Only The Subway Stop Remains
Wed, 12/26/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
An apartment building near the Delancey/Essex subway station, part of the gentrifying Lower East Side.
An apartment building near the Delancey/Essex subway station, part of the gentrifying Lower East Side.

Long before there were Jewish shopping districts in Brooklyn and Queens, there was the Lower East Side.

In fact, long before there were Century 21 for clothes, DSW for shoes and 99-cent stores for everything else, there was the Lower East Side.

For more than a century, the Lower East Side had been the quintessential locale for a Jewish book, a kosher meal (meat or dairy) and, of course, a bargain.

The portal to this neighborhood of Jewish treasures was one station on the New York City subway with two names: Delancey Street and Essex Street. The two subway lines that converged here brought passengers to the Lower East Side from Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. The oldest part of the station, the BMT line, was built in 1908. In 1936, the competing line, the IND, was layered in under the original station. And in 1948, the two systems merged into one.

As a boy growing up in New York in the 1960s, I found that no place shouted Jewish life more than the Delancey Street Station. Exiting from the station, I could head north for kosher Chinese at Shmulke Bernstein’s, east for blintzes at Ratner’s, south for a Jewish book at Z. Eisenbach and west to get my eyeglasses repaired at Sol Moscot.

With the exception of the optician, all those establishments are gone now. The Jewish shopping district of the Lower East Side has all but disappeared. It has been surpassed by the shops of Kew Gardens Hills, Borough Park, Crown Heights and Teaneck, N.J. Jewish life on the Lower East Side has been squeezed by hipsters moving in from the north and Chinese-Americans from the west. A small Jewish enclave still exists on the southeastern tip of Manhattan island, but it is a far cry from what it once was.

I have deep roots in the neighborhood. My great-grandparents on all four sides settled on the Lower East Side after arriving in the great Jewish migration from Europe in the 1880s. One great-grandfather, Elias Mehler, had a dry goods store on Rivington Street. Another, Ephraim Finkelstein, had a pushcart in the neighborhood and traveled with his wares to Hartford, Conn., where he set up his own dry goods store named — I kid you not — Cheap Johns.

In the 1960s, I attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, one of the city’s oldest yeshivas, founded in 1903. I commuted by subway to the Lower East Side from Queens and later from Upper Manhattan. RJJ, as we knew it, was one stop beyond Delancey, right near the East Broadway station.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I took the subway to Delancey Street with my wife Shira to look for the neighborhood that I once knew. Vast, vivid and colorful mosaic murals by the Chinese-American artist Ming Fay greeted us at the Delancey Street station. One is called “Delancey Orchard,” a name that evokes two local streets but looks nothing like them. Depicted is a forest of brightly colored trees and skies of every shade of green and blue.

We took the long escalator ride to the street and arrived at the entrance to the Essex Street Market. I remember the market as a chaotic place with sawdust on the floor and men poised behind pushcarts laden with eggs, cheese, chicken and sides of kosher beef. Today’s Essex Street market features formaggio, panini, bruschetta and cappuccino served in neat little shops. There are no kosher signs over the gourmet meat counters and the vegetable markets feature Chinese delicacies.

Around the corner from the market, where Ratner’s once stood, is a Sleepy’s flanked by a Banco Popular and a Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins. Bernstein’s, once the only place to get kosher Chinese, is now a trendy bar with pounding music and a huge flat screen TV.

The site of Schapiro’s Kosher Wines, at the corner of Essex and Rivington, is the most forlorn of all; no one even wanted the property. It stands vacant. Above the building is a faded mural with a bottle of Schapiro’s with the slogan, “The wine you can cut with a knife.”

A cheerier site greeted us a block away at Ludlow and Rivington, where the women’s clothier Spitzer’s once stood. Today, while the store is gone, a vibrant bar and café — also called Spitzer’s — occupies the spot. It advertises 40 craft beers on tap. Shira recalled buying outfits for her first job at the original Spitzer’s nearly 30 years ago.

We then headed south on Essex looking for what we heard was the last Judaica shop in the neighborhood, Israel Imports, but it was gone. We did find the last remaining yeshiva, Mesifta Tifereth Jerusalem, on East Broadway, a school once headed by the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. The school, which educates boys from kindergarten through high school, is surrounded by dozens of Chinese shops, markets and restaurants.

I remembered when numerous Jewish bookstores dotted the neighborhood and how their wares spilled out on the streets each fall when they sold lulavs and etrogs for Sukkot. The old Garden Cafeteria on East Broadway, where Isaac Bashevis Singer would stop for a cup of soup after delivering his manuscripts to the Forward, is now the Wing Shoon Seafood Restaurant. And the Forward building, just a few doors away, was converted into condominiums several years ago.

One block south, on Henry Street, I found my old yeshiva, RJJ, named for the first and only chief rabbi of New York. The school packed up and moved to Staten Island in 1976 and the old building, like the Forward, was converted into residential housing. Across the street is the Chung Te Buddhist Association of New York.

There was very little familiar to me about the Lower East Side, but one thing that remained the same was the subway. We boarded the train at Delancey Street and it whisked us away from a place that changed, but never left me. ◆

Ari L. Goldman, who writes the Mixed Media column for the paper, teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.