To most of our readers around the globe, this might not mean much. But the idea of having a 7-Eleven outlet on Grand Street, on the very hallowed ground where Jewish immigrants—workers and scholars, poor and relatively less poor—have set foot for the first time in America… Well, frankly, I’m not sure what it means, but it certainly signals change. The Lower East Side is Moishe’s Bakery, not Denny’s. It’s small, individualized, personal—not a chain of identical stores selling identical products to millions.
Speaking of change, according to my friends at The Lo-Down, the website serving the old neighborhood with hyper-local news and tidbits, the first customer to purchase anything at all at the new 7-Eleven was my good friend and former client, Jacob Goldman, of Loho Realty, a man who’s been embracing change on the Lower East Side since change became in again.
My daughter was absolutely overjoyed with the news—she’s been a documented Slurpee addict since Slurpee was recognized as an addiction by the APA. My daughter declared she was starting to save for a ticket back, to have her frozen flavored drink.
And so the battle is being waged – Zionism and national renewal versus Slurpee. And I’m not betting on that one.
It was the mid ‘60s and I was living with my mother and brother in public housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. We moved there from Brooklyn a decade earlier to be near my mother’s family when my father died suddenly of a stroke.
Next door to us lived an Italian family with whom I spent a lot of time visiting. The mother was divorced from a husband who preferred using his fists rather than talking to her. I played with Mary, the youngest of the children, who was my age. However, I now wonder if I really went there to hear Mary’s mother tell me stories of her life growing up in Italy. She was a great storyteller. I felt drawn into another world and could relate to those stories because they were about family life. And many of her stories had morals.
The family at the other end of the hall consisted of Mr. and Mrs. R. and their three children. I had a close friend in Rosa, the middle child; Sonya was the oldest, Paul the youngest. I had a warm and happy relationship with each one. The mother was always chirpy and smiling. I spent hours playing Scrabble with the father, a very kind and caring person. Rosa once confided that her father was concerned because he saw me spend so much time alone looking out the hall window. Sonya was like the older sister I always wanted. When some girls stole my bike, Sonya went with me and got my bike back. She was tall and strong looking, and all she had to do was yell at the girl riding my bike in order to bring it over. The girl rode over with her two friends and silently handed it back. Sonya was my hero.
Paul, the youngest R. family member, spent a lot of time in my apartment. He visited me on many Friday nights and watched my mother light the Sabbath candles. I told him that his Hebrew name would be Pinchus. As much as he tried, he could never get the “ch” sound right. Looking back, I have no idea how we had so much to talk about, but we spent lots of time exchanging ideas. Most of the time, I felt closer to Paul than his sister Rosa.
A few years passed and I was in college. Paul moved on to other friends and no longer visited me. I remembered that he dreamt of becoming a doctor.
My mother had many friends who often visited her. One afternoon I came home and saw my mother sitting at the dining room table with Fanny, her closest friend. They both looked at me as I walked in, but neither one said a word. The room was heavy and I felt uneasy. My mother’s face had a disturbed look, both troubled and angry at the same time. Fanny was a clown and loved to make me laugh – but not on that morning. She abruptly left with just a “goodbye.” Not knowing what I was dealing with, I started some small talk with my mother, but she cut me off. It seemed that the very sound of my voice was too much for my mother to bear.
What was going on? What happened to my world? My mother made it obvious that she had nothing to say, something that never happened before. The next day was just as bad, making me glad to leave for school. On my way home, I thought that things would be better. However, it was just as awful. I pleaded with my mother to tell me what was going on. Finally she told me that the day before a lady who lived in the next courtyard heard a knock at the door. She asked who it was and heard “Western Union.” When she opened the door, a bunch of wild teenage boys rushed in. She was tied up and repeatedly attacked. By the time her husband got home, she had been mentally and physically destroyed.
My mother continued, explaining that she got a call from our neighbor, Paul R. He told her that he was calling from a payphone. He wanted to give her a warning, but before he could go into detail, he said that she must not call the police or tell anyone that he had called her – because “they” would kill him. “They,” it turned out, were the gang he belonged to, the boys who had brutalized the woman in the next courtyard. It was the first time my mother heard about the horrible attack. Paul said that the gang was going to try the same thing with her. She must not answer the door.
