Sunday, August 06, 2006

My Tisha Bav

It is night, Erev Tisha Bav, and I am headed downtown. I heard Eicha at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a modern space with curves and diagonals but now I am returning to a place I haven't visited for years. A place as far from modern as you can get. The Lower East Side.

The Lower East Side is where many of America's first Jewish immigrants came. The streets are still imprinted with the sound of Yiddish, with the footsteps of Jews hurrying to shul, with the rolling wheels of their pushcarts and the legacy of their souls. It is also a dying neighborhood whose children have left it for a thousand suburbs and towns. Like the Jerusalem that once was it sits abandoned waiting for its children who will never return.

There are rockets falling on Israel now and new ruins coming into being there but I cannot be in Israel now and so I return to our oldest home in America, to another ruin. The Williamsburg Bridge, ugliest and grimiest of Manhattan's downtown bridges is a shadowy bulk in the night. Stadium lights shine over the FDR Drive's baseball fields, though there is no one there and no game expected. The bleachers are empty and the untrodden green turf gleams eerily under the glare.

The Lower East Side was once home to millions of Jews but those Jews have long gone. It is still a unique community nonetheless, one where elderly men wear gray and plaid hats and the non-religious are as welcome in the Orthodox synagogues as the most devout. The current categories of the frum world, haredi, modern orthodox, chassidic melt here. Any shul you enter will have people from all these boxes and more. They are simply Lower East Side Jews and in the era of communities segregated by minchag, hashkafah and all that pettiness, they are a valuable treasure vanishing away.

Walled in one side by the river, the city in its infinite wisdom walled in on two more sides by huge tracts of housing projects, one that is alone over 16 blocks long. In those projects any local cop could find his way blindfolded, so familiar were they were its interiors from domestic abuse, drug, suicide and shooting calls. They cut off the Lower East Side from the rest of Manhattan strangling it in a headlock of poverty and crime. Chinatown pressed in on the third side with sweatshops, tenements crowded with a dozen illegal immigrants to a room and restaurants with slaughtered pigs in the windows. The Jewish community receded to the co-ops which the Dinkins administration did their best to plant homeless people in.

Still the" infinite wisdom" of our authorities wasn't done with the Jews of the Lower East Side yet. The congressional district for the Lower East Side was gerrymandered, sliced up, sectioned off along with pieces of Brooklyn and Queens into the city's only tri-borough congressional district. The congressman who had represented the Lower East Side was gone replaced with Nydia Velasquez heading a mostly Hispanic district in which she couldn't possibly lose. Her website mentions her district as including Latinos, Chinese and Poles. As far as she is concerned the Jews of the Lower East Side are non-persons who do not exist.

Giuliani time brought with it a new wave of development, yuppies colonized the village and flowed upward bringing with them trendy stores, bars and boutiques. Chinatown wailed. The Latinos threatened action forming GOLES, Good Old Lower East Side (a vision of the neighborhood dating back to the 70's in which the Jews had no place.) The Jews as always remained silent. Their politicians as always served others leaving no one to speak for them. For the ordinary Jews and the ordinary people.

The wealth flowed in and real estate prices went up. There are now bars coating Clinton Street like ticks. There are a dozen healthfood stores, a thousand trendy fusion restaurants opening and closing by the month, their neon signs like fireflies winking in and out of the summer night. The prices went up. The real estate value went up and the bosses on the Lower East Side, the machers and the insiders heard, Sell, Sell, Sell. The co-ops privatized. Elderly men and religious families who had cheap apartments were suddenly being offered six figure sums for them. What could they do. They sold. They sold and the yuppies moved in. The co-ops have many Jews in them still but fewer and fewer of them are religious at all. The racks are full of bikes for the aging "Peter Pans" in shorts who pull down their own six figure salaries in the dot coms of Silicon Alley and the magazines of Fifth Avenue.

And the Jewish Lower East Side is vanishing.

