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New iPhone App Unlocks Voices of Former Worshippers at LES Synagogue

By Serena Solomon | November 26, 2012 1:31pm

LOWER EAST SIDE — These walls can talk.

The Eldridge Street Synagogue is set to become a beyond-the-grave museum, filled with the tape-recorded voices of former congregants, many of whom are no longer alive.

All it takes is a free iPhone app to unlock the intimate stories of worshippers who once attended services at the historic, 125-year-old Lower East Side synagogue.

"All of these recordings of people, many of whom have passed away, were members of this landmark," said Amy Stein-Milford, deputy director of the Museum on Eldridge Street, which oversees the synagogue.

The "Storywalks" iPhone map tour, which will debut Dec. 6, is the brainchild of former students Carlin Wragg and Anna Pinkas.

"They are utilizing these amazing oral histories that have been locked away, literally, on tapes," Stein-Milford said.

In one recorded exchange, listeners can chuckle along with Max Smith, who at 9 years old was too young to participate in Yom Kippur fasting — but cheeky enough to tease others who hadn't eaten.

"Oh these grapes are juicy, oh these grapes are good," Smith recalled saying, as he retold how he flaunted snacks he'd filched from his mother's pockets as she sat in the sanctuary's balcony in the 1920s.

In the story Smith tells, another congregant walking past him and his group of friends objected to their childish behavior.

"Will you get the heck outta here?" mimicked Smith, before breaking into laughter.

While Smith died in 2009 at more than 90 years old, his voice and stories are among the 19 tales told on "Storywalks" — all of them synced to the synagogue's floor plan, using the latest technology.

Now, as visitors tour the building, they will be able to select the recording on the map, where they stand to hear the oral history that relates to that particular area in the building. 

"For example, Gessie [Dubrin, a congregant], she described her father sitting on the bimah [reader's platform] calling congregants to prayers," said Wragg, 30, who first learned about the tape recordings last year while doing an internship at the synagogue and completing a masters degree in professional studies.

"She describes what he looked like and what he wore."

The synagogue's museum has been meticulous about documenting its own history, and in the 1980s and 1990s members went about recording the oral histories of early congregants, Stein-Milford explained.

"It is a very beautiful building," she said, "but it is all about the people who inhabit it."

The tapes, recorded on cassettes, were transcribed but had been locked away ever since.

"We got an old tape player and started playing back the audio to check they hadn't decayed," Wragg said.

Wragg and Pinkas, neither of whom are members of the synagogue, were able to raise more than $7,000 on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to pay for the project that took a year to complete.

Stein-Milford described their volunteer work as an "unbelievable Hanukkah gift."

"They have returned to us these voices of early congregation members," she said.