The Lower East Side rises

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY DAVID RUS­SELL

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

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