The shop down the block from the Eldridge Street Synagogue specializes in fish balls, not matzah balls, and the closest house of worship is the Pechau Buddhist temple. But the Lower East Side still reverberates with the energy and concerns of a century ago, when Russian Jewish immigrants built the neighborhood synagogue.
"That’s pretty much the nature of a city," says filmmaker Pearl Gluck. "The identity of a space changes, but its history stays. There’s always a remnant."
Gluck and composer Basya Schechter roamed the streets surrounding the shul, charting what they call "a topography of memory and community." The result is "Trance," an installation of seven audio-visual exhibits that weave together snippets of the neighborhood’s Chinese and Jewish street life.
While "Trance" takes visitors on a virtual exploration of the Lower East Side, it also leads them on a tour of the historic sanctuary itself. (Today, the synagogue is being restored, and the congregation holds services in the basement.)
At the memorial plaque, listeners hear a rhythmic recording of reminiscences told by "just plain Clara" and a World War II veteran named Morton Lee, among other voices. "Distraction," a video installed in one of the pews reserved for men, shows a close-up of an elderly woman’s hands as she embroiders.
The high point of "Trance" is found on the bima. A pair of video monitors shows close-ups of two elderly people, a Jewish woman and a Chinese man, filmed in soundless slow motion as they speak to the camera. The lovingly rendered portraits offer viewers a chance to contemplate the textural effects of age and the magic of expression. At certain points, the faces seem nearly indistinguishable.
When "Trance" opened late last month, two monks from the Pechau temple came to see the installation, Gluck said. As one of them watched the twin videos on the bima, he said he understood what the installation’s title implies.
"He said, ‘Oh, now I get it. It pulls you in, it takes you in,’ " Gluck recalls.
Sparking such intercultural conversations was the point of the project, said Gluck, who hopes to replicate "Trance" elsewhere in the city.
The conversations continue on Eldridge Street next week, when the Eldridge Street Project holds its third annual Egg Rolls & Egg Creams Block Party. (See listings on page 54.)