Our last couple posts have explored Jewish Heritage Sites here on the Lower East Side: our Eldridge St. Synagogue, Seward Park and Stieblach Row.
But now, let’s escape the chaos and clamor of the city and take a trip back to another locale at the center of the Jewish-American experience: a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains!
Fresh air, wide open spaces and, of course, enough embarrassing family photos to last a lifetime! A trip to the Catskills offered this and so much more to city-dwellers needing an escape. The mid-20th century was the heyday of the Catskills as a premier vacation destination for New York Jews. Filled with resorts that catered to individuals of all ages, memories of lounging by the pool, leisurely afternoon walks and a delicious kosher lunch at The Concord are all staples of the resort region.
But how, you ask, did the Catskills come to be such a popular destination for the Jewish community?
There is no simple answer, but let’s look at a few key factors. With the post-World War II economic boom, the concept of “going on vacation” became a feasible reality for many American families. Yet, at the time, the Jewish community was still facing social discrimination. Restrictions based on ethnicity barred Jews from many mainstream country clubs and resorts. Still hungry for the opportunity to escape the city, Jewish owned establishments began to pop up in the Catskills at the beginning of the 20th century. Grossinger’s, one of the most famous, became so popular that by time it closed in ‘86, it had its own airstrip and post office!
Like the Museum at Eldridge Street, Jewish resorts in the Catskills represent an intersection between being Jewish and being American. As sociologist Phil Brown states, “ In ‘the mountains,’ Jews of Eastern European descent could have a proper vacation and become Americanized while preserving much of their Jewish culture. They imported their music, humor, vaudeville revue style, cuisine, language, and world views. These vacation spots were not merely resorts – they were miniature societies shaped by the vacationers’ urban culture.” – Take My Memories, Please: Keeping the Catskills Alive
So, what better way to remember the ambiance of a New York summer in the country than by joining us here at the Museum at Eldridge Street on May 16 for our very own Evening at the Catskills! Show off (or brush up on) your Simon Says technique. Indulge in a creamsicle while trying your hand at a game of canasta. Or enjoy the sweet sounds of pianist Steve Sterner and Shane Baker’s vaudevillian theatrics while you wait in anticipation for the caller to pull B9, the only number keeping you from a BINGO! And who knows, maybe you’ll even meet your own Johnny Castle and truly have the Time of Your Life.
To learn more about the history of vacationing in the Catskills here are a few useful resources:
Dim Sum, hand-pulled noodles and dumplings are a few of the food attractions of our neighborhood, but last Sunday visitors flocked to Eldridge Street for a completely different culinary experience: our annual Passover Nosh n’ Stroll. Amy Stein-Milford, the Museum’s Deputy Director, and Hanna Griff-Sleven, Director of Cultural Programs, walked people through the streets of the Lower East Side, visiting food establishments that have been Passover favorites of the Jewish Community here for generations.
Nosh n' Strollers tasting hand-ground horseradish at The Pickle Guys
#1. The Pickle Guys
The Nosh n’ Stroll began with a brief history of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and from there visitors followed the smell of fresh horseradish to the Pickle Guys, located just a few blocks away on Essex Street. Following the Eastern European tradition of letting the pickles sit in salt brine with garlic, spices, and no preservatives, the Pickle Guys offer an array of tasty treats, bringing their patrons back to the days of pushcarts and pickle barrels. As a pickler myself, I recommend the pickled pineapple! (Just be warned, this tangy treat can become addictive!)
#2. Vanished Eateries like Gertel’s Bakery
Gertel’s Bakery used to sell shmura matzoh, the delicious, round hand-baked stuff. The former site of Gertel’s is now an empty lot on Hester Street (pictured here). As Amy pointed out, it has left a literal hole in the community.
Schapiro's Kosher Wine
#3. Shapiro’s Winery The dynamic duo not only led us to local shops that are in the midst of Passover prep, but pointed out others that are no longer in business, but have still left their mark on the neighborhood. The sign for Schapiro’s Kosher Wine can still be seen from the street and is a reminder of the changing times (and of many a person’s first drunken seder experience).
#4. Economy Candy
We recommend their chocolate-covered macaroons!
