory, allowing visitors who were not previously familiar with the synagogue’s history to feel an emotional connection to its past.
The exhibit marked the synagogue, particularly the women’s gallery, as a sacred space in which conversations about the past were appropriate and necessary. A feminist critic praised Hamoy for inviting “the spirits who once frequented the synagogue to revisit their ancient abode.” The installation “reminds us that our foremothers are ever present in our midst.” Whether or not they were descended from the women represented—or from Eastern European Jews at all—visitors could feel the guiding presence of the dead in this space. Through her dresses, Hamoy drew together a community of tourists, philanthropists, staff members, and congregants affectively engaged with memories of the synagogue’s past.
The location of this installation was key to its power. The Lower East Side has long been seen as an authentic site of emotional connection to an American Jewish past. Although Jews’ presence in the Americas dates back to the earliest years of European contact, most American Jews descend from Central and Eastern Europeans who immigrated between the 1880s and 1924, often settling in urban ethnic enclaves like the Lower East Side. American Jews began to move out of crowded urban neighborhoods for more spacious parts of cities and suburbs in the early to mid-twentieth century. Those who left were replaced by new arrivals until the Immigration Act of 1924.
But Jews kept thinking about old neighborhoods, and some kept coming back. From the 1970s onward, as part of a white ethnic revival inspired by the African American “roots movement,” many Americans enthusiastically devoted themselves to their ancestries. Like other Americans, Jews thought about their ancestors’ former urban ethnic neighborhoods with nostalgic affection and longing.
Following religious studies scholar Robert Orsi, I think of religion as practices, narratives, and emotions that create and support sacred relationships among the living, between the living and ancestors, or between humans and the divine. “Whatever else religion might be, it is a way of describing structures by which we are bound or connected to one another,” explains religious studies scholar Kathryn Lofton. Understanding religion as relationships and structures makes families, communities, and memory central to religious activity.
In his influential 1982 book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi distinguishes between Jewish history and Jewish memory as “radically different relations to the past.” For Yerushalmi, social memory is the dynamic product of community, reinforced by ritual and liturgy, while history is the distanced, objective product of scholars. To his dismay, Yerushalmi concludes that scholarly history had overtaken Jewish memory. Other theorists recognize a more complex relationship between history and memory, noting how Jews and others may use each in service of the other.
For individuals and organizations, I think, nostalgia bridges historical scholarship and social memory. Individuals’ feelings about the past are part of larger systems of institutional power, shaping and shaped by academic scholarship, capitalism, tourism, and other forces. It is entirely possible to feel nostalgia for a time and place you have never experienced because you have been taught to do so by parents, teachers, heritage tourism, or popular culture. The writings of the Brothers Grimm taught nineteenth-century Germans to long for a shared premodern folk culture. Primary school pageants and art projects have taught Americans to feel nostalgia for the first Thanksgiving. Films like Gone with the Wind and the use of former plantations as tourist attractions teach nostalgia for the antebellum South.
American Jews regularly feel nostalgia for pasts they have not experienced. If religion is engagement with sacred relationships, participation in the structures that bind, then American Jews’ nostalgia for Eastern European immigrant pasts is an American Jewish religious activity, one that draws on both history and memory. Hamoy’s dresses are religious materials. They encourage affective relationships with past, present, and future Jewish communities.
Audiences are eager to interact with the past through Hamoy’s work. “People are looking for authenticity,” she told me. They want a connection to the past that is both physical and emotional. Hamoy drew on archival research and family histories, but “facts aren’t as relevant as stories” to her work. At Eldridge Street, Welcome to America was not quite history or memory. Instead, it interpreted the past in light of the emotional needs of the present. Nostalgia is the structure that binds past to present, strong and flexible as the filament tying ghostly dresses to the synagogue ceiling.