Ratner's where Jazz musicians, punk rockers, men from the garment district with last names like Shmulewitz and Horrowitz and towards the end frum boys out of Mir and Chaim Berlin with starched white shirts and dates named Fraidy or Mindy, had dined in the quiet dignified opulence of red velvet served by elderly waiters who had seen a generation come and go, is now a Sleepy's mattress store. The lights out front which shone so many evenings on courting couples, on famous and infamous names, on saxophonists and gangsters, on Rabbis and cutters shine on displays of foam mattresses. Oi me haya lanu.

Mestiva Tiferet Yerushalayim where Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once walked between the marble plaques lining its interior is an oasis among the 99 cent stores and tenements of Chinatown where his son, Rav David Feinstein still delivers shiurim. Traditionally Jewish Essex and Orchard Streets are a strange fusion half-chinese, half-village. The Jewish bookstores are all but gone. A handful of Jewish garment stores remain. The 2nd Avenue Deli is gone as well, Katz's exists but is non-Kosher. The Jewish community that now remains is in its synagogues. Many already gone.

The noble Pike Street synagogue like a temple of ancient days, its dignified gray masonry is befouled now with the leavings of the discount Chinese store downstairs and the idols of the Buddhist temple above. The Eldridge Street synagogue like something lifted from the streets of Seville, magically born on ships to be rescued from the mad priests of the Spanish Inquisition is half-museum now, but still it stands in all its rococo grandeur.

Mysterious, the Greek synagogue endures. Chasam Sopher has a wealthy benefactor who comes to services in a limousine. It is renovated from top to bottom with a garden on the side but lacks congregants. The Stanton Street synagogue experiments with liberalism obtaining its amateur Rabbis by the bushel from Rabbi Weiss' YCT. Magen Avraham is gone. Its roof caved in one Friday night more than a decade and a half ago. Like foxes on the temple ruins, condominiums stand there now. The Bialystoker gaudily painted on the inside still dominates the remaining Lower East Side with its red and gold like a calliope. By contrast Mestiva Tiferet Yerushalayim is all brown and dust and spiders make their home above, but Torah resounds there still over the worn cracked tile. And the Home of the Sages keeps its vigil, narrow and skinny, its peers out at Williamsburg Bridge where old men in black study the words of G-d on cushioned seats and the eternal flame burns in memory of all that was lost.

My way, circular and bewildered, takes me past all these and more. Takes me like a wandering drunk through the remnants of the Lower East Side. Takes me until unknowingly my feet lead the way to what once was the First Romanian-American congregation, Shaarei Shamayim, the gates of heaven. It must have seemed very much like the gates of heaven once upon a time. A time when Moishe Oysher, Yossele Rosenblatt, Moishe Koussevitsky, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker sang there, their operatic voices soaring high to the vast ceiling, its interior a palace impossible to describe. It persevered through the lean years, gathering its minyanim from the workers in Orchard Street's clothing trade.

Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel, a man who had he not been an Orthodox Jew and in good shape, could have passed for Santa Claus, kept it all going. Tall, always with a ready chuckle, the street was renamed after him. He died and his son took over and the roof once again, the roof always falls in. The insurance company wouldn't pay to fix it and the Synagogue fell in. Of that vast palace of the King, the Creator of earth and heaven, of the synagogue named The Gates of Heaven, all that remains standing now is a single gate. Oi me haya lanu.

Rivington Street is now lined with trendy bars and the lampposts with trendy stickers advertising bands, clubs and causes. ! 'heart' Beirut stickers are glued on everywhere. The sort of trendy propaganda trendy people tend to deploy. The night congeals blue over the eastern horizon. Light, noise, laughter leaks out of the clubs and bars. It's the 20's all over again except the alcohol is legal, just not remotely cheap. It's the 20's without the Jews, the Jews are gone.

A wooden clumsy fence of boards is set around the remains of the demolished Roumanian American Congregation. There isn't even the rubble left inside. If there was a remaining Mikdash on the Lower East Side this was it. Now it is nothing but dust on the earth. No foxes roam there but perhaps mice. Around it the village continues to grow. The space will be bought up for condominiums. The money paid will filter into the community chest as it tries to put on air of confidence and keep the Jewish community going. More shuls will surely fall. A national landmark dating back to 1858, Jewish soldiers prayed there once, Beit Medrash Hagadol is endangered. Developers want to build condos there too. It recently suffered a fire and teeters as always on the edge of time's knife.