#5. Streit’s Bakery
Our stroll came to an end at Streit’s Bakery, which has provided Passover staples since 1925. Before even entering the bakery, the smell of fresh matzah (which Judy, the Education Director, and I realized smells remarkably similar to popcorn!) fills the air. As soon as you step into Streit’s, you are surrounded by Passover goodies: macaroons, candies and my personal favorite, chocolate covered matzah! Amidst the flow of Passover shoppers, you can even see the matzah coming straight out of the oven. What better way to get our Passover preparation started than with a little nosh of warm, fresh matzah!
An artisan from Evergreene Studios works on the building
Our building tours offer visitors a peek into the workings of the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, and we’ve been busy adding new themes and tours to our lineup. You can now experience Eldridge through the lens of immigration, ritual practice, or architecture and preservation.
On Beyond the Facade: Architecture and Preservation, we break out the flashlights and turn our visitors into forensic architects. What were the choices made by the founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue 123 years ago? How did this building, the first synagogue built from the ground up by Eastern European Jews, reflect the aspirations of an immigrant community? What techniques and materials were used in its original construction? Which buildings, religious and secular, inspired the architecture of this space?
But this building is more than just an ossified architectural relic, and on the tour visitors also explore the 20-year, 19 million-dollar restoration of this space. What was the preservation philosophy at Eldridge Street? Where can you find the unrestored elements of the building, and why were they left alone? How does a new contemporary window, designed by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans, fit into a high Victorian space? And my favorite: which bug produces the laquer used on the benches?
So next time you’re in the neighborhood, make sure to stop by and experience Eldridge as never before. Offered daily at 11:30, 1:30 and 3:30. Whet your appetite for architecture with this restoration video, which offers insight into the process of restoring this century-old building.
At our annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival this past Sunday, I celebrated my 5th year of pouring, stirring and sipping egg creams, the official beverage of the Lower East Side (in my estimation, at least.) Serving egg creams to a crowd of 8,000 is like running a marathon: a true test of endurance, ending in sweet, chocolaty victory. We came, we stirred, and we conquered, selling out our entire supply!
You may be wondering: what exactly is an egg cream? According to Wikipedia,
“An egg cream is a classic beverage consisting of chocolatesyrup, milk, and seltzer, probably dating from the late 19th century, and is especially associated with Brooklyn, home of its alleged inventor, candy store owner Louis Auster. It contains neither eggs nor cream. The egg cream is almost exclusively a fountain drink; although there have been several attempts to bottle it, none has been wholly successful, as its fresh taste and characteristic head requires mixing of the ingredients just before drinking. The drink can be compared to a traditional ice cream soda, though it contains no ice cream.”
To make an egg cream at home in an 8-ounce cup, here is a quick recipe handed down from John Heller, pictured above. At Eldridge Street, he is the Grand Poobah of the Cream, and indeed taught me how to make my very first. I’ve since used this recipe hundreds of times, and it never fails to impress:
Pour Fox’s U-Bet syrup into cup, approximately 1 inch thick. Accept no imitations.
Add a splash of milk about the same height, stir vigorously.
Add seltzer to the mixture, ending slightly below the top of cup. Beware! Overflowing is an occupational hazard.
Stir, serve and enjoy!
Are you a pickle person? Is deli your delicacy? Love lime rickies? Tell us about your favorite East Side Treat!
When I first envisioned a Chinese Jewish Festival more than ten years ago, I thought it would be good for the neighborhood and for our mission to tell the story of the immigrants who made and make our neighborhood special. I imagined Chinese and Jewish artists and musicians sitting side by side informing the public about their traditions. What I did not expect, but experienced starting at our very first festival back in 2000, is the deep feeling of community and joy that emanates from all the participants and festival goers – this is a New York Moment.
Walking south on Eldridge Street from the B Train on Grand Street, you are in Chinatown: dumpling shops and markets sell more than 20 varieties of soy sauce and all sorts of dried foods in bins, fish so fresh that it still moves and store signs in Chinese with auspicious names like Prosperity Dumplings or Good Lock Locksmith; there is a Buddhist temple, too. However, if you look closely, you might notice Harris Levy Fine Linens and remember that your bubbe went there to buy her wedding linens; or you might see a tenement with Moorish windows and a faded Star of David on the façade – a sign that the building was once a synagogue.
