Noah’s Ark Deli Sails: What Does It Mean For LES?

Neighborhood leaders weigh in on closing of last full-service kosher restaurant on Lower East Side.

10/22/13
Special To The Jewish Week
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Shmulke Bernstein’s. Ratner’s. Unterman’s Roumanian. Pollack’s. Gluckstern’s. The Garden Cafeteria. The Crown Delicatessen.

Time was, the Lower East Side was filled with kosher eateries of every description. Not any more — it’s now a challenge to find kosher food in the historic immigrant Jewish enclave. Does the recent closing of Noah’s Ark Deli, the last full-service kosher restaurant on the Lower East Side, mark the end of an era on the Lower East Side?

Laurie Tobias Cohen, the executive director of the Lower East Side Conservancy, and herself an observant Jew, thinks so.

Even as her organization organizes tours of sacred Jewish sites in the neighborhood, she has few kosher places to steer groups for lunch. She sees kosher dining options blossoming on the Upper West Side, in Riverdale and in Teaneck, N.J. — but not on the Lower East Side, where she said an older, more traditionally Orthodox community resides. 

“Notions of eating out on a daily basis are very American,” Cohen pointed out. “People down here don’t have it in their Jewish DNA to spend money in restaurants.”

While she and her staff did send tour groups to Noah’s Ark, which opened on Grand Street in 2003, they found the prices there more expensive than a boxed lunch from a Midtown kosher deli like Ben’s, located near Penn Station. Most tourists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, don’t keep kosher anyway, she noted, and tend to end up Katz’s, the iconic non-kosher deli on Houston Street.

Cohen also pointed out that Noah’s Ark, which rented space from the Seward Park Cooperative, was “not in a particularly touristic part of the neighborhood — unlike the old Second Avenue Deli, which had an “ideal location in the East Village with its historic, hipster vibe.”

Yet Noah’s Ark had some notoriety of its own; it was a hangout of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who dined there in 2005 with Michael Bloomberg to discuss the mayor’s plans for a football stadium on the West Side.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, the spiritual leader of the Stanton Street Shul, located four blocks north of Grand, says the loss of a kosher restaurant is significant. “The cultural perception of a thriving Jewish community is based on the number of kosher restaurants that it supports,” he said.

Rabbi Yuter echoed Cohen in noting that many Orthodox residents of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, where a one-bedroom apartment can cost upwards of $500,000, are aging and not wealthy; they either inherited their apartments or bought them decades ago, before the co-ops privatized and starting selling units on the open market.

Further, the lack of an eruv — a symbolic boundary that permits carrying objects and pushing baby carriages outside on the Sabbath — discourages young Orthodox Jewish families from moving in.

There are other arguably kosher restaurants in the area, like the organic vegan restaurant Caravan of Dreams and the pan-Asian vegan café Wild Ginger, but they are not supervised by any nationally recognized kosher certification agency. (Noah’s Ark was under the supervision of Star-K in Baltimore.) Without Noah’s Ark, Rabbi Yuter said the neighborhood no longer has “authentically Jewish cuisine that was authentically kosher too.”

Nevertheless, according to Rabbi Yuter’s colleague, Zvi David Romm, the rabbi of the Bialystoker Synagogue, located around the corner from the site of the deli, the demise of Noah’s Ark is about the “closing of a particular establishment, not about the closing up of life on the Lower East Side.”

Rabbi Romm estimated that about 300 kosher-observant families remain in the neighborhood, and noted that many kosher options remain in the neighborhood — everything from bagels and bialys to pickles and pizza. The Lower East Side, he concluded, “remains a mecca for kosher and non-kosher tourists of all types.”

So why did Noah’s Ark pull up stakes?

A resident of the Seward Park co-op, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the restaurant had been declining for years — unlike the deli’s flagship location, owned by the same couple, Noam and Shelly Sokolow, in Teaneck. “It was no secret that the place was not full,” he said, “and that the prices were rising and the quality going down. The owners were trying to save a sinking ship.”

While the deli had a good deal on rent — $5,500 a month — it could not sell enough sandwiches, even at close to $20 apiece, to keep the place afloat. Efforts by the co-op to find another business to take over the space were unavailing. (The Sokolows did not respond to calls for comment on this article.) And thus Noah’s Ark sank along with the Stage, Adelman’s (in Brooklyn) and the other delis that have closed in New York — and across the country — in the last year.

While it has been said that the co-op board owes it to the neighborhood to find another kosher restaurant to take the place of Noah’s Ark, could a new kosher place survive?

Jeffrey Gurock, a professor at Yeshiva University and the leading expert on the history of Orthodox Jews in America, doubts it.

“The Orthodox Jewish clientele used to go down to the Lower East Side for the sights, sounds and smells of the old neighborhood,” he said. “Now they can have it right in their own backyard — wherever they live in New York.”
 

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

10/29/2013 - 04:55

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old men and women in their 90s don't go to delis o eat overpriced corned beef sandwiches which they've been warned against by their internists and cardiologists

and younger residents won't pay those prices for shadows of their former selves on stale, commercially produced, and totally tasteless rye bread

It should be noted that Ben's Deli is not supervised by a nationally recognized kashrut organization and many people won't eat there becase they are opened on Shabbat.

Ted Merwin misrepresented several of my comments, and distorted others in not presenting others more fully. I did not concur with him that its 'the end of an era,' and I most certainly did not refer to any specific Lower East Side DNA regarding dining out. What I did say was that this is a long standing, traditional community, which places primacy on the family joining together in the home for meals - and if they choose to dine out, there are many places to choose from, just a few subway stops away. I stated that Shalom Chai Pizza Restaurant buzzes with local customers, and enjoys the full support of the community and visitors of all kinds, including tourists.
I fully concur with Rabbi Romm that many kosher options remain in the neighborhood, including a fully stocked butcher/take-out shop, bakeries and prepared food in the kosher supermarket. Our touring groups enjoy the catering from these purveyors, and find them to be an excellent option.
In truth, if Ted Merwin had started with the quote from Dr. Gurock, then he may not have persisted with this tendentious article, as the quote speaks to the truth that visitors liked what they found dining down here so much, they decided to copy it in their communities.

The animals on the Ark during the flood were fed better food than the more recent customers at Noah's Ark.

Their food tasted like it came from the basement of Noah's ark!

What this article fails to mention is the many violation points this restaurant has been given by the NYC Health Department. This is a major deterrent for locals. While it now has a grade of "A" and currently a relatively low amount of points, that isn't always the case. It was filthy and if you look on the City's website you can see points that would qualify for a grade of B or C. During inspections in 2011 and 2012 they received 30 and 69 points (28 is enough to force a restaurant to close). I even remember the restaurant being forced to close not that long ago after some violations. Why take my life in my hands to get expensive Deli when I can leave the neighborhood and go somewhere clean?

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