Tag Archives: Jewish New York

The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue: Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein

PODCAST Fifth Avenue’s role in the ‘revolution’ of beauty, as led by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, New York’s boldest businesswomen of the Jazz Age.

The Midtown Manhattan stretch of Fifth Avenue, once known for its ensemble of extravagant mansions owned by the Gilded Age’s wealthiest families, went through an astonishing makeover one hundred years ago. Many lavish abodes of the rich were turned into exclusive retail boutiques, catering to the very sorts of people who once lived here.

On the forefront of this transformation were two women from very different backgrounds. Elizabeth Arden was a Canadian entrepreneur, looking to establish her business in the growing city of New York. Helena Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, already owned an established company and looked to Manhattan as a way to anchor her business in America.

Their products — beauty! Creams, lotions, ointments and cleansers. Then later: eye-liners, rouges, lipsticks, mascaras.

In this episode we observe the growing independence of American woman and the changing beauty standards which arose in the 1910s and 20s, bringing ‘the painted face’ into the mainstream.

And it’s in large part thanks to these two extraordinary businesswomen, crafting two parallel empires in a corporate framework usually reserved for men.

ALSO: Theda Bara, Estee Lauder, Max Factor and a whole lot of sheep and horses!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


FURTHER LISTENING — Check out our spin-off podcast The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences, in particular, the episode on the invention of the bikini — The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Revolution

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING: If you liked this episode, you might also like:

Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss

Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michèle Fitoussi

“The Powder and the Glory” Documentary produced, written, and directed by Ann Carol Grossman & Arnie Reisman

War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead

A few images of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 57th, in the years of transition — from residential to retail.




Museum of the City of New York


1922 — Fifth Avenue and 57th Street

The Collis Huntington mansion on 57th and Fifth Avenue. Helena Rubinstein moved her salon in here in the mid 1920s.

Elizabeth Arden, circa 1915, near the start of her career.

Helena Rubenstein, photo date 1924

An example of Helena’s Valaze cream, made from lanolin


A selection of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein vintage ads, courtesy Vintage Ad Browser


A variety of facial treatments from a Helena Rubinstein salon, circa 1941

Nina Leen/Photography


Helena employed many of her family members.  Mala Rubinstein, Helena Rubinstein’s niece, shows the ladies how beauty is done at the 715 Fifth Avenue salon

Courtesy NYT Photograph by Bradford Robotham

The commercial featured on this week’s show!

A very affected presentation, but this video does show Rubinstein in action!

The “beauty process” was in vogue by the 1930s as evidenced by this short film starring Hollywood film actress Constance Bennett.

Helena Rubinstein latched onto Hollywood celebrities both as a way to inspire beauty regiment — and, of course, to sell more products.

For Theda Bara, Helena even sold a line of ‘vamp’ make-up, tying into her scandalous reputation. (Read more about Theda Bara here.)


Even Marilyn Monroe was an Elizabeth Arden fan, frequently popping into the New York salon.


The Grand Tale of Orchard Street and Life on the Lower East Side

PODCAST  The Lower East Side is one of the most important neighborhoods in America with a rich history as dense as its former living quarters.  Thousands of immigrants experienced American life on these many crowded streets. In this podcast, we look at this extraordinary cultural phenomenon through the lens of one of those — Orchard Street.

Its name traces itself to a literal orchard, owned by James De Lancey, a wealthy landowner and Loyalist during the Revolutionary War.  By the 1840s the former orchard and farm was divided up into lots, and a brand new form of housing — the tenement — served new Irish and German communities who had just arrived in the United States.

A few decades later those residents were replaced by Russian and Eastern European newcomers, brought to the neighborhood due to its affordability and its established Jewish character.

Living conditions were poor and most tenement apartment doubled as workspaces.  Meanwhile, in the streets, tight conditions required a unique retail solution — the push cart, a form of independent enterprise that has given us some businesses that still thrive on Orchard Street today.

You can see this century-old life along Orchard Street today, if you know where to look. Luckily that’s what we’re here for! With some help from Adam Steinberg at the Tenement Museum, where the best place to interact with a preserved view of the old days.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #183: Orchard Street: Life In The Lower East Side

Below: “Imported Americans” — from a photo card, courtesy Library of Congress




The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

Starting this month, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


A look at the property of James De Lancey and his sophisticated plans to turn his farm into a wealthy neighborhood, probably in the spirit of St. John’s Park. The blog Manhattan Unlocked goes really deep into the story of De Lancey’s land holdings here.



