Like so many other Jewish families, throughout my childhood my father, mother, sister, and I would travel to the Lower East Side to frequent bargain shops and kosher restaurants. There on Orchard and Essex and Hester Streets, the sights and tastes of the old Jewish Lower East Side could still be found. First we visited the clothing stores—Fishkin’s, Forman’s, Klein’s and Eckstein’s—picking up school or camp clothing depending on the time of year. Then we headed east to Essex Street and picked out pickles at Hollander’s and kosher cheese at Miller’s. My father liked to stop at the Hebrew scribe on Essex Street. Sometimes he needed to have the scroll in his tefillin or mezuzah checked to make sure it was still kosher. But other times he just enjoyed talking to the scribe in Yiddish, a language few people in our Upper East Side Jewish community spoke. The day ended at Shmulka Bernstein’s, at the time the only kosher Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. This was the moment my sister and I had been waiting for. We couldn’t wait to eat. The waiter, dressed in a short red jacket and tasseled Chinese skullcap, took our order—spare ribs, fried rice, and egg drop soup.
Those Lower East Side trips served the same function as a religious ceremony, like a Passover Seder or Sabbath meal. Our routine never varied. We observed inviolable rituals and ate special foods. We were communing with our past, with a collective Jewish history.
For American Jews, the Lower East Side is a place of origin, a Plymouth Rock, the neighborhood where it all started. For many this is true regardless of whether they or their ancestors ever stepped foot here. Thanks to a treasure trove of early images we can visualize what the area looked like when it was the most crowded place on earth and home to the largest Jewish community in the world. We can picture the pushcarts that once lined the markets, the children at play, the neighborhood’s cramped tenements. If your family took Sunday trips to the neighborhood like mine did, you may even have memories of certain restaurants and shops—the taste of the onion rolls at Ratner’s Dairy Restaurant, the smell of pickles from a barrel, the Yiddish accent of the salesperson at a bargain clothing store.
Today, though, that history is imperiled. Jews left the Lower East Side seeking better housing and opportunities for their children. New immigrant communities settled in the area. In more recent years, affluent new residents drawn by the dynamic culture and history of the neighborhood are transforming it yet again. The former home of The Jewish Daily Forward, a leading Yiddish newspaper, has been converted into luxury apartments. The Garden Cafeteria, once frequented by Yiddish writers, is now a Chinese restaurant. Former tenements house chic apartments and art galleries. Into this changing area, photographers Janet Russek and David Scheinbaum bring their cameras and capture the last remnants of the old Jewish neighborhood—a kosher bakery, a nest of prayer shawls at an old synagogue, a Jewish-owned clothing shop on the brink of closing. Their work conveys a sense of mission, a compulsion to document what is disappearing before our eyes.
In my 20s, I returned to the Lower East Side, living and working there. As deputy director of the Museum at Eldridge Street, I participated in the preservation of one of the Lower East Side’s most noted Jewish landmarks, the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The synagogue is the first great house of worship built in America by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Before it opened in 1887, the Eastern European Jewish community worshipped in modest storefronts, tenement shtiebels, or converted churches. Eldridge Street was the first synagogue they built with intent and from the ground up. With Stars of David mounted from its rooftop towers and carved into its wooden front doors, it boldly declared the Jewish immigrants’ religious identity for all to see.
The Eldridge Street Synagogue was built during an era of mass migration (1880–1924) when more than 26 million immigrants, including 2.5 million Eastern European Jews, came to the United States. Today it stands as a testament to the Jewish immigrant journey, and to the balancing act that all immigrants face. How do you retain the traditions of your homeland while embracing new American ideals?
When I first entered the building, it was a glorious wreck. Dust coated the pews; the stained-glass windows were stored in crates. The building’s time capsule quality reminded me of Miss Havisham and her decaying wedding feast from Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. Still, the synagogue’s power was evident. The building was a portal to the past. You could feel its former grandeur. You could imagine the people who once gathered and prayed there. Today, under the auspices of the Museum at Eldridge Street, the synagogue has been meticulously restored. Thousands of people visit to experience the Jewish immigrant experience in a neighborhood that is rapidly changing.
