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A Living Jewish Museum

In its turn-of-last-century heyday, the Lower East Side was home to a flourishing international Jewish community. These days, it has a much different flavor—with bodegas, bistros, and Buddhist temples overtaking defunct synagogues and shmatte shops. Tour the remnants of a gritty, tumultuous, and Jewish past at the stops below.


Stained-glass windows in the Eldridge Street Synagogue.  

RELIGIOUS SITES

Eldridge Street Synagogue
12 Eldridge St., nr. Division St.; 212-219-0888.
Wedged between Chinese restaurants, fish markets, and hair salons, the temple was designed and built more than a century ago, becoming the first Eastern European Orthodox Jewish synagogue in America. The recently renovated building (now officially known as the Museum at Eldridge Street) reflects a mix of Moorish, Romanesque, and Gothic influences, with 70-foot vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows, intricate carvings, and trompe l’oei murals. The congregation is still active, celebrating the Sabbath and performing religious services in the first-floor bes medrash. Docents provide informal tours, and visitors are welcome to wander, snap photos, or scan the selection of postcards and topical books.

Kehila Kedosha Janina
280 Broome St., at Allen St.; 212-431-1619; kkjsm.org.
The only Romaniote (Greek Jewish) synagogue remaining in the Western hemisphere, Kehila Kedosha Janina keeps alive the traditions of its founders, a band of Jewish immigrants from the Greek village of Janina who established the synagogue in 1927. Their descendents have recorded prayers and excerpts from weekly services and converted the balcony—traditionally reserved for women—into a simple museum. Maps, posters, photographs, brochures, and a brief video trace the history of the Romaniotes. Docents are on hand to lead casual tours.

Angel Orensanz Foundation
172 Norfolk St., nr. E. Houston St.; 212-529-7194; orensanz.org.
The oldest synagogue building in the city had been shut down and systematically vandalized for over a decade when Spanish sculptor Angel Orensanz swooped in, purchasing the property in 1986 and converting it into an art studio. Now known as the Angel Orensanz Foundation, the synagogue was designed by Berlin-born architect Alexander Saelzer, who intended for it to resemble the Cologne Cathedral. Upon its opening in 1849, it was the largest synagogue in the country and could hold up to 1,500 worshippers. Orensanz’s foundation continues to host occasional shabbas services—in addition to a vast array of cultural programs—and is a popular spot for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Bialystoker Synagogue
7-11 Willett St., nr. Grand St.; 212-475-0165; bialystoker.org.
Built in 1826, the Federal-style building originally housed a Methodist church and served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. A door along the balcony exposes a roughly 200-year-old ladder leading to an attic where Canada-bound slaves hid during the Civil War. In 1905 a congregation of Polish Jews from Bialystok converted the building into a synagogue, transporting a stunning, three-story ark from Italy. Paintings of zodiac symbols corresponding to Jewish calendar months span the sanctuary ceiling. Bialystoker offers frequent services to its 500-member congregation.

NEIGHBORHOOD ATTRACTIONS

Lower East Side Tenement Museum
97 Orchard St., nr. Delancey St.; 877-975-3786
A guided tour is your only way into this five-floor landmark built in 1863, whose apartments have been furnished to interpret the lives of former residents. Tour groups cluster in the narrow, dim, crumbling, and yet surprisingly ornate entryway before heading upstairs to visit the apartments. On one tour, the lives of garment workers are played out—from the birth of a shop owner's son to a shivah call for a family mourning a tuberculosis victim. Tour tickets are sold at the gift shop, which also carries black-and-white historic postcards, journals, and a slew of books on New York.

East Broadway Landmarks
Take a detour along a quiet stretch of East Broadway, home to a handful of turn-of-the-century Jewish landmarks as well as a small, active Orthodox community.

• The imposing Forward Building (175 E. Broadway, at Canal St.) was once the headquarters of The Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language paper that promoted social reform while striving to expose its readers to American culture and customs.

• Down the block lies the Educational Alliance (197 E. Broadway, nr. Clinton St.; 212-780-2300; edalliance.org), a community center established in 1889 to provide immigrants with language and art classes (only the latter are still offered), a library, and assistance in “Americanizing.”

• Keep heading north and you’ll hit Shtiebel Row Row (E. Broadway, between Clinton and Montgomery Sts.), a series of former tenements converted into shuls where worshippers still gather.

• The nearby Henry Street Settlement (265 Henry St., nr. Montgomery St.; 212-766-9200; henrystreet.org), founded by social worker Lillian Wald in 1893, offers numerous educational and social services, while also contributing to the work of the Abrons Arts Center, a collection of theaters, art studios, and dance spaces found across the street.

JEWISH EATS

Katz’s Delicatessen
205 Houston St., at Ludlow St.; 212-254-2246.
The oldest deli in New York (est. 1888), and the only one where the pastrami and corned beef are still hand-cut, Katz’s is loved equally by tourists and locals. Take a ticket upon entering (don’t lose it—you’ll need it to get by the cash-register clerks on the way out) and choose whether to wait for table service or brave the lines. Photos of celebrities and politicians plaster the walls; neon signs urge “Send a salami to your boy in the army” and another one points to the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal sat during the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally. A word of warning: This may be a bargain district, but the sandwiches aren’t cheap ($10.55 for a salami sub?).

Russ & Daughters
179 E. Houston St., nr. First Ave.; 212-475-4880.
Dried fruits and nuts, chocolates and cheeses line the shelves of this pristine specialty-food shop, run by the Russ family since 1914. Little inside the shop has changed since then, as evidenced by the historic photographs above the counters. Fish is still the biggest draw—from the classic bagel and lox to nova, smoked salmon, homemade pickled herring, and Caspian Sea caviar.

Streit’s Matzo Company
148-154 Rivington St., at Suffolk St.; 212-475-7000; streitsmatzos.com.
Family-owned and operated for five generations, Streit’s is the last matzo factory left in the neighborhood. Step inside the kosher shop and peer through windows into the oven-filled space where all the matzos are made—lightly salted, egg and onion, whole wheat, and more. Ask around and chances are a family member will give you a tour.

Note that many of these stops are closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and that some of the featured synagogues have limited visiting hours. Visitors are advised to call and schedule an appointment in advance.


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