I’m not sure where this picture was taken but it illustrates a cluster of buildings constructed before the advent of tenement construction.


Here’s a selection of photographs from the archives of the Museum of the City of New York, illustrating the clogged streets of Orchard and Hester Streets, busy with the commerce of the day.  All of these are from 1898.





The home sweatshops, cramming an industry and several people into the parlor of a tenement building.  Here’s a necktie ‘factory’ on Division Street in 1890.

Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York


And another from 1911. Child labor in full view!



Ridley’s Department Store on the corner of Grand and Orchard Streets. They’ve really cleaned up the streets in this advertisement, haven’t they?

Courtesy the Tenement Museum
Courtesy the Tenement Museum


Here’s what all that mess on Orchard Street looks like in the winter! Pictured here in 1926.

Courtesy New York Daily News
Courtesy New York Daily News


An Allen Street tenement fire escape from 1890, obviously used for more purposes than emergencies! [source]

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York


This photo was taken in 1908 (or somewhere around that date) showing a bit of the expansion of Delancey Street. Workers labor in the street while a Jewish boy looks on. (Department of Records)




An overhead view of the intersection of East Broadway, Essex Street, Division Street and Canal Street, showing Seward Park and the library, both built to provide air and education to the Lower East Side.  Photo is from 1928. [source]


An extraordinary view of Delancey Street in 1904 during the widening process for access to the Wililamsburg Bridge.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


And here’s what Delancey looked like in 1928. This is from the top of a hotel from Delancey and Chrystie. You can see the elevated train that went down Allen Street. Orchard Street is the next block in the distance.  Allen Street too was subject to expansion. And see the building labeled  Bank of the United States? Here’s a little bit more about its fascinating history.



Hyman Moscot stands outside of his shop at 94 Rivington Street sometime in 1934.  He began his business selling eyeglasses out of a pushcart.

Courtesy Sol Moscot
Courtesy Sol Moscot


A men’s tie peddler has some success selling his ties on the street corner at Orchard Street and Delancey. Courtesy New York Public Library. Click here for more historic views of this corner.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


The Lower East Side in the 1930s — less crowded in the streets with very active storefronts.

Courtesy Trace Work
Courtesy Trace Work

Jarmulowsky’s Bank at Orchard and Canal. The perch at top is no longer on the building. It was originally built there because Sender Jarmulowsky wanted to have the tallest building in the Lower East Side.



The interior of 97 Orchard Street (today’s Tenement Museum) in 1988.

Courtesy the Tenement Museum
Courtesy the Tenement Museum


A big thanks to Adam Steinberg at the Tenement Museum! Visit their website for more information.


Happy Rosh Hashanah! Images of Jewish New Years’ past

Look to the stars children! A vintage Rosh Hashanah card manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company in the 1920s.

Rosh Hashanah is here — the first of Tishrei, year 5775.  Presented here are a selection of photographs from the Library of Congress depicting Jewish New Yorkers celebrating the new year (or, at least, on their way home to start the festivities).  These images date from 1909-1915, although most are 1912.  As most of these photographs were possibly taken (or labeled) by non-Jewish photographers, some of the meaning is a little lost.  If you have any insights into these images, please leave a comment!

And there’s some detective work to be done here. For instance, anyone recognize this synagogue?

One hundred years ago, Jewish New Year celebrations were especially fraught due to the events in Europe. Ethnics groups from embattled countries, in fear their rituals made them targets for local violence, made doubly sure to distance themselves for the politics of the day, while affirming their continuing connection to their Jewish brethren.

A leader of the reformed Jewish congregation proclaimed, “The conservative and patriotic citizenship of America refrains from endorsing the attitude of any country involved in the horrible European conflict. … [O]ur hearts go out to the 300,000 men in the Russian army who, having bled and suffered at the hands of their country on account of being Jews, are now suffering and dying for their country because as Jews they are loyal to the flag under which they live.” [source]

This one is dated September 1912 although there was not a “Jewish New Year Parade” and this is hardly an image of a parade anyway!

