Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Crossing Delancey: New York's Lower East Side

New York by Yekkes

Whilst in New York recently I spent a lot of time in Lower Manhattan. Its a vibrant, changing part of the city with many galleries, cafes, bars and independent shops moving in to old tenement buildings, warehouses and factories. One of my trips to the Lower East Side was in the company of Jared Goldstein, tour guide for Dr. Phil's New York City Walks, who guided me around some of the enduring sites of the old Jewish Lower East Side and explained how although many Jews have now left the area, the legacy lingers on and how some of their traditions are being kept alive by more recent arrivals.

Perhaps the best demonstration of this is Streit's matzo bakery - which houses the last working matzo factory in the Lower East Side. Founded in 1916 by Aron Streit, an immigrant from Europe, the bakery was originally in Pitt Street, moving to its current location in Rivington Street in 1925. Streit's still produces matzos under kosher supervision, but today the staff are almost all non-Jewish, mainly Puerto Ricans. Streit's has also expanded its range and you can buy peppers, seasonings, olive spreads and all kinds of other goodies from their "Ethnic Delights" range! The matzo is prepared in the rear of the shop and visitors can see the workers operate the machinery - the matzo comes through in huge sheets which are expertly split into smaller sizes for packaging and sale.

Not far from Streit's, further down Rivington, there is another long established Lower East Side business, the Economy Candy Store. Founded by one Mr Cohen in 1937 it was typical of many bulk purchase candy stores of its time, but has outlasted them all. Its a long, narrow store, completely packed with shelves of sweets of all kinds. I was amazed (and delighted) to find what I once knew as "sweet cigarettes" - white sugary candy cut into "cigarettes" and packaged in a range of different boxes - so you can choose your favourite brand from Kings, Victory, Roundup and more. I don't believe you can buy these in the UK anymore (and yes I know we shouldn't encourage children to smoke). It was the first time I've brought cigarettes for friends when travelling abroad.

You can also buy many types of lollipop, different flavours of halvah, bubble gum, boiled sweets, chocolates and for the health conscious dried fruits and nuts. Known as the "nosher's paradise of the lower east side", the Cohen family still run the store and include sugar free products as well as the more exciting stuff! Just walk in, take a breath and let the sugary smell transport you back to childhood.

Yonah Shimmel's knishes store is another Lower East Side institution. Schimmel, an immigrant from Romania began by selling knishes in the street from about 1890. By 1910 things were going well enough for him to take a small store on East Houston Street with his cousin Jospeh Berger, who retained the business and the name following Yonah's departure a few years later. The bakery is still on East Houston Street, but at 137 - a short distance from the original location. Currently operated by Yonah's great nephew, Alex Wolfman, the bakery featured in Woody Allen's 2009 film Whatever Works and is regularly visited by celebrities and politicians.  And if you don't know what a knish is, think of a pasty stuffed with potato and kasha, spanish, mushroom, sweet potato, cabbage and a range of other fillings. Delicious.

At the beginning of the 20th century, over one million people crowded into the tenement buildings of the lower east side, many of them Jewish and nearly all of them immigrants. The people were largely poor and despite the great culinary traditions, often hungry. However, sustenance of a higher variety was easily available with hundreds of synagogues and shtiebels (prayer houses) spread throughout the area. Few still remain as working synagogues, but those that do are very special. The jewel in the crown is the fantastic Eldridge Street synagogue which still has services and which is open to, and visited by people from all over the world.

Eldridge Street is now in the heart of New York's China Town, the former Jewish community having left for Brooklyn, New Jersey and other less crowded, more affluent areas. However, the synagogue still attracts the remaining local Jewish community for services in the small ground floor prayer room, as well as visits from people who were born and brought up in the area and who now live far away. On the day I visited, I was shown around by Rochelle, a friendly and interesting volunteer who explained that as the congregation diminished over the years, the upper part of the building which contains a very grand prayer hall, was locked in the 1950's and more or less forgotten. By 1970 the main sanctuary was waterlogged, the wood rotted, the plaster crumbled, windows broken and a whole colony of pigeons nesting in the upper part of the building.

The future looked bleak but a long and slow process of rejuvenation began in 1971 when Gerard Wolfe, University professor and architectural historian persuaded the sexton to let him in to the upper level and was amazed at what he found. Serious restoration did not begin until 1986, 99 years after the synagogue first opened its doors, culminating in the re-opening of the main sanctuary in 2007. The upper floor has been restored to its original riot of colour including the stunning blue ceiling panels dotted with white stars and the breathtaking new stained glass window in the main sanctuary, designed by Kiki Smith and featuring a mass of five pointed yellow stars on blue glass and centred with a six pointed Magen Dovid. At different times of day according to the light it is possible to see additional shapes and features in the window due to the use of flash-glass and silicone technologies. I love it. Standing in the sanctuary made me think about the day back in 1887 when the sparkling new synagogue opened and people turned up in such huge numbers that many had to be turned away. And its not hard to see why that very Orthodox community would want to look at and worship in this most beautiful of sanctuaries. The synagogue has a small museum shop that sells books and other memorabilia - I can heartily recommend Larry Bortniker's book Beyond The Facade which tells the history of the building, details its restoration and is beautifully illustrated. It certainly found its way into my luggage for the journey home!

