The first I’d ever heard of 137 E. Houston St., on the Lower East Side, was when I went to the Ellis Island website recently to search for information about my grandparents coming to America. It was the address listed for Sam Bloomfield, the first name on the manifest of the SS New York when it arrived at Ellis Island on Oct. 14, 1906, from Southampton, England.
The 22-year-old Romanian-born tailor from Cardiff, Wales, gave that address because it was where his brother Ben lived. So, eventually, did his parents, Solomon and Hannah Rache, and their seven children. Solomon had made three trips to America to bring family members and get them situated before he settled down.
Sam, the third child and my grandfather, was named for his grandfather, Rabbi Samuel Bluminfeldt, who had died earlier in the same year Sam was born, 1884. Family members anglicized their name to Bloomfield a few years later when they moved from Botosani, Romania, to Wales. By the time they arrived in New York they were all Bloomfields.
Sam Bloomfield arrived with $5 in his pocket, according to Ellis Island records. He could read and write, had never been in prison or a mental institution, was neither a polygamist nor an anarchist, was in good mental and physical health and had no deformities, according to the Manifest of Alien Passengers.
That was enough to make the Houston Street address an important landmark for me, a Cleveland native who has spent the past 40-some years in Washington, D.C. It turns out the Lower East Side address has another claim to fame beyond being the home of Sam Bloomfield and his family; it is the home of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, which has occupied a spot on the ground floor since 1910. Sam had been living there for four years by then, so he clearly has seniority.
When I told my New York friends about my pilgrimage to Houston Street, they told me Yonah Schimmel’s is a New York landmark almost as well known as Macy’s.
Sam moved out of Houston Street 100 years ago next month when he married Sophia Kendall, who lived a few blocks up in the East Village, at 60 E. 7th St., with her parents Israel Mordechai Kendall (for whom I am named) and Rebecah Leah Bluminfeldt. The new couple, Sam and Sophia, were first cousins, a common practice in that era; his father (Solomon) and her mother (Rebecah) were brother and sister.
Both tenement buildings are still there, but not the shul where the couple was wed. The wedding invitation from my great-grandparents listed Congregation Tifereth Israel at 126 Allen St., which is near Delancey, and at the time of my visit in April, it was an empty storefront with a sign saying, “Russ & Daughters Cafe,” which was soon to open. That concern is a spin-off of another Lower East Side landmark I’d never heard of until a few hours later when I walked into the current location of the self-described “Louvre of Lox” at 179 E. Houston St. (The café, whose entrance is actually on Orchard Street, is now open.)
Back at Yonah Schimmel’s, my wife and I ordered some knishes, of course; mine were the traditional potato and kasha, but she got the cheese and fruit, which she declared fantastic. At the next table were two men also making a nostalgic pilgrimage. They’d grown up in the neighborhood and made frequent visits back to Yonah Schimmel’s over the years. One was celebrating his 90th birthday and the other was a couple years younger; they told me about having to save their pennies until they could afford a five-cent knish that now costs $3.50 and still tastes as good as they remember it.
Judging by the photographs on the walls and the autographs, it is a favorite spot for celebrities as well as ordinary New Yorkers. But I’m sure Sam Bloomfield and his brothers and sisters who lived upstairs knew that a century ago.
Douglas M. Bloomfield writes the Political Insider blog on The Jewish Week’s website, thejewishweek.com.