There appear to be a series of old Rosh Hashanah photographs focusing on boot blacks polishing the shoes of young ladies.  I doubt this was an actual custom but more a recognition of the fact that many young boot blacks came from Jewish families. (However, for Passover, people leave their shoes at the door.)

The smile of the girl at center is totally making my day:

Here’s a telling detail from 1914:  New Jersey decided to hold a statewide primary election on the same day as Rosh Hashanah that year, disenfranchising thousands of Jewish voters “who are prohibited from signing their name.” Registering to vote was quite different back in the day; luckily, there was an alternate date provided that fell before the holiday, but no attempts were made to actually move election day.  [source]

Then there’s this captivating image:

So what’s going on in the picture above, taken on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1909?  Per some commentary from a Library of Congress commenter:  “If this was photo was indeed taken around Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) as the notation implies then these people are most likely taking part in a “tashlich” ceremony. The ceremony is when the previous year’s sins are symbolically “cast off” by throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water.”

And finally here’s some rather imaginative Jewish New Year postcards that were manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company sometime in the 1920s.  While the company was located in Brooklyn, all of these were actually manufactured in Germany. 

Joyful mourning: The Lower East Side honors a forgotten star

An extraordinary photograph of Yiddish theater stars!  Front row: Jacob Adler, Sigmund Feinman, Sigmund Mogulesko, Rudolph Marx;  Back row: Mr. Krastoshinsky and David Kessler

For a passionate sub-set of New Yorkers, Mogulesko was everything.

The Romanian-born theater star Sigmund (also written as Zigmund or Zelig) Mogulesko came to America in 1886 already a star of Europe’s Yiddish theater scene. Intrepid performers like Mogulesko helped create the Yiddish theater circuit during this decade — and, by extension, vaudeville as well, since so many of its performers would start here.

When he opened the Rumanian Opera House (later, the National Jewish Theatre) on Second Avenue and Houston Street, Mogulesko wasn’t just opening a stage. It became a vital instrument of the community and a key destination in New York’s thriving ‘little Broadway’, opera stages and vaudeville houses along Houston Street and Second Avenue uniquely catering to the immigrants of the Lower East Side.

Mogulesko became America’s most popular Yiddish theater star by the 1900s, a singer and comedian with an uncanny ability to pluck the heart strings. His debut in Coquettish Ladies required a myriad of costume changes, from old to young, male to female. A Jewish historian wrote, “A born genius he was, and his personality was as marvelous as his art.” [source]

Below:  Mogulesko in Joseph Lateiner’s The Dybbuk (performed in Odessa in 1884) playing the character “Grandmother Eve”

At the same time, he was little known in other parts of New York. (He allegedly never learned to speak English.)  The more formal elements of the “legitimate” stage sometimes looked at the successes of the Lower East Side theater scene with bemusement and a little jealousy. “These alien citizens have a theater which they thoroughly comprehend and esteem,” said the New York Times in 1914. [source]

Mogulesko, at right, with his son Julius:

This accounts for the passion held by many for the performers of Yiddish stage, the embrace of an entertainment form that was undeniably theirs in language and custom.  And this also accounts for the great outpouring of grief when one of its most acclaimed stars — like Sigmund Mogulesko — passed away.

On February 4, 1914, the great actor died in his home at Stuyvesant Street, eliciting a response from the Lower East Side that, from the outside, must have appeared quite hysterical. (Below: From the New York Sun, February 7, 1914)

His memorial service at his theater on Houston and Second Avenue caused a spectacular riot of mourning.  Over 20,000 people arrived at the theater, fighting past 50 police officers swinging their clubs.  “The crowd tore the theatre doors from their hinges and shattered their glass panels.” [source]

A funeral procession lined the streets all along Second Avenue, from the Hebrew Actors Club (at 31 East 7th Street) to the theater.  The hearse transporting the actor’s body was engulfed “in the sea of those who hummed with queer breaks in their voices bits of the songs which had endeared the author to them.” [source]  Not since the explosion of the General Slocum steamship had the Lower East Side been filled with such intense grief.

Among those who spoke at his memorial service were Jacob Adler (father of method acting coach Stella Adler) and Boris Thomashefsky, a later inspiration for the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks.  Sadness — and a certain kind of joy — permeated the service, his greatest roles and contributions to the local theater scene lauded.  It was now a vital industry of New York, one that would not have thrived as it did without him.

