I strolled along South Street to the dissonance of two competing hip-hop beats, one blaring from each side of the block. On a warm fall day, the rhythm seemed an agreeable accompaniment to a leisurely stroll through Queen Village, Philadelphia’s oldest residential neighborhood.
South Street reminded me of Fifth Avenue in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn about 10 years ago. I kept prying my husband, Oggi, out of hipster music stores and second-hand shops, where he threatened to buy a used guitar the minute my back was turned. Meanwhile, he had to coax me away from second-hand diamonds that glittered from the windows of innumerable cash-for-jewelry stores. We passed tiny ethnic cafes, stylish burger joints, sex shops, and hookah lounges; if we were inclined to dress up for Halloween, this would have been a great place to find a costume.
On my umpteenth visit to the city of Brotherly Love, I’d resolved to break out of my Center City rut and explore the characteristic neighborhoods that make Philadelphia so fascinating.
Queen Village, which lies just southeast of the center along the Delaware River, beckoned with red-brick charm, diverse urban energy and landmarks from a vivid Jewish past. In the 19th century, immigrants from Eastern Europe settled amid these tree-lined streets, establishing businesses and shuls. A postwar suburban exodus transformed these once-Jewish and Italian neighborhoods, but vestiges live on in the 21st-century palimpsest that is South Philly.
In a city where so much history is front and center, it was fun to uncover the subtle markers of Jewish life amid 19th-century brick row houses. Antique treasures, as I discovered, are hardly limited to the South Street storefronts: from monuments in parks to Hebrew-engraved facades, Queen Village is a trove of vintage delights.
I satisfied a mid-morning hunger attack with a bagel from South Street Philly Bagels, which — though hardly a vintage establishment — fit nicely with my mission. A fifth-generation Brooklyn bagel maker opened the shop in the mid-’90s, when the commercial strip was undergoing its latest renaissance; while 19th-century Russian Jews would probably have looked askance at chocolate-chip bagels, they’d nonetheless recognize a good bialy more readily than most of the street’s current offerings.
It’s a pity I was full by the time I reached Famous Fourth Street Deli. As soon as I stepped inside the black-and-white checkered-tile storefront, I recognized the unmistakable classics of my childhood: black-and-white cookies the size of my head, pieces of cake with the rough dimensions of a tissue box, and enough luscious pastrami to give any cardiologist a conniption. Famous is riding a broader wave of Jewish-deli nostalgia, but this place — open since 1923 — is the real deal.
Fourth Street between South and Catharine streets is still known as Fabric Row for its myriad textile shops and boutiques. The name harkens back to an era when Jewish merchants sought their fortunes in Philadelphia’s bustling garment industry, turning out menswear, millinery and all manner of confections in the early 20th century.
At least one Jewish institution dates from that immigrant heyday. B’nai Abraham, built on Lombard Street in 1874, is the oldest synagogue building in Philadelphia still in continuous use. The Orthodox synagogue has seen its share of neighborhood vicissitudes, but services draw a healthy crowd to the columned edifice, whose tan façade stands out amid tidy brick row houses.
Another synagogue of that era, on Sixth Street just off South, is now home to the Antiquarian’s Delight — a metaphor, it seemed, for the whole neighborhood. Hebrew letters just over the doorway add just the right historical note to what is now a colorful hodgepodge of dusty books, rhinestone earrings and mink stoles from many a Jewish grandmother’s legacy.
Strolling north, I turned back toward Rittenhouse Square, headed for another Jewish classic: the Rosenbach Museum and Library, on one of the prettiest blocks in Philadelphia.
The redbrick townhouse of Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach, a Jewish rare-books and manuscripts dealer who died in 1954, is now home to a singular collection that includes James Joyce’s handwritten “Ulysses” and a first-edition “Don Quixote.”
Collecting ran in the family: A.S.W.’s brother, Philip, was an art and antiques dealer, and their combined passions form the core of the museum, meaning you can peruse letters from the Founding Fathers amid the chairs they might have sat on.
Jewish bibliophiles will find much to savor. The Rosenbach is the sole repository of the artwork of Maurice Sendak, the legendary Jewish children’s book author and illustrator; sketches, manuscripts, and rotating exhibitions document Sendak’s magical world, and a current exhibition, “The Night Max Wore His Wolf Suit,” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the iconic Sendak work, “Where The Wild Things Are.”
This year’s highlight, however, is “In the Beginning,” a 500-year chronology of the Jewish Diaspora on view through January. The show juxtaposes works from three collections — the earliest printed works in Hebrew, from Southern Europe; Jewish-authored books from Colonial America and 18th-century Britain; and selections from the Gratz holdings, one of Philadelphia’s oldest Jewish families — to illuminate perspectives on Jewish life on both sides of the Atlantic.
I left the museum thinking about those slices of layer cake back on Fourth Street, or maybe a corned-beef sandwich. Unlike the Rosenbachs — who clearly never saw a deal they couldn’t pass up — I had thus far managed to resist the lure of shopping. But in the paradise for souvenirs that is Queen Village, I decided a slice of cake seemed a reasonable reward.