- Historic Sites
Welcome To America
A walk through the old Jewish Lower East Side of New York City recalls the era when that battered, close-packed quarter was a high-pressure machine for the manufacture of Americans
April 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 2
In the early 1900s the Eldridge Street Synagogue hired an Odessa chazan (cantor) and a choir for the holiday season for a fee announced at five thousand dollars for his services and passage, a very expensive way to show up the other congregations, but what a ram’s-horn blast for the first synagogue built anywhere in the country by an Orthodox congregation.
After 1887 a newly arrived shtetl (smalltown) Jew would have been stunned at the sight of the grand Moorish-Romanesque-somewhat Gothic facade of K’hal Adath Jeshurun, otherwise known as the Eldridge Street Synagogue. So was I. Perhaps even more so was Dr. Gerard R. Wolfe, a leading scholar of the history of the area, when he ventured into its abandoned sanctuary in 1971. Wolfe pried open doors that had been shut for years and reported that what he found made his neck hair stand up: a seventy-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling, a majestic brass chandelier, an unbroken rose window, a splendid wooden ark and prayer lectern, and murals that make this one of the most imposing spaces anywhere in the city.
Thanks to Wolfe’s pioneering efforts, and to old congregants, a foundation or two, and the preservationist and architectural critic Roberta Brandes Gratz, the once-doomed synagogue is now on the National Register of Historic Places and undergoing renovation.
Back on Canal the walker finds another broad, heavily trafficked thoroughfare to cross. Now a wide boulevard, with a planted, bench-lined median, Alien Street was for years a narrow, dark corridor of tenements, filled with sweatshops and topped by the rails of the Second Avenue elevated. Jacob Riis described the half-mile from Division Street to Houston, as it could be seen from the windows of the el train, as one unbroken string of small, airless apartments dedicated to the production of pants, skirts, cloaks, shirts, and other garments, each with at least one sewing machine operator, a steam presser, basters, and finishers.
For many years Alien was also a center of the making and selling of brass and copperware, a trade that lent the street a strong touch of the exotic, even to the Eastern European Jews of the district, because the people in this business were Sephardic Jews from Armenia, Turkey, and other Levantine jurisdictions. Their basement workshops blazed and crackled with the flames and heat of their furnaces. Harry Roskolenko, who spent his boyhood on the Lower East Side, thought them Gentiles because they did not speak Yiddish, were swarthy, and dressed and behaved like the characters he read about in The Arabian Nights. They spoke Ladino, not Yiddish, and watched belly dancers, drank dark coffee, and smoked the hookah in basement cafés.
Allen Street shamed and frightened the newly arrived immigrants because it was also a red-light district. Many of the tenements were bordellos, where prostitutes courted customers with loud explicitness from stoops and windowsills. Worse, the schande (scandal) was that many of these women were Jewish, a terribly shocking fact to the pious, who revered their womenfolk for chastity before marriage and ritual restraint afterward.
Prostitutes had no want of customers. Not only were many of the men of the area without their families, but the district lay near the harbor and just a block from the lusty Bowery. The “social evil,” as reformers called it, was well settled downtown and well protected by politicians, police, and judges.
At the southwest corner of Canal and Orchard streets is the impressive formal entrance to the bank Sender Jarmulowsky founded in 1873 and housed in this neoclassical skyscraper he built around 1895. Jarmulowsky’s rise was one of those Horatio Alger stories that dazzled and emboldened the hardworking poor of the old neighborhood.
He began as a pushcart peddler, then moved up to selling goods to steady customers: a fine linen tablecloth for the Sabbath, silverware, perhaps silver candlesticks to replace those stolen at Ellis, furniture. Jarmulowsky extended credit and opened a “passage and exchange” office, where he bought steerage passages in bulk and offered his customers a chance to “pay out” the cost of bringing their relations from the other side “on time,” precisely the way they bought bedroom sets. He also exchanged hard-earned greenbacks for the red-backed Russian rubles the toilers of the ghetto remitted back home. Extending credit, operating in the foreign currency markets, branching out to taking deposits, buying mortgages—a banker.
Jarmulowsky’s bank, alas, failed in August 1914, when the neighborhood called up all its liquidity to send passage money to relations in the old country before the war trapped them for good.