For me, Jewish New York is as much about the delis, bagels and Broadway, as it is about its fascinating history.
Since childhood, city excursions invariably included a hand-cut pastrami on rye at Katz’s Delicatessen (on East Houston Street) and a take-home treat of smoked salmon from Russ’n Daughters (on Houston). Katz’s celebrated its 125th anniversary, recently, and the family’s fourth generation still runs Russ’n Daughters.
Last Passover, I bought gefilte fish for my daughter’s Seder on the Upper Wet Side at Barney Greengrass, at the Sturgeon King’s 86th Street location. Their first shop was on 113th Street from 1908 to 1929, when my Aunt Betty used to ride there after school, to buy stock for my grandmother’s shop.
These culinary landmarks are joined today by a plethora of delicatessens, Israeli and Jewish-style eateries. An online source lists 326 kosher restaurants among which Zagat rates a dozen from the west 70s, to the Garment Center, Soho, West Village and in Brooklyn, Queens and Riverdale.
Of all the city’s bagel outlets, my favorite is Ess-A-Bagel because the outside is crunchy and the interior is just he
right degree of chewiness. Freshly baked, warm garlic, onion, salt bagels with all the usual toppings are available
at two east side locations — both of which ship around the world — mid-town on 3rd Avenue and near Union Square on 1st Avenue.
Murray’s Falafel and Grill is a popular Glatt Kosher eatery near 14th St neighborhood and there are at least a halfdozen Maoz outlets for inexpensive vegetarian lunches. Caravan of Dreams (East 6th Street/1st Ave) is a reliable choice while touring the Lower East Side. This kosher Vegan venue with brick walls and pressed ceilings incorporates organic ingredients in salads and Asian, Italian and Mexican specialties.
Author and TV chef Jeff Nathan serves contemporary kosher cuisine at Abigael’s on Broadway near Times Square. Among the best steak dinner choices on the Upper West Side, there’s Prime Ko, the sleek, spiffy and pricey go-to spot for sushi or steak; chateaubriand and international dishes at Mike’s Bistro; and a tofu-cheeseburger adds to the variety at Thalia’s. Jewish history in New York pre-dates this culinary “heritage” by centuries. When Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in 1492, some settled in the Netherlands and subsequently moved to a Dutch settlement in Brazil. In 1654, the Portuguese took over the Dutch colony there and a few Jewish refuges fled to New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil. That same year, 23 Spanish and Portuguese Jews founded Congregation Shearith Israel and during those early years, Jews were among the stockholders in the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam. The congregation still thrives, today, on the Upper West Side, though the first Sephardic cemeteries (three tiny ones) remain downtown. By 1720, most of the Jewish population came from Central Europe and Jews were full citizens by 1740.
In the mid-19th century, Jews from Germany brought religious diversity to New York and in 1873 founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Today, it is hard to count the number of synagogues. One of the most famous is the Eldridge Street Synagogue, with its stunning, six-pointed, star-centered, stained-glass windows. It dates from 1867 and is a National Historic Landmark that functions as a museum. There are musical performances and walking tours of the art and architecture of the Lower East Side.
Between 1881 and 1924, 2.5 million, mostly Eastern European Jews arrived on Ellis Island. About 85% made their first homes in New York City and three-quarters of that group settled, initially, on the Lower East Side.
Known as LES, these days, this area stretches to the East River between Houston south to East Broadway. Its
streets are well-known landmarks: Henry Street (Settlement House), Essex Street (the famous indoor market), Rivington (Streit’s Matzoh factory since 1925, which you can tour by arrangement), Orchard Street (shop and restaurant row) and Hester Street (Gertel’s Bakery) to name a few.
On a walking tour of the area, visitors learn about the immigrant experience and see Kehila Kedosha Janina, c. 1927, the only Greek Jewish synagogue. The oldest surviving synagogue building in New York City is the former Gothic styled synagogue Anshe Slonim, dating to 1849 and designed to look like a cathedral. Today, it is an art
studio, an event venue and meeting place for Jewish congregations, called the Angel Orensanz Center.
The Bialystoker Synagogue— which was built as a Federal- style Methodist Church in 1826— hid Canada-bound
slaves during the Civil War. Polish Jews from Bialystok converted it to a synagogue in 1905 and its three-story, Italian-made ark was recently gilded in gold.
To see how immigrants really lived on the LES, it’s best to take a guided tour through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a five-floor landmark built in 1863. Each of the apartments replicates the life and lifestyle, complete with furnishings and the narrative of four different families who might actually have resided there.
The Lower East Side is just one neighborhood to explore and find out about Jewish life. The Museum of Jewish Heritage is next to Battery Park, where ferries shuttle visitors to the reopened Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The second floor of this stunningly modern, stone and glass structure is dedicated to the remembrance of the Holocaust, on other floors, there are artifacts and changing exhibits, an outdoor garden and café and the gift shop sells beautiful books and Judaica.
The Center for Jewish History has an amazing archival collection that features the first Hebrew prayer books printed in America, Thomas Jefferson’s letter to New York’s oldest Jewish congregation and an original handwritten copy of Emma Lazarus’ 1883 “Give me your tired, your poor” poem displayed on a plaque on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Located at 15 West 16th St., it is just across from number 8, where my father-in-law, Louis A Lew, owned a tailor and trimming shop from 1934 to 1984. Like others before and since who made successful lives as Americans, “Dad” left Poland before he was 16, sold shoelaces to earn his passage from Marseille and practiced English in front of a mirror so that he would never have a foreign accent.
As we all know, some Jews accumulated great wealth. Among them were the Warburgs who settled on upper Fifth Avenue, now known as Museum Mile. As a widow, Frieda Schiff Warburg donated her French Gothic chateau-style mansion to The Jewish Museum in 1944 to house fine art, ceremonial objects and wonderful exhibits. It has the exhibition Chagall: Love, War, and Exile running from September 15 to February 2.
Jewish New York lives on, with countless examples of its amazing historical, intellectual, cultural, philanthropic, and of course culinary accomplishments.
Irvina Lew, a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and Society of American Travel Writers writes about what she loves, including France, art and history.