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit us on the first Sunday in June over the past 10 years, you might have thought you had stumbled into a whole other wonderful world. You hear strains of klezmer music and see folks dancing a hora. If you stay a bit longer, the strains of Ray Musike’s Romania Romania slowly change into a Chinese folk song led by bandmaster Mr. Hoy and members of the Qi Shu Feng Peking Opera transform themselves into monkey kings and tigers and flip through the air. You shake your head twice, no three times, and enter the 1887 landmark Eldridge Street Synagogue. Sitting side by side is a Hebrew scribe, demonstrating this sacred art, with a Chinese calligrapher. A bit deeper into the sanctuary there is a tefillin maker, a most holy man who so loves his work that you, too become intrigued by his story and his ritual objects and you feel that you might have just stepped into a shop in Jerusalem.
You learn that the synagogue is still a place of worship but just as important that this neighborhood was always an immigrant neighborhood, that just as years ago the shops had Yiddish signs and sold yarmulkes and tallisim and prayer books, now there are Chinese signs and the mamma loshen and lukshen has been transformed to Chinese and pulled noodles and somewhere this odd juxtaposition of Chinese and Jews has turned into a day of mutual respect and sharing. It’s New York after all, where benign indifference can turn into neighborly love, and egg roll meets egg cream for an afternoon of shared delight
A tasty treat you won’t want to miss — join us tonight as David Sax reads from his fantastic new book, Save the Deli at 7 PM. Sax “is a deli fanatic, whose yearning for the salted, cured meats traces back to friday nights at Yitz’s in Toronto. Further back he can trace deli lineage to his father’s childhood in Montreal, and his grandfather’s childhood in Romania…Over the course of the past few years he’s toured the world, interviewing deli owners and famous deli lovers (like Ed Koch, Ruth Reichel and Mel Brooks), tried his hand cutting sandwiches at Katz’s, and voyaged to the heart of deli country, whether New York, LA, Montreal, Paris, London, or Poland.” We’ll be serving local pickles as we listen to Sax wax poetic about one of the mainstays of Jewish food on the Lower East Side and beyond. This free event is sure to hit the spot!
Here in New York, winter is in full bloom. Over the past few weeks we’ve experienced snow, freezing rain and winds that seemed likely to lift our historic building all the way to Kansas! This coming Sunday, January 31st from 1-5 PM, join us as we wish away the winter blues with our first-ever Tu B’shvat Winter Garden Festival, a free event celebrating the Jewish Arbor Day and environmentalism.
You may be asking yourself: what in the world is Tu B’shvat? We admit, it is certainly one of the more obscure Jewish holidays, but its focus on celebrating the bounty of the earth and conservation seemed a natural fit with our building’s green restoration. And there is never a bad reason for a free festival! We see this as the winter counterpart to our fabulous Egg Rolls and Egg Creams Festival, which we host every June in celebration of the Jewish and Chinese cultures that share Eldridge Street.
The name Tu B’shvat is actually the date of the holiday, the 15th of the month of S’hvat. The holiday is first mentioned in the Mishna, where the ancient rabbis have a little throwdown over the date. They discuss the four “New Years” in the Jewish calendar (I wonder what they used for the ball drop in ancient Babylon?):
The first of Nisan – new year for kings and festivals – The first of Elul – new year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. – The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing – The first of Shevat – new year for trees, according to the school of Shamai; The school of Hillel say: the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh Hashana:2a)
Image via Ironic Sans
Our buddy Hillel seems to have won this argument, since the New Year for Trees has been celebrated on the 15th of S’hvat ever since. At Eldridge, we’ll be green-ing out with kosher organic wine tasting fromTishbi winery, a seder featuring many varieties of dried fruits and nuts (led by me), kid-friendly planting activities, family tree making and more! Check out the event on our Facebook page for more information (and become a fan while you’re there!) For a taste of spring in the dead of winter, this is one event you won’t want to miss.