Over the weekend I took a stroll through New York’s Lower East Side with a friend. Over brunch I told my mate, who had just returned from a stint overseas, about those half coffee half tea godsends you can buy for 75 cents towards Chinatown if you know where to look. But we decided to pay too much for incense and doughnuts instead, as one does on a pretty Sunday afternoon.
In time we came upon Beth Hamedrash Hagodol, a dilapidated synagogue on Norfolk Street in a yet-to-be fully developed and/or gentrified stretch between Grand and Delancey. Its gates were locked and rusted, but they appeared malleable. I wondered if I should break in to take stock of the disrepair, but its exterior was evidence enough. I had walked by the shul many times before, but I had never felt so aware of its deterioration. Everything was faded and flaky. The building, which dates to the mid-19th century, looked completely out of breath, on the mat, down for the count. Apparently, it was once slated to be razed to make way for apartment buildings, but then the temple’s leadership had a change of heart. And yet there it stood, looking worn, demolished by neglect.
We moved on, toward Delancey Street, where a skateboarder tried some tricks inside this empty space with benches that runs parallel to the road that turns into the Williamsburg Bridge. I tend to halfheartedly joke that some intersection of Delancey Street, probably at Essex, is where I’ll meet my end.
Further, on Suffolk Street, in between Soy, a wonderful restaurant with too-small portions, and a Burger King, a symbol appeared on the side of a parking meter: a Jewish star with the word “POWER” under it. I don’t know who drew it, but it felt good to see a symbol of strength rather than hate brandished onto city property. It brought a smile to my face. I like to think the vandal was a boy who wished to mark his pride in what was once one of the densest Jewish neighborhoods in New York City. Or maybe it was an old woman who found a silver paint pen in her purse and decided to let her hands express what she felt in her heart.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.