It’s Sunday night, only hours until the super-mega-Frankenstorm Hurricane Sandy descends upon the Lower East Side, reports the Lower East Side’s LowDown website, adding: “It’s a little windy and might rain, but it may be the last time you go out for a while, so by all means — go out!”
Hurricane Sandy wind modeling from the National Weather Service.
This is crazy. For 37 years we lived on the Lower East Side and whenever a hurricane was approaching, it was always somewhere else, hundreds and thousands of miles away. Now it appears that Hurricane Sandy (did they have to pick a Jewish sounding name?) is expected to make landfall smack at the Lower East Side.
Angry Storm Clouds over the LES – photo by Vivienne Gucwa at http://nythroughthelens.com.
I received an email from my State Senator, Daniel Squadron, reporting that as of 7 PM, the MTA subway service stopped running. Elevators, heat and hot water were shut off in NYCHA buildings in Zone A (along the riverfront) at 7 PM. It’s possible elevators will also be shut off in other large buildings in Zone A.
At 9 PM, buses stopped running from Zone A NYCHA developments to evacuation shelters. MTA bus service also stopped running altogether at 9 PM.
The local website, The LowDown, published an image taken at the Fine Fare supermarket on Grand Street, which was packed with shoppers “stocking up before the big storm.” According to the LowDown, “the shelves are still mostly full but water and bread supplies seem to be running a little low.”
I took a look at the mandatory evacuation map and noted that the co-ops on Grand Street near the FDR Drive are not within the red zone. They should be strong enough to withstand a hurricane, with God’s help.
So now we’re sitting and waiting, here, in Netanya, Israel, for news from the old country. Our thoughts are with our family and friends on the LES – stay indoors and obey the Mayor, I suppose.
Monday morning shacharis services should be still held in the various shuls, according to an email I received from the Bialystoker Synagogue, but the weather later on Monday may prohibit people from leaving their homes safely for mincha and maariv. They will play it by ear. There are contact people in each co-op building who will know what’s the score.
The email reminded the locals that Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, the halachic authority of the neighborhood, made a shacharis minyan in his home in 2011, when Tropical Storm Irene was expected to hit the area.
The Bialystoker email thanked all the people for opening their homes for any minyanim that may be needed, and asked residents spread the word, help with chairs, siddurim, figuring out if a minyan is needed and if, should it be necessary, they may safely join a minyan in an adjacent building. Anyone who may not go to his regular minyan is asked to join a building minyan to assist those who need to say kaddish.
According to the LowDown, all day long, officials have been urging residents in New York’s Zone A to evacuate by 7 o’clock this evening. But they have been paying particular attention to the Smith Houses on James Street, near the Brooklyn Bridge. City Council member Margaret Chin and State Senator Daniel Squadron were among those on the scene at this NYCHA building, urging people to heed the evacuation order.
The Bialystoker Nursing Home, with its distinctive orange brick and Art Deco façade, has been shut down for a year after its nonprofit operators has been unable to keep the institution in business.
Now city preservationists want to declare the building a landmark before somebody turns it into condominiums.
Indeed, the board of what used to be the nursing home wants to sell the home and adjacent properties “as quickly as possible,” as a spokeswoman told the NY Post, adding there was “significant interest” in the site.
The closed home is encumbered with serious financial debt, including $3 million which is owed to its unionized workers.
Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who represents the area, came out in support of landmarking in July. But so far Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the most powerful man in the state and, of course, the Lower East Side, his home district, has not exactly endorsed the idea, although he did state that if the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission decides to declare the building a landmark, he would support their decision.
“This was an important place,” Sam Solasz, 85, chairman of the nursing home’s board for 24 years, told the Post. “I will fight no matter how much it costs.”
I turned to my good friend, City historian Joyce Mendelsohn, who is among the founders of Friends of the Bialystoker Home (FBH) for a little more information about the Bialystoker Home and Center, at 228 East Broadway (designed by architect Harry Hurwit in 1931). She sent me the following email:
Friends of the Bialystoker Home (FBH) is a grass roots group formed in September, 2011, out of concern for the future of the building, after it was announced that the home would be closed and patients relocated to other facilities outside the Lower East Side.
