Socialist Skyscrapers & Pious Prostitutes: 5 Jewish History Sites 5 Minutes from Eldridge Street
By Emma Friedlander
Although the Jewish presence on the Lower East Side is not as prevalent as it once was, many buildings in the neighborhood provide insight into Jewish immigrant history — if you know where to look. I recently explored five sites with significance to the Jewish story on the Lower East Side, all of which are only a five minute walk from the Museum at Eldridge Street. At the Museum’s home, the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue, you can learn about the Jewish immigrant community and one of its most historic sacred sites. After visiting the Museum, I recommend taking a short walk to these additional locations. They’ll expand your understanding of Jewish life at the turn of the last century by revealing stories of capitalism, activism, play, entertainment, and even crime.
Jarmulowsky Bank Building, 54 Canal Street
Visitors to the Museum at Eldridge Street will know that banker Sender Jarmulowsky was pivotal in the formation of the Eldridge Street congregation, as well as the Jewish Lower East Side as a whole. Born in Russia, Jarmulowsky grew up penniless and orphaned. By 1873, however, he had set up business on the Lower East Side, providing steamship tickets and banking services to the immigrant community; this practice would make him wealthy and profoundly influential. Despite his success, Jarmulowsky remained pious, and this combination of financial acumen and strict faith typified the values of Jewish immigrants.
Jarmulowsky, who was called the “East Side J. P. Morgan,” died only a couple of weeks after his grand building had opened. Today, the building is being renovated into a luxury hotel. Despite this change, the ornate terra-cotta façade that bears Jarmulowsky’s name, will remain intact, preserving the historical significance of the building.
Allen Street at Canal may seem fairly rundown today, but 100 years ago, it was the red light district of the Lower East Side. Although it may be surprising that prostitution was prominent in the Jewish community, due to the struggles of immigrant life, it makes sense that many young women turned to prostitution. In the late 19th century, prostitutes could make 20 to 30 dollars per week, a salary which soared over the 6 to 12 dollars earned by garment workers and the 10 dollars or less earned by teachers and clerks. Allen Street ‘s murky, soot-filled environment below the Second Avenue elevated train line provided the perfect venue for this line of work.
That there were Jews who engaged in nefarious behavior was a source of shame to the greater community. But sometimes Jewish ladies-of-the-night maintained their piety. One named Tillie Taub is quoted as claiming she refused to work on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because she had to go pray at the shul.
Loew’s Canal Street Theatre, 31 Canal Street
This ornate terra-cotta movie theatre, built in 1926-7, is characteristic of most movie houses of the period, a time when the Lower East Side had one of the highest densities of movie theatres in the country.
The Loew’s theatre stands as one of the largest and most architecturally distinguished of its period, and one of the best-preserved. As an accessible source of entertainment as well as a refuge from the dirty, crowded, unbearably hot streets outside, the movie house was also a major aspect of the immigrant experience. In the 1950s, the Loew’s Canal Street Theatre closed its doors due to the dwindling Lower East Side community and a federal anti-trust court case. Although we are hopeful for a renovation of the beautiful historic theatre, there are no current plans to restore the space.
Seward Park – At the intersection of Essex Street and Canal
This park on Essex Street was another important place of leisure for turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants. The crowded, dirty streets of the Lower East Side, captured by reformer-photographer Jacob Riis, did not provide an ideal playing environment for children. It was widely believed that play in city streets encouraged hooliganism and crime; the Outdoor Recreation League aimed to counter this threat by promoting organized play in parks. Under the ORL’s guidance, Seward Park opened in the early 20th century, and its playground facility was the first publicly-funded permanent playground in the United States.
Today, Seward Park remains an important location for leisure in the neighborhood. Tai chi is commonly practiced by the Chinese community, and the playground is still popular, although its structure has greatly changed over the century.
Forward Newspaper Building, 175 East Broadway
This towering skyscraper, adorned with elaborate Marxist symbolism, Hebrew lettering, and the word “FORWARD” printed prominently across its side, was the antithesis to the nearby Jarmulowsky Bank Building in the ideology it espoused. The building housed the Jewish Daily Forward, a popular Yiddish-language Socialist newspaper that was founded in 1897. Abraham Cahan, the first editor of the Forward, completely revolutionized political journalism with his belief that the paper best served its proletariat audience by discussing not only world politics, but also daily life. Thus he began his famous “Bintel Brief.” In this advice column, editors and readers alike would respond to letters from troubled immigrants. This column addressed such topics as irksome neighbors, problems of the lovelorn, and the conflict between religion and the American way life. These endearing letters prove that despite the extreme circumstances that turn-of-the-century immigrants faced, their problems were not so different than ours.
As the size of the Lower East Side Jewish population diminished in the 1920s and onwards, the newspaper’s readership also declined. Nevertheless, the paper still circulates todayon a weekly basis, in Yiddish, English, and Russian. The Forward’s offices are now located on Maiden Lane, whereas their historic former headquarters ironically now houses luxury lofts inhabited by the rich and famous. Despite this apparent triumph of capitalism, the busts of Marx and Engels and the torch of socialism still blaze prominently on the building’s facade, a fierce reminder of the socialist history of the Jewish community.
The five sites explored here present only a part of the Jewish immigrant experience in New York. However, because of the wonderful stories and greater significance of these buildings (and their proximity to the Museum at Eldridge Street!), they provide an ideal starting place for unraveling this fascinating story.