- 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
The streets were the stage sets on which the drama of Americanization, “ungreening,” could be seen in its various stages. Men who had just forsaken long black gabardines for American-cut suits and yarmulkes for derby hats strode Grand Street arm in arm with women who had just forsworn dark, long-sleeved dresses and wigs. Talmudic hairsplitters argued that the law spoke only against shaving with a blade; they bought rank-smelling kosher depilatories to do their unbearding. After sidelocks and beards, in a slow but sure erosion, many forsook the Sabbath, kosher observance, and, often enough, most of the Jewish daily observance. So had the old ways gone with the conceited uptown Reform German Jews, out the window.
In the evenings crowds swarmed on the streets for “some air"; Cahan said the phrase was spoken as if it had quotation marks around it. Couples would window-shop mostly, too poor for more than wistful looks at the finery in brightly lit showcases. But an ice-cream soda at one of the new parlors was within their means. On the bibulous Lower East Side, Jews fell in love with that wonder out of the miraculous nineteenth century, carbonated water, otherwise known as seltzer or the “workingman’s champagne.” In the one-third of a square mile near Grand Street around 1910, there were no fewer than seventy-three soda fountains, nine dancing academies and halls, and eight movie houses. Young women, making shirtwaist dresses uptown at firms like the Triangle Company, began to wear Gibsongirl outfits and to think like American girls. Shtetl-bred habits of long duration dissolved at the swish of style and the spritz of soda water.
Grand Street’s couples were walking their way into romantic marriages and out of the old habits of arrangements made between families with the services of shadchonim (matchmakers). Many Grand Street unions were quick and quiet affairs performed by so-called “rabbis for business only,” who set out shingles, asked no searching questions, and hitched the impatient.
For more than one hundred years Grand was traditionally given over to bridal wear. When the immigrant population was at its greatest and poorest, a bride’s dress might be rented for the wedding and returned after the weddingnight honeymoon the next morning as the newlywed girl made her way to work.
At Rivington Street a peek into Schapiro’s Winery, just this side of Norfolk Street, is proof that not all the business of the Lower East Side was housed on the streets. Schapiro’s, the only working winery in Manhattan, has been in business since 1899. A long look eastward to the corner of Suffolk Street will show you Aaron Streifs matzoh bakery.
Just to the west, between Ludlow and Orchard streets, tucked in the middle of a block clogged with small clothing stores, is First Roumanian-American, also known as Shaarai Shamoyim. Built as a Methodist church in 1888 and purchased by this congregation just four years later, it is the only Romanesque synagogue on the Lower East Side. Its huge sixteen-hundred-seat auditorium was for years filled to overflowing with crowds drawn by a chorus of great cantors: Kwartin, Oysher, Peerce, Koussevitsky, and, incontestably the greatest, Yossele Rosenblatt.
Rosenblatt sold as many Red Seal recordings as Caruso, who graciously conceded that Yossele’s voice came closer than any others to matching his own. Rosenblatt commanded four registers, from a deep baritone through the tenor range and up to a controlled falsetto that made the silver ornaments on the Torah scrolls jingle and dance.
The strength and beauty of the cantor’s voice imploring God’s justice, mercy, and forgiveness at Yom Kippur for a stiff-necked, hard-used, and often wayward people touched the hearts of the entire congregation. A great cantor was needed to sing the major holidays because he was able to pronounce each word clearly and by great study knew each word’s meaning, unlike daily prayer leaders, who knew what they knew by rote. The cantor was an advocate, his client Israel, his courtroom the bar of heaven.
Despite the depleted Jewish population of the area, making a minyan (the minimum of ten men required to read daily services) at First Roumanian is, surprisingly, no problem; many local businessmen who live elsewhere choose to pray in the morning and evening here, before they open and after they close their shops. Still, the auditorium is never filled; there are no big-name cantors and no choir.
Sundays are the best time to walk the streets of the Lower East Side, thronged then with shoppers, especially on Orchard Street, which, closed to automobile traffic from Delancey to Houston, is as dense with varied humanity as the old photographs. Shops spill out onto the sidewalk, and there are bargains upon bargains, but the old life-and-death haggling is for the most part no more.