FBH organized a campaign to save the building through landmark designation after the Home was listed by Grubb and Ellis, a real estate firm, as a tear-down, or, as they put it: “a highly desirable development site.”
A landmark designation would protect the building from demolition and would require approval from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission of all proposals by the new owner for additions or alteration to the building.
The sale of the building is imminent to a developer who would demolish this precious remnant of the Jewish legacy on the Lower East Side and replace it with luxury condos.
Neighborhood residents, concerned individuals, local groups and citywide organizations rallied to save this rare surviving building that reflects the history and culture of caring for generations of Jewish immigrants and their descendants on the Lower East Side. Sixteen Sponsoring Organizations signed on in support of landmark designation. They include the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Museum at Eldridge Street, Congregation Kehila Kedosha Janina, the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, Historic Districts Council, NYC Landmarks Conservancy, Art Deco Society of New York and the Gotham Center for NYC History, CUNY/Graduate Center.
The founders of the Home were immigrant Jews from Bialystok, Poland, who established a federation of landsmanshaftn and erected the Bialystoker Home for the Aged for their headquarters and as a sizable facility to care for the elderly and infirm. In announcing plans for this endeavor, they declared, “Our Home will combine modernity with compassion – a Home with a Heart that will stand as a monument for succeeding generations.”
Harry Hurwit – who grew up on the LES and was the architect of several smaller buildings in the neighborhood – designed the striking ten-story structure with ornament expressing its Jewish heritage. The distinctive entrance arch displays two menorahs and twelve stone medallions each representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel, surmounted by the name, “BIALYSTOKER” in Hebraic-style lettering. The building exhibits a unique combination of Jewish symbolism and deco design that signifies a community firmly rooted in traditions of their homeland and, at the same time, proclaiming their rightful place in America.
It is ten o’clock in the morning. I am at a local park with my daughter. A number of children are climbing and sliding, imbibing the fresh air. In their orbit are a smaller number of women, some milling around on foot, others sitting on the benches conversing and minding strollers. Trailing my own child, I play a silent game: Who is a Mommy? Which, if any, of these women (who range from lovingly attentive to disturbingly disengaged) are the children’s mothers, and which are babysitters?
These days, a majority of women in the frum community go to work. Whatever the calculus, few make a full-time occupation of childrearing. This is not a value judgment but a fact. Whereas frum women juggling career and family once felt alone and disparaged, their struggles and triumphs are now much better appreciated within the Orthodox community. Whether in Flatbush, Teaneck, or Yerushalayim, it’s not hard for a stressed-out working mother to find fellow gainfully employed n’shei chayil who know just what she’s going through.
Those of us who toil full-time in motherhood have become a minority, our numbers decreasing as the younger generation embarks on family-building in a Jewish world where working mothers are the norm.
When I was a child, only a couple of my friends’ mothers worked. Both worked in the neighborhood, one on a part-time schedule. No one was picked up by a babysitter, though grandparents figured prominently at pickup time. There were afternoon play dates, occasional midday runs to school to drop off a forgotten assignment or permission slip, and a generally less frenetic sense of pacing. Today, a majority of mothers in my children’s schools work in some capacity outside the home. The landscape has changed. The cultural tide has shifted.
Undoubtedly, financial pressure is the primary factor that has led so many Orthodox women into the workforce. I am not, chas v’shalom, here to criticize working mothers or judge the very personal calculations that go into each woman’s decision. It is what it is, as they say. Living a religious life, raising a frum family – in many cases just getting by at all – takes an awful lot of money these days. (Even without expensive vacations or Jacadi yontiff outfits for the kids.) And regardless of the reasons behind it, working does not, in and of itself, make one a lesser mother, or a better one, any more than not working does.
Good parenting is, as our pediatrician would say, “multi-factorial.”
Before I go further, let me offer a little background. I worked for several years after college in the publishing field, then (still single) returned to school for a law degree, then (newly married) worked in that field for a couple of years, and then, after the birth of my first child, took maternity leave and never went back.
Here I am, five years later, a stay-at-home mother (I prefer the term “full-time mother”). We are neither rich nor poor. There is no money tree in our backyard – living in an apartment, we don’t actually have a backyard – so we struggle like the rest of the masses. But my being there to care for our children – physically, emotionally, spiritually – is of supreme value to my husband and me, and with siyata d’Shmaya we have managed so far.