As Moguloesko’s coffin was taken from the church, drawn by eight black horses, and carried through the falling show, all of Delancey Street was lined with thousands of mourners, watching as the hearse, now obscured in a blizzard, headed onto the Williamsburg Bridge for its eventual destination — Washington Cemetery.

All photos (except the newspaper) from the Second Avenue Yiddish Theater Digital Archives.

The religious controversy behind a lonely Roman column just standing around by itself in Flushing Meadows Park

The second oldest manmade object in New York City — outside, that is, not in a museum or private collection — is a solitary little Roman column built in 120 AD for the Temple of Artemis in the ancient city of Jerash.  It once stood among a chorus of ‘whispering columns’, creating an effect in the temple which would magnify the human voice.

So why is it standing all alone in Flushing Meadows Park in Queens?

At right: The column stands alone, with the Unisphere in the background. Courtesy Flickr/Christoslilu

It was a gift of the Kingdom of Jordan for the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65, presented on April 22, 1964, by the young King Hussein to none other than Robert Moses. What did those two have to talk about?

The Jordanian Pavilion at the World’s Fair was a particularly unusual addition to the unofficial (and incomplete) league of nations at the fair. Despite its almost alien appearance — curved and encrusted with gold mosaics — it was one of the most religious buildings there, embodying imagery of both the Christian and Muslim faiths.

Sculptural displays of Stations of the Cross by Antonio Saura decorated the exterior, and bright stained glass windows lit up spectacularly at night.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were displayed alongside a replica of the Dome of the Rock, and visitors could shop at a jewelry bazaar or eat traditional Middle Eastern food in the snack shop.

But despite the many artifacts of great historical provenance, the most controversial thing in this odd building were a set of newly painted murals.

Some Jewish visitors to the pavilion were immediately offended by one particular mural depicting a young refugee expounding in a lengthy text about the Israeli-Palestinian situation at the Jordanian border.  “The strangers, once thought terror’s victims, became terror’s practitioners,” it said, implicating the Israelis (but never mentioning them by name).

“But even now, to protect their gains, illgot, as if the lands were theirs and had the right,” went the mural, “they’re threatening to disturb the Jordan’s course and make the desert bloom with warriors.”

Below:  The controversial Jordanian mural (Courtesy the excellent tribute site NYWF64 )

Organizers at the American-Israeli Pavilion wrote Moses to complain, saying the murals were not in keeping with the fair’s theme of “Peace Through Understanding.”  Moses (pictured below) initially rejected the request, but Mayor Robert Wagner, perhaps in an intentional slight to the former parks commissioner, promised to have the murals removed.

Members of the City Council even proposed a bill forcing the fair to remove the mural.  The Jordanians replied that they would rather close the pavilion than tear down the murals under pressure.  Israeli protesters picketed the pavilion;  at one point, the Jordanian flag was taken and temporarily replaced by the Israeli flag by a protester.

Of course, as a result, the Jordanian Pavilion became hugely popular in the early days of the fair, with thousands of visitors streaming in to see what the fuss was about.

The Isaeli pavilion then unveiled its own mural as a response to the Jordanian mural.  Further lawsuits, even fistfights, ensued over the controversy. In the end, none of the murals were removed.

What got sadly overshadowed in all this, of course, was the Column of Jerash, which could have been made of plaster for all the attention it received.

After the fair ended in 1965, the pavilions were mostly all torn down, but the column stayed behind, making the park its home for several decades now.  Today you can find it near the Unisphere next to a plaque which reads:



Okay, so that’s the second oldest large manmade object in New York City?  What’s the oldest?

That’s the subject of our new podcast tomorrow so stay tuned!

Go Thistles! The finest names from old NYC soccer teams

Above: The New York Nationals and the New Bedford Whalers play the Polo Grounds, circa 1928 (Courtesy NYPL)

The announcement on Tuesday of a second Major League Soccer team for New York — sponsored by Manchester City FC and the New York Yankees — has sent me down a rabbit hole of soccer history, courtesy this excellent and exhaustive article on the subject by David Litterer.

The New York Football Club will join the New York Red Bulls on the soccer fields in 2015.  But when do they get a new name? NYCFC seems so, I don’t know, average.

