New York Places, Jewish Spaces: Life in the City, 1700-2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

New York City’s Jews have helped shape the city and, in turn, been shaped by it ever since the 17th century, when they first arrived in what was then New Amsterdam. Never a majority of the population, even in their 20th-century heyday, Jews carved out a variety of public and private spaces as their own within the larger city. These spaces—synagogues, lodge rooms, businesses, neighborhood streets, tenement apartments and leafy, semi-suburban blocks—reflected the wide array of secular and religious Jewish identities that Jews in New York fashioned for themselves. Some spaces, such as synagogues, were meant to be permanently Jewish. Others—stadiums, squares and concert halls—became Jewish for only a few hours or a day during a demonstration or concert. Some street names even proffered official recognition of the Jewish presence. The Jewish geography of the city shifted as the Jewish population waxed and waned over time. However, the multitude of Jewish spaces within the larger city always gave witness to the fact that there was more than one sort of “New York Jew.”

Jewish spaces were recognized by other New York citizens. As early as 1692, the “Miller Plan,” a map of New York, noted the presence of the “Jews Synagogue” on Beaver Street. At that time, Congregation Shearith Israel constituted the only official Jewish communal space. (A remnant of Shearith Israel’s first cemetery remains a tiny patch of Jewish space in today’s Chinatown.) During the week, however, Jews’ business and social activities extended their presence throughout lower Manhattan. In fact, Jews of the time were closely connected with the life of the greater city, as evidenced by the artifacts they left behind: Moses Raphael Levy, a successful merchant and president of Shearith Israel, contributed funds to help build the spire for Trinity Church; Esther Allen Mitchell, a British immigrant who arrived in New York in the early 1800s, beaded an image of the Federal Hall onto a purse.

In the 19th century, waves of immigration increased the New York Jewish population dramatically. In 1833, Shearith Israel built a fine synagogue on Crosby Street, but most of the fledgling congregations that now came into existence could not afford to erect their own buildings. Instead, they carved out worship spaces from rented rooms in saloons, carpenter shops and dispensaries in the immigrant neighborhoods of Five Points and Kleindeutschland. Businesses such as Newman Cowen’s glass warehouse on Canal Street doubled as communal gathering places. In the years immediately after the Civil War, religious institutions of all backgrounds embarked on building campaigns. While Catholics and Protestants used the Romanesque Revival and Gothic styles, some Jewish congregations—from the Reform Emanu-El to the Orthodox Shaarey Tefilah—experimented with the Moorish style. These distinctive synagogues lined Fifth Avenue and changed the streetscape along the perimeter of Central Park.

As New York places beyond the synagogue became recognizable as Jewish spaces, some New Yorkers resented what they saw as a Jewish incursion. Observers commented on the “old clo’” (old clothes) men on Chatham Street, a ramshackle commercial district known for its second-hand clothing stores run by “natty, blackbearded, fiercely mustached” Jewish merchants. But by the end of the century, some of these old-clothes men had turned their businesses into general dry goods firms and had pioneered in the production of ready-made clothes. The transformation of erstwhile peddlers into substantial merchants was symbolized by the loft buildings they began to inhabit on Broadway. By 1888, noted one observer, “of the 400 buildings on Broadway, from Canal Street to Union Square, the occupants of almost all are Hebrews.” 

The arrival of 2.5 million Eastern European immigrants from the 1880s through 1924 utterly transformed the city’s Jewish neighborhoods. The Lower East Side became known as the premier Jewish quarter, but in the first decade of the 20th century, new neighborhoods formed in upper Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. The sheer concentration of Jews in these areas heightened their political, economic and cultural impact on the city. Garment shops, with their often antagonistic Jewish bosses and workers, became Jewish spaces. So did the street markets and tenement buildings. Institutions such as the Educational Alliance attempted to offer an antidote to cramped and dark tenements. Immigrant Jews created a public sphere through the Yiddish press, street meetings, political movements and cultural activities such as the Yiddish theater.

Some New York places became Jewish spaces seasonally. Each fall, pious Jews congregated on the docks and bridges to throw bits of bread into the water during the Rosh Hashanah tashlikh ritual. And the demand for synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was so strong among those who were not regular synagogue members that entrepreneurs hired cantors, sold tickets and rented out halls, movie theaters, stores and churches throughout the city. Even Tammany Hall, the seat of the Democratic political machine, became a synagogue for three days in 1908.

By the middle of the century, New York’s two million Jews lived in neighborhoods throughout the city that reflected the class divisions within the community. Manhattan still housed the city’s richest Jewish community (on the Upper West Side) and its poorest (on the Lower East Side), but the Bronx and Brooklyn had already overtaken Manhattan as the largest Jewish residential centers. Working-class Jewish neighborhoods, such as Brownsville and the East Bronx, continued to thrive through the 1950s, but middle-class areas overtook them in importance, with many Jews settling on blocks of one- and two-family houses in Flatbush and Borough Park in Brooklyn, or in tony apartment buildings along the Bronx’s Grand Concourse. Many Jews also moved into newly-developed middle-class areas of Queens such as Flushing and Forest Hills.  Memoirists who grew up in this era often depict their neighborhoods as little Jewish worlds that provided a sense of comfort that came with numbers.

Peaking at nearly a third of the city’s population, Jews heavily influenced New York’s social, economic, political and cultural life, and they gradually took their place among the city’s elites. But by the 1960s, New York’s Jewish population had begun to decline, as those with the means to do so moved to the suburbs or to other areas of the country. Jewish neighborhoods began to contract. 

Today, shops and museums on the Lower East Side often field the inquiries of tourists who ask directions to “the Jewish neighborhood.” In 2012, how does one offer directions to “the Jewish neighborhood?” One might direct tourists to Williamsburg, Crown Heights or Borough Park, where observant Jews have knit together enclaves of shops, synagogues and schools. But one would then be obscuring the many non-Orthodox Jews whose presence in neighborhoods throughout the boroughs is less obvious. Some of the more adventurous tourists might want to explore the seven-mile stretch in Brooklyn, with Ocean Parkway as its spine, that offers a unique glimpse into the wide variety of Jewish identities and the overlapping spaces they inhabit. There, one encounters Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a vibrant Syrian community, thriving modern-Orthodox and haredi sections, and Azerbaijani synagogues. Nearby business streets still retain a clearly Jewish public presence. Yeshivas educate the young, while Washington Cemetery is a tribute to residents long gone. Just beyond the northern end of Ocean Parkway is the Park Slope section, where Jews tend to shop at the same stores and educate their children in the same schools as their non-Jewish neighbors. Even there, however, Jews lay claim to public spaces for Sukkot block parties, Purim processions and High Holiday services in Prospect Park’s Picnic House.

Annie Polland, Vice President for Education, Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Daniel Soyer, Professor, Chair of History Department, Fordham University.

The corner of Essex Hester Streets. Drawing by John Durkin in Leslie’s Weekly. September 12, 1891.

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