And let me tell you: It’s lonely out here. When my oldest was a baby, I was part of a Mommy & Me group organized by another frum mother. Of the six women who participated, half now work. When my second child was a baby, a friend and I wanted to organize a Mommy & Me group but had a hard time finding enough Mommies to join. Eventually, we managed to form a small group, which included one babysitter and two mothers who have since gone back to work. Last year, I joined a women’s rosh chodesh group that meets, with babies and toddlers in tow, to watch a Torah-inspired video presentation one morning each month. Now, as we try to shore up membership for the new Jewish calendar year, it’s harder than ever to find women who are available to come.
No, I am not looking for sympathy. I feel truly fortunate to be in this position. But it is worth noting that full-time mothers these days are hard-pressed to find the kind of moms-in-the-trenches camaraderie that provided much-needed support to similarly situated women in the past.
Back in 2005, my daughter and my wife discovered the Stanton Street Shul. They spent a holiday service there and came back with the news that, at last, there was a shul on the Lower East Side tailor made to my needs.
You should know that on the Lower East Side people move to a new shul by slamming the door behind them on their previous shul. I had been davening in a Chassidic hole in the wall on East Broadway, where the nicest and sweetest people were engaged in very deep and serious spiritual pursuits while espousing the most repugnant politics.
My friend who shared that shul’s benches with me said that he only listens to what these people say in Yiddish. When they switch to English, he switches off.
Perhaps this wise policy should be embraced by all Jews, modified for different places and languages, of course.
After more than ten years in that sweet and odd Chassidic shul, I was ready for a change. But unlike the proverbial Lower East Side shul shopper, I didn’t slam the door, only kind of slipped away.
Stanton was such a cool place at first sight. For one thing, jeans was encouraged. Davening was in my kind of Hebrew, the lazy, one-sound-fits-all speech I had grown up with. There were women in the crowd at the Stanton, seated behind a “bikini” mechitza. In my other shul, women were an afterthought, stuck in an altogether separate room.
But Stanton was also a shul out on the borderline between the Lower East Side and the East Village. Back in 2005, it was populated mostly by folks from the co-op buildings on Grand Street and the occasional local Jew. Making the minyan was a daily existential issue, obviously. It’s not easy for any Lower East Side shul these days to make a minyan – but when you’re out in Yehupitz, you get “not easy” only on good days.
Unless you had Benny Sauerhaft in your arsenal.
Every weekday morning, Benny, then already in his early 90s, I believe, would go downstairs to where he had left his Saladin green Dodge Swinger circa 1970, with bumps that made it look like part of the terrain of the moon, if the moon came in Saladin green, with a ceiling that was attached to the roof with all manner of duct tape and electrician tape—and still sloped down with a belly that sagged on top of Benny’s passengers’ heads.
His reputation with local cops was so solid as the old man you don’t want to start up with, that I suspected Benny enjoyed parking in all the many illegal spots the rest of us mortals craved with our eyes on our daily quest for a place to leave our cars. There was so much spirit inside this old man, it was scary to imagine what he must have been like fifty years ago, with his body and his hearing intact.
Incidentally, I always suspected Benny’s hearing impairment thing – it was always a little too selective. I firmly believed that Benny simply tuned out that which he didn’t value, but was absolutely keen on the stuff that was worth listening to.
And Benny was tenacious. Each weekday morning he’d drive along his route, picking up shul members. Rain or shine. On those late fall mornings, when Jewish men go out for the morning prayer in a pitch black world, riding in Benny’s backseat could be a harrowing experience. Benny had this left stigma, you see, or maybe it was a right stigma, but he drove so close to the line of parked cars along Grand Street, we, his passengers, would gasp and occasionally yell out: “Veer left, Benny! Left!”
From day one I had no doubt that Benny was happy to have me around. Mostly because he told me so. He grabbed my hands in his and said, his eyes welling up, “I heard good things about you, I’m happy you came.”
No one was more stubborn than Benny Sauerhaft. I’ve lived through two different rabbis who divided up their time more or less 50% tending to all the congregation needs and the other 50% dealing with Benny. He was opinionated, blunt, unabashed, strong—physically and mentally—and he was shul president.