Eldridge Street, though, is the exception. Very few buildings from the era of mass Jewish migration survive in their original use. The First Roumanian-American Synagogue on Rivington Street, known as a “Cantor’s Carnegie Hall,” collapsed in 2006. Today it is an empty lot. One of the most poignant synagogues is Bes Medrash HaGadol. Its congregation was founded in the late 19th century. One of the Lower East Side’s most famous rabbis, Jacob Joseph Ash, the only Chief Rabbi of New York City, served as an early leader spiritual leader, delivering his inaugural sermon there. Just a decade ago, there was still a small, struggling minyan (quorum of at least ten men) worshipping in its lower level. For several years the building was locked, its interior too unsafe to enter. Tragically, on May 14, 2017, the synagogue was destroyed by fire.
When I first moved to the Lower East Side in the early 1990s, I visited the home of a friend. The apartment was located on Ludlow Street just off of Canal, above a Chinese funeral parlor. Three or four people were living there. I was taken aback when I walked into my friend’s bedroom. The space was tiny. The back wall was covered with golden plaques with people’s names written in raised block lettering—the memorials you find on the back wall of a synagogue. I’d known the building was the one-time home of the Kletzker Brotherly Aid Association, a landmsmanschaft, but I had not realized that this top floor had been the prayer space and that some of its architectural features were still intact. Later I discovered the site of the former ark. It now housed a television.
These one-time synagogues reflect the changing neighborhood in their very structures. On Delancey Street and Forsyth, a former synagogue is now home to Templo Adventista (Seventh Day Adventists Church). Its façade bears a large, two-story-high crucifix layered on top of a Star of David window, a strange and striking reminder of the neighborhood’s changing immigrant context. Similarly, just a block away from Eldridge Street, the former Kalwarie Synagogue is now a Buddhist Temple. Countless other synagogues have been torn down or converted to other uses. At least three that I know of have become artist studios. Before the Jews arrived there were Irish and Germans living in the area. Immigrant group follows immigrant group. The one constant in the area is change.
Russek and Scheinbaum capture some of the still-operating synagogues on the Lower East Side. If you walk all the way east on Grand Street to Willett Street, you’ll discover a distinguished structure made out of fieldstone. Built in 1826 as a Methodist Episcopal Church and reputed to have been part of the Underground Railroad, for more than a century this building has been home to the Bialystoker Synagogue. A number of their photographs depict some of the building’s beautiful details, including its hand-painted ceiling depicting the zodiac. This synagogue continues to serve the Jewish community of the Lower East Side. Within a few blocks radius of Bialystoker, there is a kosher butcher, grocery, and mikvah, or Jewish ritual bath.
On Broome Street, just off of Eldridge Street, is one of my favorite places, Kehilah Kedosha Janina. This small synagogue, sandwiched between tenements, on a street once described as “The Smelliest Block” by New York Magazine, is home to a unique congregation. The community is the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, with a history dating back more than two millennia to Ancient Greece. Today a small, dedicated group of worshippers not only maintains Sabbath and holiday services there but also offers tours and cultural programs, including a Greek Jewish Festival every spring. Russek and Scheinbaum capture the traditions of this stalwart congregation, including a parishioner returning the Torah scroll to one of its beautiful, rounded metal Torah holders, so different from the velvet Torah mantles Ashkenazi Jews use.
The synagogues of the Lower East Side have long exerted a gravitational pull on me. I can’t avoid them. I moved to the Lower East Side in the early 1990s attracted by its diversity and art scene. I lived at first in a tenement on Ridge Street, then I moved to Norfolk Street with my husband. In the mid-1990s a friend told me about a loft space available on Hester Street. When I went to look at it, I noticed that the top-floor windows were rounded in the Moorish style, typical of 19th-century synagogues. The woman showing us the space confirmed my suspicion. She told me the building was the first home of the First Roumanian Congregation before it moved to Rivington Street. The lower level that we would move into was once the bes medrash, or house of study. She and her husband were noted artists and had lived in the former main sanctuary since the 1960s, bringing up their son there. Between the building’s 1870 founding and our moving there, it had housed a still during Prohibition, a raincoat and shower-curtain factory after World War II, and more recently a fabric store.
My husband and I moved in a few weeks later and lived there for over 15 years, bringing up our two daughters. Our oldest daughter, Hester, was named for the street on which we lived. For years I lived and worked just blocks away from many of the places I visited as a little girl. With secret satisfaction, I would walk down the street, my past and my present mingling together.
Photographers have long been drawn to the Lower East Side. In the early 20th century, reformers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine documented the neighborhood’s squalid living conditions in order to advocate for change. Their iconic black-and-white images are often what people imagine when thinking of the area. Weegee, a Jewish immigrant born in Galicia, captured lurid crime scenes in the area and beyond. In the 1940s, photographers Helen Levitt and Rebecca Lepkoff, both children of Russian-Jewish immigrants, captured changes to the neighborhood they knew so well. In the 1960s, Diane Arbus was drawn by the unconventional lifestyles of people living on the Lower East Side. Different aspects of the neighborhood attracted each of these photographers over the decades.