New Yorkers have been playing soccer for almost 140 years with regional leagues forming in the 1880s.  By the early 1900s, newspapers were beginning to call it soccer (or “soccer” football, as in this article). Here are a few of the more interesting names of organized soccer teams from New York City over the many years:

New York Thistles — played from the early 1880s until 1906.  Among their colorfully named competition in those years were the Brooklyn Longfellows, the New York Caledonians, New York Nonpareils and the Williamsburg Shamrocks.

New York Hakoah — The original Hakoah (Hebrew for ‘strength’) played in New York during in the 1920s, derived from a Jewish Austrian sports club of the same name.  (It eventually derived many of its players from the Austrian team too.)  Several players inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame played for the Hakoah at one point.  There is presently a team by this name keeping up the tradition in New Jersey.

New York Americans — This patriotic team formed by Hungarian player Emo Schwarz entertained audiences during the Great Depression, along with the New York Brookhattan.  In the 1950s, they actually merged with another team to form a second incarnation of the New York Hakoah.

New York Skyliners — Playing all their games at Yankee Stadium, the New York Skyliners were a curious aberration that lasted only a single season (1967), giving New York two professional soccer teams (the other being the New York Generals).  Nobody on the team was from New York; they were simply the (briefly) rebranded Cerro team from Montevideo, Uruguay.  By the end of 1968, both the Generals and the Skyliners had folded.

New York Cosmos — Soccer made a serious push to rival baseball and football in the United States in the 1970s, and New York’s entrant into this new spotlight were the Cosmos, who played from 1971 to 1984.  In late 1970s, at the height of their popularity, they were packing 40,000 people per game into Giants Stadium, thanks in part to their star player Pelé (pictured above).  Sadly, the excitement for soccer waned in the 1980s. The North American Soccer League folded, as did the Cosmos.

But everything is new again. A new of the NASL started up again in 2011, as is a new edition of the New York Cosmos, starting this seas.  So, for now, this name is off-limits.

There’s also a host of one-shot names that cropped up in old “soccer” football records between 1860 and 1880s.  From that list, I’d like to offer up the following names —  New York Married & Singles, New York Dauntless, New York Gentlemen, New York Pilgrims and the New York Westside Rovers.

Of course, if there is a new name, it will probably be a product of some sort. But at least make it a New York-based product please! The New York Snapples? The New York Katzs’?  The New York Shake Shacks?

NOTE: If any New York soccer fans have any corrections to the information above, please send them along. Thanks!

Day of Atonement indeed: The Yom Kippur riot of 1898

When I hear of riots in the Lower East Side during the late 19th century, my mind goes disgruntled newsies or agitated garment workers, rising up for fair wage and employment. Or maybe a vicious street gang like the Whyos primed to wreck havoc. I don’t immediately think of the orthodox Jewish community.
But it was indeed dissatisfied members of this group that staged a bit of chaos on the corner of Canal and Division streets during Yom Kippur in 1898.

According to the New York Sun, the violence centered around a Russian Jewish coffee house owned by the Herrick brothers at 141 Division Street, a popular gathering place for ‘political spell-binders and labor agitators’ with likely a more casual atmosphere than the many Jewish restaurants surrounding it and certainly popular with young men.

Here’s an advertisement for Herrick’s in a chess journal from 1904:


Herrick’s was in the heart of Jewish social life in New York City.  The Yiddish theater hangout Schreiber’s Saloon was around the corner at 33 Canal Street and other Jewish-operated cafes were steps away.

Even as sundown approached and traditional Jewish places closed their doors for the holiday, Herrick’s cafe stayed open, with tables occupied with young men in apparent disregard for the custom of fasting. The article makes a point to label most offenders as ‘American-born’ and ’16 to 18 years old’ — as in rebellious, with an implied lack of respect towards tradition.

The Herricks had actually planned this display of defiance, going so far as to advertise in an ‘anarchistic‘ newspaper that they would remain open for the holiday. They were prepared for some opposition, certainly, but certainly not for what came next.

Below: Under the Division Street elevated, 1910

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

According to the Sun, at sight of the violation, angry orthodox mobbed the place, throwing stones and smashing the cafe windows.  The New York Times reports that ‘several thousand Hebrews’ soon arrived to protest in the surrounding streets. The police from the local Madison Street station were called to quell the violence and asked the proprietors to close their cafe for the evening.