Eldridge Street is the jewel in the crown but there are other synagogues of note still operating close by. My intrepid guide Jared tried to get me entry to the Bialystoker Synagogue in Willett Street. Built in 1826 as a Methodist Church, it was purchased by Jewish immigrants from Bialystok in Poland for use as a synagogue. The synagogue interior is exquisite - the result of a beautification process during the Great Depression, intended to lift the spirit of its Orthodox congregants. The decoration includes the signs of the zodiac, with the slight oddity of Cancer the (decidedly non-kosher) crab being represented by an (equally non-kosher) lobster! The synagogue has quite a history including having been part of the Underground Railroad, assisting escaped slaves to reach Canada through providing a hiding space within the building.

Sadly, I didn't get the chance to have a look inside. Although someone (the Shammes?) was in the building, he was polite but firm in explaining that we had to call ahead and come at a fixed time if we wanted to look around. My fault for not thinking ahead, but a good reason to return in the future for a closer look. You can have a peak inside the synagogue here (apologies for the advertisement at the beginning of the film).

Close by the synagogue you can find a mikveh (ritual bath) which is still in use and which faces a number of kosher shops including bakeries and a butchers. Further evidence of the importance of sustenance for the body and for the soul!

Another unmissable Lower East Side experience is the wonderful Tenement Museum. The museum consists of a tenement block in Orchard Street with a series of rooms set out and restored to the way they would have appeared at different stages of the building's life. A range of guided tours are available - I chose the Hard Times tour, which takes visitors on a visit to the German-Jewish Gompertz family, whose father disappeared in the great economic panic of 1873 and the Italian Baldizzi family during the Great Depression. The guide was excellent, recreating the day to day life of tenement dwellers in both periods, filling in the known details of the two families and their histories, pointing out how the rooms representing the later period had changed, were better equipped and had (slightly) more possessions. However, the conditions remained cramped, with little natural light, unbearably hot summers and very cold winters, topped off by the shared privy at the rear of the building complete with appalling smell and at best unreliable sewage systems.

The Tenement Museum is a wonderful way of preserving and learning from the past and is lovingly cared for by the staff and volunteers. Many visitors are descended from former tenement dwellers and a nice touch was the story of one of the Baldizzi family who happened to be passing when restoration work started on the building, asked what was happening, told the museum representatives that she had been born there and donated a number of items for display. She now lives in a nice house in Brooklyn! Of course, this part of New York is changing rapidly now and many former tenement buildings have been converted into extraordinarily luxurious and extraordinarily expensive apartments. What would the Gompertz's and Baldizzi's have thought?

The Museum runs an extensive range of activity, including street tours, talks and events. It also has an excellent visitor centre with a great book shop. I am looking forward to working my way through a book I purchased there called A Bintel Brief, a collection of letters over a sixty year period from Lower East Side residents to the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper. The writers ask for, and receive, advice on many issues including the English language, bringing up children, matters of the heart, how to be "American" and a million other challenges preoccupying the minds and lives of new and recent immigrants.

The Forward was launched in April 1897 as a Yiddish language newspaper under the direction of the founding editor, Abraham Cahan. The paper was enormously popular, reaching its peak in the 1930's with a circulation of 275,000. As well as bringing news to several generations of Yiddish speakers, the paper also brought world class literature to its readers with Isaac Bashevis Singer and Eli Weisel amongst others writing fiction for its pages. However, over the next several decades as Yiddish was spoken less and less, readership declined resulting in the newspaper reinventing itself as a weekly in 1983, whilst in 1990 the former English language supplement became a separate daily newspaper, complete today with an online version. The Forward continues to thrive and has featured Cynthia Ozick, Ilan Stavans and other leading Jewish literary figures continuing the traditions of the past. It is still possible to see the original Daily Forward building on Broadway.Today it is an office building but the original features and the newspaper's name have been retained on the exterior.

So, a great day in New York's Lower East Side - a world away from Fifth Avenue and the expensive mid-town stores and restaurants, but perhaps much closer to the real heart of the city - landing point for thousands of families from all over the world, hoping for a better life. Much of the old Lower East Side has gone, but much has also been preserved - all is worth a visit. Oh, and by the way, I understand Mr Goldstein does a terrific Santa Claus tour. I kid you not. I love New York.


  1. Kosher only regulates what we eat, not what we look at, so a (Cancer the) crab is OK to look at, even in a synagogue. Just don't bring it in a salad.

    However, Jews are not supposed to worship images, so I imagine the crab and the other creatures were deformed so that they were not depicting actual living beings.

    The zodiac, especially on a ceiling, evokes the sky. Grand Central is a good example of that.

    I am gratified that you found my tour evocative! Thank you for your blog and visiting NYC.

    I hope you can post more of your beautiful pictures.

  2. Hello Jared and thanks for the comments. You can see more of my New York pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/yekkes/sets/72157629927307196/