Tag Archives: Lower East Side

Gentrification and the Jews

by Lily Hoffman Simon

Jewish immigrant communities coming to North America around the turn of the 20th century faced many problems, including poverty, anti-Semitism, and poor living conditions. Most immigrants congregated in densely populated urban neighbourhoods. Today, many immigrant areas are undergoing processes of gentrification, with contemporary shopping centres and cafes barely reflecting the impoverished history.

From the 1870s-1930s, Jewish immigrants to the US and Canada filtered through several hubs particularly prone to immigration, such as Montreal and New York, at least partly because of the large immigrant populations that already existed in these cities. As the number of Jewish immigrants grew, originating mainly from Eastern Europe, strong Jewish communities began to establish themselves in the New World. As with most immigrants arriving in North America with little or no material wealth, the new Jewish presence was concentrated at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They were enticed by the American dream, which promised those who started with nothing the opportunity to grow a business and succeed through hard work. As Jews began fulfilling that dream, they entrenched themselves culturally, establishing numerous synagogues, producing literature and developing artisan and trade skills as well as a cuisine. By extension, these immigrant communities began to flourish, posing contradicting images of extravagant synagogues alongside deteriorating tenements.

As individual citizens became successful, they quickly moved out of impoverished immigrant neighbourhoods such as the Lower East Side of Manhattan or Mile End-Plateau in Montreal. Jews began to move to more suburban, more upper-class areas, reflecting the upward mobility of the new American Jewish communities. Rich Jewish heritage and infrastructure were left behind in these upward migrations. The Jews were quick to shed themselves of the impoverished history, and conform to the image of a successful North American; in many ways, this meant shedding Jewish associations with these immigrant neighbourhoods. As Jews moved out, other poor people tended to move in.

If you were to walk down the crowded streets of the Lower East Side today, you would see the remnants of storefront synagogues among the Chinese restaurants and nail shops now dominating the area. In Montreal’s Plateau district, old mikvehs remain in the neighbourhood now dominated by Portuguese residents. Throughout the 20th century, as increasingly successful Jews left these neighbourhoods, new immigrants filtered through, filling the Jewish position as the bottom rung of socio-economic hierarchies.

These two neighbourhoods represent a greater trend in former Jewish immigrant neighbourhoods. Today, they are not only distinguished by a new lower-class immigrant group, struggling against racism and xenophobia, but are also becoming increasingly stylish and chic. Stores, hip restaurants, and nightclubs are springing up throughout the streets, attracting tourists and young people.

Despite these recent developments, it is impossible to ignore the historic importance of these neighbourhoods to Jewish life in North America. Museums and street signs are scattered throughout, expressing the timeless experiences of the early Jewish communities. Yet these areas today lack an apparent Jewish identity, as they are populated by new immigrant, lower-income communities. It is important to remember the Jewish history of these neighbourhoods, which pressured upward social mobility, alienating lower-income and unskilled citizens. Forgetting this aspect of the history is easier when we forget the Jewish roots in these neighbourhoods. The Jews’ history in these neighbourhoods, and in the impoverished, underprivileged conditions facing new immigrant communities poses a unique challenge for North American Jews: that of taking responsibility for these neighbourhoods and immigrants both socially and physically. We must prioritize preventing the repetition of history above thinking solely about contemporary Jewish privilege.

It’s cheese! It’s mustard! It’s…a knish?

By Symi Rom-Rymer

If you happened to be walking down Second Avenue in New York’s East Village last Sunday afternoon, you might have seen an unexpected sight:  a small and solemn processional of people dressed in yellow.  This was no McDonald’s protest or cheese parade.  Instead, it was a celebration and memorialization of an oft-forgotten history.

In the 1920s, Second Avenue—then part of the Jewish Lower East Side– was known for two things: Yiddish theater and food.   Artistically, it rivaled Broadway in its offerings, putting on plays by renowned playwrights such as Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw even before they reached mainstream American audiences.   So great was its popularity that when Yiddish theater great Jacob P. Adler, father of famed acting coach Stella Adler, died in 1926, two thousand people flooded the streets to pay homage.   Its popular restaurants with traditional foods such as knishes gave Second Avenue its other nickname, Knish Alley.  Its reputation as street-foodie heaven was sealed when Abe Lebewohl opened the 2nd Avenue Deli at the corner of East 10th Street and Second Avenue in 1954.  But more than just a favorite food, the knish also played, as it still does, an important role in politics.  Politicians and their wives, including Eleanor Roosevelt, would often stop by Jewish bakeries and buy knishes to cultivate the Jewish vote.

Today, amidst the hip outdoor cafes and dive bars, little remains of the avenue’s former theatrical and Jewish culinary glory.  The Yiddish theater Walk of Fame is overshadowed by a Chase Bank and the 2nd Avenue deli is now on East 33rd St.  But Laura Silver, the organizer of the processional, wants to remind people about what used to be on the avenue.   “I can’t expect to educate people about the history of Yiddish theater in five or ten minutes.  I just wanted them to learn something about the history.  I wanted to show that there is something here that they are missing.  I wanted to create a spectacle, because it’s harder to avoid.  I don’t want to assault people but I want to get them to ask questions and take a closer look. It’s for Jews but it’s also for a mainstream audience.  And when we took out mini-knishes, people swarmed to us.”

One female bystander commented to one of the participants that she didn’t know what the parade was for but that “it’s so beautiful.  I’m sure it’s for a great cause.”  Others shouted out, “It’s a knish! It’s a knish!”  But the most powerful moment of the afternoon was an unscripted appearance by Binah, an elderly woman passerby who grew up going to the Yiddish theaters and eating knishes from Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery.  With a wide smile, she remembered how good they were and said, “made with either buttermilk or sour milk, they were heaven.  God how I loved them.”

In the middle of the processional, Silver led her group into a movie theater that used to be a Yiddish theater.  “Inside, there was a movie playing there called I Spit on Your Grave and and I thought, ‘we’re doing the opposite.  We’re polishing the gravestone, we’re paying homage.’”

Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.