Changing Times In Jewish New York

Changing Times In Jewish New York

Managing Editor Robert Goldblum’s cover story this week on recent demographic trends and the loss of institutions got me thinking about what he describes as the changing "Jewish taam," or flavor of New York City. If you grow up Orthodox, as I did, it’s easy to feel like the whole place is Little Jerusalem, because of all the sights (Hebrew store signs), sounds (davening as you walk past a shul) and smells (potato kugel wafting down a heavily Orthodox street on a Friday afternoon.)

Under the same municipal government are numerous thriving commercial strips that are overwhelmingly Jewish, such as 13th Avenue and Avenue J in Brooklyn; Main Street and 108th Street in Queens; Riverdale Avenue in the Bronx; Grand Street and parts of Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. Only Staten Island is missing its taste of Little Jerusalem.

Businesses named for Israeli cities are everywhere (though I cringed when I saw a t-shirt the other day advertising Yerushalayim Sewer and Drain.) Despite the economy, yeshivas and day schools are putting up new, modern buildings to accomodate high enrollment.

This is a city with a thriving Jewish community media, home to a Jewish cable channel, with a tallis-bag full of Jewish newspapers, numerous radio programs and dozens of locally based blogs.

But as Fernando Ferrer might say, there is another New York, one where Jewish life is fading fast or is long gone.

The Lower East Side still has plenty of kosher shops on Grand Street but it’s nothing like it was in the old days. When you ride the L train through East new York to Canarsie, as I did for five years in the early 90s, you can see from the elevated tracks a gallery of churches with beautiful stained glass windows featuring Stars of David and Hebrew letters from their earlier incarnation as shuls.

When you get to Canarsie, now a majority Haitian American enclave, you can tour the underutilized infrastructure there, including shuls of all denominations, where congregations are struggling to stay open. For years there was even a Haitian restaurant with a misleading "kosher" sign painted on the side by a prior owner.

In Bensonhurst, where I grew up, you can walk a few blocks from the Jewish Community House and Yeshiva Ohel Moshe (my elementary school alma mater), both proud demographic survivors, to the corner of Bay Parkway and Benson Avenue, where Temple Beth Ahavath Shalom once stood, now replaced by office suites — a rare case where a shul building was completely razed. Not far away on Bath Avenue, Colonial Mansion, one of the first kosher catering halls, where my brother and I had our bar mitzvahs, is now a mosque. You can’t get kosher food anymore on Brighton Beach Avenue, despite the overwhelmingly Jewish surrounding population.

Conservative and Reform congregations in Brooklyn and Queens have been forced to merge.

In the Bronx, noble Jews from other aeras are tending to the needs of those elderly and/or Russian Jews who won’t cling to apartmemnts on the Grand Concourse or Pelham Parkway, bringing them kosher meals, Passover groceries and keeping a minyan going.

It’s clear that it is generally Orthodox institutions such as yeshivot, shuls and kosher commercial strips that preserve and intensify the Jewish flavor of communities. But at the same time, as seen in Canarsie or on the Lower East Side, even those amenities sometimes aren’t enough when young people raised in a community simply aren’t compelled to plant roots in the same area where they grew up.

In the end, it may be one of those phenomena that give rise to the bewildered phrase "Only In New York." The site of the biggest decline in Jewish life and culture in America is also the site of the biggest, simultaneous boom of Jewish life in America.

In this town, that’s not a paradox.

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