Russek and Scheinbaum come with their own agenda—to document a vanishing community. Over the past 15 years, they have urgently sought out the few places where the Jewish Lower East Side can still be found. In black and white, and in bright color, they show us the kosher bakeries and restaurants, the Judaica stores and synagogues, the clothing stores that once dotted Essex Street and Grand Street and Rivington and Orchard.
The earliest photographs in the series date back to 1999, when Russek and Scheinbaum traveled to the Lower East Side to buy their son a tallis for his bar mitzvah. At the time there were still a handful of Judaica stores operating, but both photographers were struck by the changes in the area. They set out to capture the remains of the old Jewish Lower East Side in an evolving landscape.
Yet, even as they arrived, armed with their cameras, many of the places were on the verge of disappearing. In their photos, you see a former Judaica store. It lies barricaded behind a padlocked gate, its sign “Hebrew Religious Articles” covered with spray paint. A Jewish-owned bra shop advertises it is for rent. The tablets of the Ten Commandments on a condemned former synagogue compete with a “No Parking” sign on its closed gate. And more. A wheelchair sits outside the display of black and white cookies at Moishe’s Bakery on Grand Street and implies the aging and precarious nature of the neighborhood’s remaining kosher stores. A man sits inside a makeshift Sukkah outside of Noah’s Ark Delicatessen. The plastic bubble suggests a life support system. These are dying places. A year or two later, they may be gone.
Russek and Scheinbaum do not only depict the neighborhood in decline, however. Through the lenses of their cameras, we see the process for smoking fish and gaze at a tantalizing side of salmon at Russ & Daughters. This culinary landmark is now owned by fourth-generation family members and has brought the Lower East Side brand to new outposts in Brooklyn, the Upper East Side, and beyond. We see people dancing at Sammy’s Roumanian and the bright neon sign at Katz’s Deli. These stores and restaurants may no longer serve Jewish residents in the neighborhood and, in fact, may not be kosher, but they recall the area’s Jewish heyday.
While working at the Museum at Eldridge Street, I helped pay tribute to the Jewish immigrant community of the Lower East Side, while also celebrating the neighborhood’s new immigrant context. One of the best examples is the Museum’s annual Egg Rolls, Egg Creams & Empanadas Festival, which Russek and Scheinbaum document. This joyous block party celebrates the neighborhood’s diverse cultural heritage through music, food, folk arts and crafts. Thousands of people join every year to learn about and experience Jewish, Chinese, and Puerto Rican traditions and culture.
For many people, the Lower East Side is infused with a yearning for what has passed. With the passage of time, the Lower East Side holds a central place in the American Jewish imagination, but its role has changed. The shops and the shuls and the restaurants that used to cater specifically to Jewish residents, and to Jewish families on their Sunday shopping and eating pilgrimages, now cater to tourists who have flooded the neighborhood and to the area’s new residents.
The neighborhood derives its power from the place it holds in our personal and communal memory. In the words of historian Hasia Diner, “The Lower East Side changed from being a place where many Jews had once lived to become the epicenter of American Jewish memory.” It is significant not only for the “Jewish sojourn there but also [for] the drama of the exodus from it.”
Russek and Scheinbaum recognize the sentimental pull of the neighborhood for Jewish Americans today. Yet their photographs resist nostalgia. Russek’s mother worked in the garment industry, and she says, “A lot of people romanticize the area. But for the people who lived and worked here, it wasn’t romantic.” Together their photographs tell the story of the Lower East Side two or three generations after its turn-of-the-last-century Jewish heyday.
The one constant to the Lower East Side is change. What are the future landmarks of our neighborhood? What will the area’s future photographers choose to capture? Pulled-noodles shops? The corner mom-and-pop bodega? A synagogue turned church turned Buddhist temple turned artist space?
In the 15-plus years since Russek and Scheinbaum have been working, more and more Jewish sites have been lost. The neighborhood continues to change. The photographs of Janet Russek and David Scheinbaum chronicle the Lower East Side at a particular time and place. And for this, we are indebted to them.
Excerpted by permission from Remnants, Photographs of the Lower East Sideby Janet Russek and David Scheinbaum. Copyright © 2017, published by Radius Books.
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