With the warm weather now upon us, walking tours of New York City’s historic communities beckon to us. This week’s review features one such community, which is dear to me and my family.
For over a century, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was regarded by most major historians as the largest Jewish immigrant community in America. It was the area of first settlement when Jews arrived upon these shores. They were to spend their first, and for many families, their second, generations in that neighborhood, acculturating to a new and strange world that would alter their lifestyles and religious observances almost beyond recognition.
Now, the beginning of the 21st century, this area of first settlement has become the focus of nostalgia by the fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of the original immigrants, who make occasional forays into der alter heim to satisfy old sentimental notions or just plain curiosity.
As a native of that community, my interest lies within the religious roots of American Judaism, personified by the experiences of the original settlers so long ago.
A detailed history and guide to the sites of this community was published by Columbia University Press. Titled, “Lower East Side: Remembered and Revisited,” the book was written by Joyce Mendelsohn, a lecturer on the history, culture and architecture of New York at the New School.
What makes this guide so special is that it is not just a tourist trap. It is a serious historical and geographic guide to a neighborhood that I hold dear. The sights and sounds of my childhood resonate within the pages of this book. It is truly a volume of history, fact, and a study of a community that still lives on in its descendants, no matter where they live — from the Five Towns to Beit Shemesh. Consider the following:
Every Young Israel shul owes its origins to the Lower East Siders who, 98 years ago, established the first Young Israel. Every graduate of Yeshiva University owes their education to the Lower East Siders who first established their yeshiva in humble surroundings. Every American yeshiva boy and Bais Yaakov girl owes their day school education to the founders of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, der mama yeshiva, and the original Bais Yaakov, both founded and nurtured on the Lower East Side.
The greatest poskim of a generation, who set the pace for halachic responsa on the American continent for generations to come — Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Eliyahu Henkin and Rav Tuvia Goldstein, all of sacred and blessed memory, lived their lives and saw their teachings flourish first in the Lower East Side community.
The histories of the shuls alone are worth the read — the still-vibrant Bialystoker, once the pulpit of the great Rabbi Dr. Mitchell Eskolsky, father and grandfather to the Dr. Fred Rosner and Rabbi Sholom Rosner families; the Bais Medrash Hagadol, once pulpit to Rav Ephraim Oshry, whose responsa during the Holocaust stand as a monument to the strength of our religious traditions; and the Young Israel of Manhattan, where the revival of Orthodox Judaism in America began for under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Dr. David Stern.
Whether as a prep for visiting the neighborhood or as an exercise in history, it is worth your while to buy and read Lower East Side: Remembered and Revisited. If you choose to visit, I suggest that you contact the Tenement Museum (tenement.org) and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy (nycjewishtours.org), who will serve as valuable resources in planning your visit.
But don’t forget the guide. A good reading will make your visit all the more informative.
A version of this article appeared in 2010.