Below: The headline from the New York Times on September 27, 1898


But violence further escalated the following day, when one of the brothers reopened the cafe the next morning ‘for customers, Jewish and Gentile, all day, at the usual prices’.

Hat stores on Division Street, below the elevated train and a bit west of the action in this article. Picture is from around 1907 (NYPL)

Fearing a repeat of the evening’s disruptions, police cordoned off the street to no avail. When diners left the cafe this time, they were met by “several thousands* [who] gathered and threatened dire vengeance on those who would eat on the holy day.”

Many offenders were chased down the street for fear of their lives. Eventually, the angry protesters even managed to storm the restaurant again where they “overturned tables, smashed dishes and threw crockery at the proprietors.” One diner was doused in hot tea. Another diner, with his three friends, happened to be military and ‘fired off a revolver to attract police’, scattered the crowd in fear. Police did arrive, with clubs drawn.

Soon the violence spilled into the streets and devolved, like so many riots of this type, into fisticuffs among angry young men. By the end of the day, several rioters were taken into custody, and the neighborhood quickly returned to its peaceful celebration of the holiday.

As for Herrick’s, well, the advertisement at the top is from 1904, so they obviously continued stirring up ‘political spell-binders’ and controversy in the neighborhood for many more years.

*Early news reports are never very good at estimating crowd numbers, so ‘several thousands’ could also mean ‘several hundreds’. Given how crowded this neighborhood was in the 1890s, most could have simply been trying to figure out what was going on!

Bialystoker Home, a remarkable Lower East Side treasure and home for assisted living–now in need of some assistance

Bialystoker Home for the Aged may not make it into many tourist guides, but this Lower East Side art deco artifact holds an important link to New York’s immigrant history. It was just born on the wrong side of the street, and because of that, it’s an endangered structure.

On the south side of East Broadway, between Canal and Montgomery, stands some of New York’s most important Jewish landmarks, from the towering gleam of the Forward Building to a cluster of surviving 1830s rowhouses and tenement synagogues that held the first critical waves of Jewish immigrants in the mid-19th century.

At right: The Bialystoker building on its opening in 1931 (courtesy the Museum of Jewish Heritage)

On the north side of East Broadway, however, these sorts of historical structures east of the Seward Park Library were knocked down and replaced in the 1950s with an immense cooperative village in the fashion of Stuyvesant Town, a series of housing towers interlocked with open spaces and playgrounds.

The Bialystoker building (228 East Broadway), which opened in 1931, is a relic in comparison to its immediate neighbors, a parking garage (which notably collapsed in 1999) and a banal 1960s medical building known for a chipping mural on its side and to HBO subscribers as ‘the New Zealand consulate’ on the TV series ‘Flight of the Conchords‘. (Full confession: I lived across the street for both the collapse and the filming, so I find the block particularly endearing.)

Its two-toned tannish, art deco facade by architect Henry Hurwit makes an unusual silhouette for the neighborhood, and perhaps that alone should make it a candidate for preservation. But it’s the building’s unique history that makes a necessary keepsake of the Lower East Side.

This and many other structures around here trace to a specific immigrant lineage — the Polish Jews of Bialystok, near the border of Belarus. It’s remarkable to think of thousands of Bialystok immigrants — nearly the entire Jewish population of the city — crossing the ocean, entering Ellis Island, and settling  here, and specifically here, in this area of the Lower East Side.

Around the corner, up two blocks, is the Bialystoker Synagogue, a refitted 1826 Episcopal church that collected various neighborhood Jewish congregations and moved in here in 1905. From a cursory glance at its exterior, you might never know that inside is one of New York’s most stunning synagogues. And hopefully everybody is familiar with the wondrous, doughy bialy, the cousin to the bagel, and its supreme baker Kossar’s Bialys up on Grand Street.

The synagogue is an official historic landmark, and Kossar’s a treasured stop on walking tours. The former Bialystoker nursing home has no such protections.

The elderly home was funded by a Bialystoker aid society in the 1920s as an alternative to standard city institutions. The cornerstone was laid in September 1929, accompanied by a massive parade, 25,000 people carrying “flags and banners with Jewish inscriptions and marched through Canal, Grand and other streets.” [source]

The new arrivals to the neighborhood benefited from the charity of wealthier Jewish immigrants who had arrived earlier and funded projects to ease overcrowding and providing health and education services catering to specific religious customs. The Bialystoker building is perhaps the most striking example of this beneficence. Its design is Moorish Art Deco, of a kind you might see off to a corner in Rockefeller Center. Possibly considered plain in its day, but now seen as beautiful and understated. In particular, its doorway is a marvel; the artfully carved BIALYSTOKER is joined by a dozen medallions representing the twelve tribes of Israel.

