- 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
But if much of the old uproar has subsided, the delicacies sold along East Houston Street seem to be the stuff of eternity. “Soul food” would not be an inaccurate description of the cheeses, cured fish, and knishes that are the stock-in-trade of the firms here. On Sundays lines of those purchasing the traditional makings of a Jewish brunch are as long as they would be for a hit show. Cars with out-of-state license plates double-park as their owners stock up on lox, smoked whitefish, pickled herring, and smoked sturgeon. Next door to Russ & Daughters, the shop with the widest, and cheapest, selection of fish delicacies, is Moishe’s Homemade Kosher Bakery, where the hungry can find the bagels, challahs, and black breads that fill out the traditional bill of fare.
Like Yonah Schimmel’s famous knishes bakery, a few blocks west, the stores are modest, and they can almost be heard to say that they are the real thing, the working landmarks of the Lower East Side’s heyday.
So, too, is Ratner’s Restaurant (see pages 68-69), still thriving over on Delancey Street, a narrow thoroughfare dramatically widened in 1900 when demolition began to prepare for the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge, which opened in 1903, became, in the words of the New York Herald, the “Jew’s Highway,” a thoroughfare allowing thousands to escape to northern Brooklyn and “better rooms,” the deceptively simple phrase that summed up so many local dreams.
After a nosh (snack), dedicated walkers should turn the corner west on Houston and Chrystie streets, where they will come upon Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. The product of a New Deal slum-clearance project, the park was created by razing “lung blocks,” back-toback tenements so called because of the “Jewish asthma"—tuberculosis—they cultivated.
Economic disaster after 1929 did not convert the majority of the working-class Jewish population to socialism. By 1936 New York’s Jews were enthralled by the New Deal, and the President’s mother was honored in the heart of the unavowed matriarchy of the ghetto’s remnant. Franklin Roosevelt became the Grand Rabbi the Lower East Side never had. So deeply did its citizens venerate him, it was said, that for Lower East Siders there were three worlds: “Di velt yene velt, and Roose-velt ” meaning “This world, the other world, and FDR.” (Written out, it proves the old Yiddishists’ lament that the best of Yiddish humor is untranslatable.)
Turning north again, where Chrystie becomes Second Avenue, I usually walk up Second, following the route taken by theaters as more and more immigrants poured into lower Manhattan. I like to stop at the Second Avenue Deli on Tenth Street, whose proprietor, Abe Lebewohl, had the inspired idea to create a “Sidewalk of Stars” to honor the Yiddish theater of days gone by. Molly Picon, Menashe Skulnik, Aaron Lebedeff, Leo Fuchs, Miriam Kressyn, Maurice Schwartz, and Jacob P. Adler are among the names inscribed in the pavement fronting the well-known pastrami parlor. Most of these luminaries were unknown to the general public, but they were legends down here. However, one name, at least, earned general fame: Muni Weisenfreund, who as Paul Muni conquered Broadway and then Hollywood.
Moscowitz and Lupowitz, one of the cut-glass, chandeliered, and linen-tablecloth tonier restaurants, is long gone, as is the Café Monopole, where Sophie Tucker began her career literally singing for her supper, and—the worst loss of all—the Café Royale has vanished from Twelfth Street, where it was the Sardi’s of the profession, the Algonquin of the Yiddish literati.
The Central Plaza no longer welcomes the yearly balls of the old landsleit groups; it is part of New York University’s Tisch Center for the Arts. Marquees gone, boarded up, transmuted into stores and clubs, remnants of the Jewish Rialto nevertheless can still be found.
Yiddish, traditionally, was the spoken language of the immigrants; Hebrew was written and sacred. Once writers took to Yiddish and the stage, they had a rich tradition of dialogue to call on.
“Realists” despised the standard fare of “Bowery melodramas,” historical extravaganzas, operettas and formula romances. These were schmatte plays or schund (rags and junk) to the serious playwrights who eschewed music, operetta histories, and mere burlesque. The combative Jacob Gordin, the paladin of the realists was a Russian intellectual who came to writing Yiddish late and used his plays as a vehicle to propagandize for social justice and the emancipation of women. Gordin took to appropriating the plots of Shakespeare for his inspiration, and his Yiddish King Lear and Yiddish Queen Lear became great hits.