Ah, yes, his stubbornness also saved the Stanton Street Shul from being sold to members of an alternative, though monotheistic, faith. He got help, for sure, but at some point the future life of the shul came down to one last obstacle, the edifice was all but a memory, the contracts were all but signed, the checks all but cut – and a short, stocky Jew in his ninth decade blocked all that and started pushing back.
My daughter, Yarden Yanover, shot a marvelous little film (under 15 minutes) about Benny and his minions, titled, appropriately enough, “Benny and the Gang.” I believe if you never met Benny Sauerhaft, you would understand a lot from this film about why so many people loved him.
And don’t miss the part where Benny cuts a stack of Styrofoam cups the way you cut a Challah on Friday night, and when he inspects a container of tuna fish salad that was left outside in an un-air-conditioned sanctuary overnight, sniffs it and against a torrent of protests from fellow congregants declares: “It’s good.”
Earlier this month, members of the Toronto Jewish community were given a rare opportunity to be visually transported back in time. The film, filmed in 1922, is called Hungry Hearts, and is based on the short stories of writer Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish woman born in Poland in the 1880s whose family immigrated to New York. Many of her writings are centered on her experiences and those of other immigrants living in the Lower East Side. Like all movies made at that time, it is silent, with dialogue conveyed by cue cards.
The film was shot on location in the Lower East Side, and offered a unique, albeit brief glimpse, into the life of East European Jewish immigrants who had left “die alte heim” – and everything that was familiar to them – to journey to Amerikeh, spurred by the dream of improving their lives and those of their families in the fabled “goldene medina.”
The film, presented by the Toronto Jewish Film Society was screened at the Miles Nadal JCC, located in a part of Toronto that many decades ago, like the Lower East Side, teemed with the colors, smells and hustle and bustle of Jewish immigrants, many of them, like my parent, survivors of the Holocaust.
I had never seen a silent movie in an actual theater (and it had been years since I glimpsed one on TV), and I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing a movie the way people did 100 years ago – with written dialogue and musical accompaniment being utilized to heighten the audience’s awareness of the drama or comedy of the scene. (In this 80-minute film it was provided with great skill and endurance by Jordan Klapman, an accomplished jazz pianist, music director and arranger.)
What made the movie even more appealing to me was that it was atypical, in terms of it being about a Jewish family – with a bearded father and wig-wearing mother (as opposed to the ones I remember where a common theme involves a villain abducting and then tying a hapless female to the railroad tracks, while her hero/love interest desperately tries to reach her before the approaching locomotive does). The household is headed by a rav, who was threatened by the local police for running a cheder (teaching religion was forbidden in Communist Russia). Believing the boastful letter sent by a landsman (local boy) who had significantly embellished the success he has attained in the land of opportunity, the scholarly father uproots his family at the urging of his stoic, practical-minded wife and their shidduch-aged daughter who is imbued with youthful optimism.
Of course, life in America is not the piece of cake they thought it would be – the father preferred sitting with his face in a sefer rather than walking around with a pushcart, but after many trials and tribulations, the family does indeed achieve the American dream – especially when the daughter, Sara, catches the eye of a newly minted lawyer who saves the day when he defends his future mother-in-law in court against the evil landlord, who happens to be his greedy, bully of an uncle. Anticipating an engagement, she takes on back-breaking menial work to afford white paint that will brighten the dreary walls of their tenement, only to have the landlord, who is appalled that his nephew would deign to marry a poor “greena,” double the rent – already barely affordable as it is. In a fit of despair-fuelled rage, she trashes the place.
While the story itself was entertaining, especially when the actors’ facial expressions were somewhat exaggerated, as were their gestures and body language (obviously to compensate for the lack of dialogue) what captivated my attention was the history I was glimpsing; and the sobering awareness that while for me the events had taken place almost a century ago, for the individuals in that film, they were in their “now.”
It was as if a curtain separating today and a far away yesterday, had been momentarily pulled away, inviting us to view a slice of life that once had been someone’s today.
As the story unfolds you see hordes of people going about their daily business on the streets of lower Manhattan in 1922. You are drawn into their reality as you see pushcart peddlers hawking their wares, women picking up various fruits and vegetables with one hand, evaluating their freshness with a practiced eye as their other hand balances a baby on their hip.