The Lower East Side rises
THE LOWER EAST Side is rising. Luxury condominiums and hotels now overshadow old tenements, the cradle of American Jewry. For the community left here, the roof has caved in — quite literally at the First Romanian-American Synagogue, formerly on Rivington Street. An empty plot attests to the vacuum left by its collapse last year, one year short of its 150th anniversary.
“When Ratner’s closed, that truly marked the end of the era,” remembers Yosef Shoshani, 31, who, along with his father, was a waiter at the cel- ebrated kosher restaurant on Delancey Street. After it sold its last blintz, it was converted into a mattress store. On its parking lot, a 16-storey luxury condo has risen.
But as in London’s East End, a new wave of young Jews is returning to the tenements from which their grandparents were eager to escape. Seeking the haimishe experience, they nosh at Katz’s Deli, scene of Meg Ryan’s famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally.
Shoshani, along with his seven siblings, was born and bred in the Orthodox community of the Lower East Side. Just 500 or so families remain.
There has been an exodus from the area as many do not have, or cannot afford, the space to stay. So the new developments are seen as a mixed blessing. They provide much-needed housing, but those moving in are removed from the community.
Over Shabbos kiddush of kugel and cholent, Yosef explains further. “This area was once home to the most densely populated Jewish community in the world, and home to the world’s finest kosher cuisine. But these days, instead of high-rise chopped-liver sandwiches on rye, we have high-rise buildings.” Today there is only one kosher deli in the area, appropriately named Noah’s Ark. Just 50 years ago, there were a couple on every block.
Things may be about to change for the better. Shoshani, barmitzvahed at the Romanian, now leads the minyan at the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, the first purpose-built shul in the Lower East Side. Its 120th anniversary this year will be marked with a $20m (£10m) preservation project, due to be completed in December.
The congregation at Eldridge Street is small in number, but big in spirit. Shoshani hopes that the restored synagogue, and a new museum, will entice more Jews to return. “Just as the shul welcomed new immigrants a century ago, our doors remain open today for the new residents.”
Just this past week, the scaffolding has been removed to reveal the intricately painted 70ft ceilings. Those journeying to the Lower East Side will soon be able to experience again the old synagogue in all its majesty — and hear Shoshani’s prayers raise the roof, hopefully even higher, as he strives to help rebuild the community too. David Russell is the New York correspondent of Jewish Renaissance