Rediscovering A Lost World: An Afternoon On The Lower East Side
It was drizzling with gloomy 55-degree weather when I met my friend Yaacov at the corner of East Broadway and Rutgers Street on Sunday, March 7. After a long subway ride downtown and a quick Uber ride across the city, I was frustrated that I spent over an hour of my Sunday schlepping down to the Lower East Side to research a history paper. As I shook my friend's hand, I gave him a wry smile while looking at my watch, wondering if I would make it back to YU for dinner. But after the tour, I was too touched and inspired to be thinking about chicken and burgers.
The assignment was simple: gather information on the Lower East Side for a history paper. The paper was for Prof. Jeffery Gurock's History of NYC class, one of my favorite classes in my YU experience thus far. Without going into the nitty-gritty details of the assignment, the main point was to choose one street in New York City and demonstrate how it has evolved over the past century. While most students chose to do this research from a computer, I believed it would be better and more productive to walk one of the streets and get a tour from my friend, who was once a licensed tour guide of the Lower East Side and generously agreed to take me around. Not only did this strategy help me gather information on East Broadway (the street I selected to study), it put images and thoughts on my mind that have yet to fade. While it would be too long to share all of the poignant imagery and recollections from the afternoon, I hope to share the highlights that are now deeply ingrained in my heart.
The tour began at MTJ, Mesivta Tifereth Yerushalayim. The Yeshiva was founded in 1907 and moved to its current location on 145 East Broadway in 1912; eventually, the Yeshiva was headed by the great American rabbi and posek, Rav Moshe Feinstein, when he came to America in the 1930s. At its peak, the yeshiva had hundreds of students. Today, less than half of the original number remains. Across from the Yeshiva is a lighting store, Aladdin Lighting. At one point, the building was a coffee shop where Yeshiva students would have coffee during their breaks. At the end of this part of the tour, I saw two bochurim in white shirts and black hats leave the building. I immediately imagined myself in a time when the entrance to the building was a revolving door.
After crossing the street, we looked at Wu's Wonton King, formerly known as “The Garden Cafeteria.” Many Jews frequented this eatery, including renowned Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer. Legend has it that Singer used to get a coffee and bagel every day while working on his writing all morning. It was hard to imagine that a place covered in Chinese letters was once a popular Jewish eatery.
Yaacov and I then looked at Seward Park, once the home of many large Jewish events and gatherings on the Lower East Side. While the park got sketchy and dangerous in the 1950s and 60s when Jews left the area, the newly gentrified area is home to kids smiling on swing sets while their parents "watch" them while looking at their phones. All I could think about was how none of those kids probably understood the history of the park they were playing in (not that it would be normal if they did). None of them realized that hundreds of Jews would gather in the park for community events in a place that was merely a jungle gym a century ago.
Looking South from the Southwest corner of the park, one's eye is drawn to a giant white building that says "Forward" in Hebrew letters. Indeed, this building was once the headquarters of The Forward, one of the 37 Jewish newspapers on The Lower East Side during the 1920s. Interestingly, The Forward was once a socialist newspaper, demonstrating that there were many different types of Jews with many different values living on the Lower East Side during its heyday. Although the newspaper is still in existence, its original home has been turned into luxury condominiums.
Walking back to the central part of East Broadway, one can see the Educational Alliance. The Educational Alliance was the home of settlement houses opened by wealthy New Yorkers to help immigrants acclimate to America. The Educational Alliance was intended to be a "Jewish" settlement house funded by New York Jews. A large part of the mission of the Educational Alliance was to teach new Jewish immigrants how to live daily life in America, including filing taxes, making a resume, and finding a job.
Walking south, we approach the intersection of Jefferson Street and East Broadway. Across from Jefferson Street is known as "Shtiebel Road." In the early half of the 20th century, this block was home to over 100 shtiebels, one or two in each building. Now, there are under 10. The Young Israel of The Lower East Side is on this road, which was knocked down in the early 2000s by real estate developers. However, the real estate developers could not complete their project due to the great recession. Thus, a minyan is held in the space once a summer to prevent a squatter from seizing the land through unprotected occupation.
At the end of the tour, my friend Yaacov and I stopped at a local kosher bakery for a snack. As we walked in, a woman that seemed to be in her eighties opened the door. As I selected my dried-out brownie, my friend Yaacov, who knows some Yiddish, began talking to the lady in Yiddish. She let out a smile broader than the neighborhood as he did this. As I watched this interaction, I began to get emotional. At first, I didn't know why. Quite frankly, I was just happy to be done gathering research for my project. And then I realized. She was representative of the world that was. And my friend was giving her a last taste of that world that is slowly making its way to only history textbooks. As I paid for my brownie (cash only), I began recreating an old world in my head. It's like I lived in it, but I never did. Ultimately, I am not upset that I never got to experience this world firsthand. The pasuk from Kohelet of dor holech v'dor ba kept on flashing in my head. The neighborhood that was is now a dor holech, and I guess that is how it is meant to be. But after my afternoon on The Lower East Side, I felt a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that I am doing my job as the dor ba, the future — taking an afternoon to recreate and reimagine ancestors' lives to help give our generation a direction for the future.
Photo Caption: MTJ
Photo Credit: Ariel Kahan