Its grand opening on a hot summer day in June 1931 was a premiere event, with another parade drawing tens of thousands, and people crammed onto rooftops and fire escapes to witness the event. Awaiting inside were rooms for several dozen residents, as well as “auditoriums, dormitories, two synagogues, sun parlors and hospital wards.” [source] The Museum of Jewish Heritage has some remarkable photographs of the opening which you can peruse here.

The nursing home has faithfully and quietly served the community for 80 years. Along the way, its seen some prominent and very, very old residents (like 111-year-old Benjamin Kotlowitz). Last year, due to mounting debts and “inadequate Medicaid reimbursement,” the home was forced to close for good.

The building is currently on the market and, as it has not been landmarked, is a candidate for demolition. You can sign a petition here to help the effort to get this unique building saved. The Friends of the Lower East Side also has more information on this remarkable window on New York’s immigrant history.

‘Christmas or Chanukah?’: NYC discovers the Jewish holiday

Early news reporting on the celebration of Hanukkah (or Chanukah, as it was popularly referred then) in New York usually took a arms-length approach, as most of their readership knew little about the celebration 100 years ago. More than one old Tribune or World carried a variant of the headline ‘Jews Celebrate Chanukah’ , as though there might have been some doubt. A 1905 headline informs: ‘Chanukah, Commemorating Syrian Defeat, Lasts Eight Days.’

It wasn’t just non-Jews that were misinformed about this seemingly mysterious holiday. A December 1894 edition of the New York Sun asks ‘Christmas or Chanukah?’ as a prominent rabbi from Temple Emanu-El (pictured at right, in its Fifth Avenue incarnation) “rebukes the tendency of Jews to confuse the festivals.” In fact, many Jewish leaders at this time were concerned that many traditions were being abandoned, the better to acclimate in a city that was decidedly more Christian-seeming.
The wife of American Jewish scholar Richard Gotthell* worried in 1900 that “this festival occurs so nearly coincident with the Christian festival of Christmas that there is danger that the observance of one may be lost in a gradual assimilation with the other.”

But with the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to New York in the 1900s, soon thousands celebrated the holiday — and newspapers could hardly be so cavalier.

One event they took particular note of was the Chanukah celebration by the Federation of American Zionists, at the Herald Square Theater on January 1, 1911. One anecdote sprang out at me: “Dr. S. Levin spoke in Hebrew for an hour, on ‘Jewish Life and Art.’ He took exception to a certain Jewish speaker who recently declared that the Jews had produced nothing in art. Dr. Levin asserted that he was greievously wrong.”
Across town at that very moment, a young Russian Jew named Irving Berlin was hammering out tunes in Tin Pan Alley and would debut, just a couple months later, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, while other songwriters of Jewish heritage, such as Jerome Kern, were right then hard at work reinventing the American songbook. So, yes, Dr. Levin, grievously wrong.
And of course, these Jewish songwriters would go on to even help reinvent Christmas itself via a flurry of popular holiday tunes, like Berlin’s own ‘White Christmas.
*Gotthell was also the founder of America’s first Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, formed in New York in 1898.

Jewish newsies on Delancey Street

(click picture for larger view)

Hanukkah starts tomorrow night, but these guys are still on the street selling newspapers.

According to the caption, it’s midnight on Delancey Street and (left to right) H. Brown, age 12, Scheer, age 14, and M. Brown, age 10, venture out on the street to sell newspapers, the Jewish publication The Warheit, whose offices at 153 East Broadway were nearby those of the nation’s largest Jewish paper, The Daily Forward.

Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, taken in 1913. Actually, it was in March 1913, nowhere near Hanukkah! I just wanted another reason to post another newsies photo.

The Warheit, by the way, was the scene of a horrible riot just a couple years earlier, in August 1910, when “a mob of several thousand cloakmakers, strike sympathizers and excited persons” smashed office windows and injured several employees, incited by a rival newspaper.

Pic courtesy LOC