It may have been the folksiest diplomatic rendezvous since the Roosevelts had the King of England over for hot dogs in the Hyde Park backyard.
Last week some 47 United Nations ambassadors and consuls general dropped by an unadorned ground-level community room in the Seward Park apartments on the Lower East Side for some bagels and lox, followed by a walk around the old neighborhood with the American Jewish Committee.
The morning was as unpretentious as the wet umbrellas: In all, more than 100 diplomats and AJC people came out of the rain for what hardly seemed like a power breakfast — serve-yourself on disposable plates — though powerful people these were.
The casualness disguised a cause.
“Reaching out to diplomats is a very important part of our work,” said Scott Richman, director of AJC Westchester. “We have ongoing relations with 114 different countries. Our lay leaders are meeting constantly with diplomats.” Sometimes they meet formally, in suits in offices; sometimes in private homes for Thanksgiving dinners or late-summer barbecues; sometimes in groups such as this on the Lower East Side; the hail-fellow-well-met shmoozing being as critical as the more hushed conversations about Iran or Hezbollah.
Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, explained the Lower East Side: “That wthich has been discarded is once again chic,” not only with secular “cool people who are coming back, it’s also with the resurgence of Orthodoxy.”
David Harris, executive director of the AJC, told the diplomats that his son recently found an apartment on Stanton Street. Harris said his son’s grandmother made her way downtown to visit “this tenement building that hadn’t changed. If you walk in, there’s actually a Star of David in the mosaic on the floor of the entrance to building, next to a sign that says, in Spanish and English, ‘No Spitting. No Loitering…’ She goes up one flight of stairs, because of course there are no elevators, and he’s just breathlessly excited to show her his palace. She says, ‘if you’re paying more than $30 a month…’ If you know anything about rents in New York, I think he’s paying a multiple of 100-times…. This is an incredibly dynamic area, both for its history and its contemporary dynamism and recycling as new generations come back.”
The diplomats were divided into several groups, each shepherded by guides from the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy who pointed out Shtiebel Row, the old Bialystoker Home and the large, brilliantly colorful and still communally vibrant Bialystoker Shul, the penultimate Polish Ashkenaz survivor; the artistic remnant of the Henry Street Settlement, and the modest, gently aging Kehila Kedosha Janina, almost as narrow as a one-car garage, a Greek Romaniote-Sephardic congregation, still alive and shoehorned into a space on Broome Street.
Koula Sophoianou, counsel general from Cyprus, said that she was familiar with Kehila Kedosha Janina, whose members “have always been supportive of Cyprus.”
Beyond that, she said, “the tour gave us the opportunity to experience the Jewish hospitality, friendliness and early history in the United States. The tour seemed to be a virtual journey back in time when the first Jews established themselves in this part of New York,” and were establishing themselves again, albeit at rents that Harris’ mother thought “meshuga.”