Community Board 3 those wise authorities in cooperation with the city now have a new mandate to drastically limit development on the Lower East Side. Those good people are upset over all the bars and condominiums across the neighborhood. I am no great fan of these but I recognize that the alternative is housing projects, crack vials, muggings, murders, empty liquor bottles on every corner and homeless encampments. The bars serve yuppies. The bodegas served the sort of people who when they can't afford their malt liquor will cut your throat for it instead. The bodegas though are considered a part of the community, the bars are not. CB3 wants the Lower East Side to be a ghetto, not a Jewish ghetto of course but a ghetto ghetto. A place where people hopelessly collect and cash their welfare checks and walk among the rubble and trash to the soundtrack of screams, crying children and police sirens.

Ethnic groups who have barely been on the Lower East Side for three decades claim it as their exclusive territory. Latinos insist that the bars and village eateries are crowding out their hair salons and bodegas. Jews of course said nothing when the hair salons and bodegas crowded out our restaurants and book stores. That would have been racist. A Chinese civil rights organization shouts that Orchard Street is Chinese and that any non-Chinese development is an occupation of their territory. Oddly photos of Orchard Street from 70 years back show yarmulkes by the pushcarts. Clearly an illusion of time.

Jews though make no claim on the Lower East Side but the emotional, threaten no one but only hold on to what little there is, as it dwindles away. There is no belligerence to be found. People make their plans while the real estate mavens profit from them, profit from the destruction of a neighborhood and put out cheery bulletins branding the Lower East Side as Loho and celebrating what they have wrought. The insiders who grabbed two apartments for themselves, smashed down the walls and called it a 'Break-Through' are profiting by selling those apartments for a million or more. The parasites rejoice while new funeral notices appear daily on the walls.

I tear down an 'I 'heart' Beirut' sticker and wadding it up toss it up into the night over the wooden fence where the Romanian-American Congregation once was. It falls back down to the sidewalk into the dirt and I go uptown returning home. Oi me haya lanu.


Keliata said...

So many synagogues--and all within walking distance!

I'm sorry, you were lamenting the decline of the once vibrant neighborhood, but when I think of so many synagogues so close together I am amazed. It almost sounds too good to be true. I hope they are restored and filled with people and prayers.

Milton Bergman said...

Jews need to move there more and more and reclaim what is their own.
Revitalize it, reclaim it.
It can't be allowed to die. Not yet one more Jewish thing dead from lack of concern and care.
If you like a synagogue on every corner move here its all I have to say.
We need Jews

Akiva said...

Superb Article.

Milton - communities are born, live, grow, age, and sometimes die. Other Jewish communities not so far away are mature and full, others are growing, and a few are even being born.

Sadly, the time for this one has passed.

hashfanatic said...

Excellent piece.

A poignant look upon the past, while remaining solidly in the realities of the present.

Yobeeone said...

Really cool piece! Makes me wish I'd taken a visit to the Lower East Side when I lived in Brooklyn.

Ari Kinsberg said...

a great post.

milton bergman:

ditto to akiva. the lower east side was never "our own." we did not found the neighborhood and at no time were we the only ethnic group living there. one might argue that no other ethnic group put down roots in the neighborhood as did Jews,but i don't even know if that is true. and even if it is true, remember that the jews left the lower east side of their own accord. the jews were not kicked out as they were in europe. immigrants moved there because they had no choice, and they usually left it as soon as they made enough money to move out. its is the same story today. eveyrone always wants to move to a bigger house in a better neighborhood.

Neshama said...

That was really very touching. That was nostalgic. It's like a hesped on Jewish life in America, coupled with the doom coming upon Israel's ideology of its founding fathers. The death of the past.

Out of destruction can come regeneration. Hashem is eliminating all our idols and scaring us into teshuva. Moshiach is on his way. Do it now, don't delay. Make no doubt about it.

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