The vitality of Jewish life on the Upper East Side of Manhattan can be measured in many ways — in the myriad prestigious day schools, for instance, or the many grand temples filled to capacity with Shabbat congregants.
But perhaps the most telling sign of how vibrant Jewish life has become is the fact that the storied Second Avenue Deli, a downtown non-glatt kosher fixture for most of the last half century, chose First Avenue and 75th Street for its eagerly awaited second location.
The kosher dining scene is blossoming east of Central Park, and all signs point to the increase in Jewish observance in this historically affluent, largely secular neighborhood — which stretches from Fifth Avenue to the East River, north from 59th Street to about 96th Street.
“The demand is there, and growing” for kosher eateries, said Tammy Cohen, who lives in the East 60s and is the marketing director for the glatt-kosher Eighteen Restaurant, which opened in May and serves sushi, burgers and overstuffed deli sandwiches. “The East Side is going to support that level of business, the way the West Side does now.”
Approximately 70,000 Jews live on the Upper East Side, according to Rabbi Ben Tzion Krasnianski, executive director of Chabad of the Upper East Side.
Ironically, he said, despite the neighborhood’s growing observant population, it remains one of the least-affiliated Jewish communities in New York City, percentage-wise. “Rabbi Schneier and I,” he said, referring to Rabbi Marc Schneier, longtime East Sider and spiritual leader of the Hampton and New York Synagogues (which will not open this fall after the sale of its building) — “realized that if every seat in every local shul were filled, it would only amount to about 16,000 people.”
But signs of observant population growth are evident. Dozens of men, from hedge fund managers to diamond dealers, turn up daily before 7 a.m. for one-on-one Torah study at Chabad’s Upper East Side Kollel. More than 1,000 East Siders in their 20s and 30s have participated in the first year of Chabad’s Young Professionals program, designed to engage recent graduates of campus Hillels with like-minded peers. Another Chabad effort to engage every local Jew, the Friendship Circle, pairs Jewish teens with special-needs peers for weekly socializing.
“People here are very educated, they really want to learn, and they want a deeper engagement,” said Rabbi Krasnianski.
Together, the denizens of the Upper East Side also constitute one of the city’s — and the nation’s — most sophisticated and high-profile communities. Fifth Avenue has long been a prestigious address, home to numerous celebrities and eye-popping apartment prices, while Park Avenue is coveted for its sprawling prewar family homes. In between, Madison Avenue is lined with upscale boutiques and ladies-who-lunch cafés, and side streets boast historic brownstones.
Many of the city’s most prominent cultural institutions are on the Upper East Side, such as the Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Whitney art museums and the 92nd Street Y. And among the area’s many synagogues are some venerable city landmarks: Temple Emanu-El, Orach Chaim, and Park East Synagogue, to name just a few.
Upper East Side Jews can worship at some of the city’s oldest congregations, like Park Avenue Synagogue, a 126-year-old Conservative shul, or the Reform Temple Israel, which turned 140 this year. In its 165 years, Temple Shaaray Tefila has moved from the West Side to the East and from Orthodoxy to Reform worship. More recently, the Safra Synagogue and the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation have established the area as a home base for Sephardic worship.
“There’s a great vitality to the Upper East Side,” said Aaron Shelden, a member of the traditional, egalitarian Congregation Or Zarua on East 82nd Street and a longtime resident. “When you walk from Fifth Avenue to the East River, you pass through so many different kinds of areas: residential buildings, stores, restaurants. It’s a complex neighborhood.”
That complexity makes it a comfortable destination for Jews of all ages. Young singles move to the neighborhood’s eastern zone after college, socializing along Second Avenue and sharing apartments that can be surprisingly affordable, given neighborhood demographics. (Distance from the subway — which will eventually be a thing of the past, once the Second Avenue Subway debuts — tends to lower the prices near First and York avenues.)
“There are a lot of prominent people who are part of the congregation, and they thrive on the intellectual stimulation this atmosphere offers,” said Shelden, whose son was among the first graduates of the highly regarded Abraham Joshua Heschel School. “As the feeling of Jewish community increases, so does the participation in Jewish activity outside of the synagogue.”
With such diverse cultural fare available, it was only time before the kosher dining scene responded in kind. The Dakshin Kosher Indian Bistro opened in February, giving locals a chance to eat curry and naan on First Avenue.
“Business is lovely — it’s extraordinary,” reported Maxine Dovere, Dakshin’s marketing director. “There is no question that there is a need that longed to be fulfilled” for greater kosher variety.
Indian restaurateur Sanjay Bhatnaza saw that need, and Dovere helped steer him through the rigors of kashrut.
“I told him if he wanted to be in the kosher business, he had to be very, very serious about kosher supervision,” said Dovere. The glatt kosher establishment is supervised by OK, with “a Crown Heights Lubavitcher who is very meticulous and always there.”
Dovere and others say the kosher ethnic restaurants have brought the larger East Side community together in surprising ways. “We have many customers who are not observant of kashrut, but are observant of other dietary laws,” said Dovere. “We have Muslims, we have doctors who come over from Mt. Sinai, we have the Indian community who are very comfortable because it’s authentic. But the bottom of line is it has to be a good restaurant.”
Nobody knows this better than the Lattanzifamily, pioneers of kosher ethnic dining on the Upper East Side. Their kosher dairy and meat restaurants, Va Bene and Tevere respectively, feature the cuisine of Jewish Rome.
Kosher Moroccan food is the specialty of Galil, on Lexington near 85th Street. Nearby, Nargila Grill has a pan-Mediterranean menu of falafel, couscous, Yemeni breads and lamb kebabs.
And then there is the wildly popular U Café, a stylish spot with kosher Mediterranean fare, homemade desserts and a neighborhood vibe. The Ben-Ari family, which greets each customer with enthusiasm, loves to mention the many couples who have held their first dates there — and later gotten married.
Eighteen, the family-friendly neighborhood eatery, doesn’t have its liquor license yet, but the local wine shops cater to a growing kosher clientele with a worldly palate. At places like K&D Wines, Garnet Wines & Liquors, Cork and Bottle and Wine at 79, a kosher sipper can browse everything from Italian prosecco to Argentine malbec, California chardonnay to French burgundy, alongside the latest from trendy Israeli vineyards.
The 86th Street corridor is undergoing a metamorphosis from dowdy big-box sprawl to shopping destination. Fairway, which carries a large selection of kosher products, recently announced plans to open at the former 86th Street site of Barnes & Noble, while H&M and Sephora are among the newest retail options. Meanwhile, mom-and-pop businesses continue to flourish along Lexington Avenue, where florists and bakers know their customers’ names.
Fans of the Shake Shack, a retro hip (though decidedly non-kosher) establishment with a cult-like following, have followed the frozen custard and crinkly fries to the new 86th Street location, the latest in the Danny Meyer restaurant empire.
Rabbi Krasnianski, of Chabad, said his Jewish neighbors combine the worldly and the spiritual in ways that give the Upper East Side “a unique vibrancy.”
“This is the wealthiest Jewish community, perhaps in the world,” he said. “Hashem has entrusted these people with tremendous wealth, which means tremendous influence — it’s a privilege and a responsibility. So this is a community where, whatever positive we do here, has repercussions all over the world.”