Keeping Kosher on the Lower East Side

By Meredith Carroll, Museum at Eldridge Street summer intern

As recently as ten years ago, a handful of kosher restaurants remained on the historically Jewish Lower East Side. This June, the last one — Shalom Chai Pizza — closed its doors.

Shalom Chai restaurant. Photo from greatkosherrestaurants.com.

Shalom Chai restaurant. Photo from greatkosherrestaurants.com.

To some, its closure marks the end of an era. This was the era of mass Jewish immigration, of tenement apartments and pushcart vendors. Above all, it was the era during which the congregation of the Eldridge Street Synagogue thrived, along  with the many kosher establishments that served them.

What’s easy to forget is that when they arrived to America these congregants couldn’t always access kosher food so easily. Pork and shellfish shared counter space with beef, and most butchers couldn’t be bothered to consistently label kosher cuts. Some vendors hired “kosher” slaughterers with dubious or nonexistent credentials. Others passed off ordinary meat as kosher.

Only in the late nineteenth century did the Jewish community attempt to centralize and regulate kosher certification. Even then, rabbis frequently disagreed with each other. And as always, unscrupulous entrepreneurs sought to profit from this confusion.

Pushcart vendors on the Lower East Side, 1933. From the Center for Jewish History archives.

Pushcart vendors on the Lower East Side, 1933. From the Center for Jewish History archives.

But if keeping kosher was a struggle, it was also a point of pride. For one, it signalled Jewishness. Keeping kosher required self-control and knowledge of the Torah; every family dinner and market day broadcast immigrants’ religious identity.

This was particularly true for women, who worked hard to manage their households on often-paltry wages. “Great preparations are generally made for the Sabbath menu, which is in most cases the only day when meals are taken in degree of regularity,” reported one 1897 social worker quoted in historian Annie Polland’s Landmark of the Spirit (p. 108.)

Keeping kosher and preparing for the Sabbath were also foremost among women’s religious responsibilities. Such duties were especially important in a world where women had little public role — in many synagogues, including Eldridge Street in its early years, women weren’t even formal members.

Even at the upper end of the income spectrum, therefore, food preparation took on symbolic value for women. Take, for instance, Sarah Gellis — wife of Eldridge Street co-founder and “kosher sausage king” Isaac Gellis. Every Friday before sundown, she readied Sabbath meals to feed not just her husband and seven children but also numerous community members. (Incidentally, this was also a woman who, according to a quote from her grandson “could lug a 400-pound piece of meat” around her husband’s butcher shop.) At the intersection of food and charity (another Jewish value), women like Sarah found an entree into public life.

Epson Expression 10000 XL Photo Flatbed Scanner

Main office of Isaac Gellis & Co., located on Essex Street. From the Center for Jewish History Archives.

So, keeping kosher: On one level, yet another set of traditons that immigrant life did not always accommodate. On another level, an embodiment of Jewish identity amidst a secular world. And on another level again, an opportunity for immigrant women to craft public identities of their own.

What were your favorite kosher restaurants of the Lower East Side?

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