Sunday, August 06, 2006
It is night, Erev Tisha Bav, and I am headed downtown. I heard Eicha at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, a modern space with curves and diagonals but now I am returning to a place I haven't visited for years. A place as far from modern as you can get. The Lower East Side.
The Lower East Side is where many of America's first Jewish immigrants came. The streets are still imprinted with the sound of Yiddish, with the footsteps of Jews hurrying to shul, with the rolling wheels of their pushcarts and the legacy of their souls. It is also a dying neighborhood whose children have left it for a thousand suburbs and towns. Like the Jerusalem that once was it sits abandoned waiting for its children who will never return.
There are rockets falling on Israel now and new ruins coming into being there but I cannot be in Israel now and so I return to our oldest home in America, to another ruin. The Williamsburg Bridge, ugliest and grimiest of Manhattan's downtown bridges is a shadowy bulk in the night. Stadium lights shine over the FDR Drive's baseball fields, though there is no one there and no game expected. The bleachers are empty and the untrodden green turf gleams eerily under the glare.
The Lower East Side was once home to millions of Jews but those Jews have long gone. It is still a unique community nonetheless, one where elderly men wear grey and plaid hats and the non-religious are as welcome in the Orthodox synagogues as the most devout. The current categories of the frum world, haredi, modern orthodox, chassidic melt here. Any shul you enter will have people from all these boxes and more. They are simply Lower East Side Jews and in the era of communities segregated by minchag, hashkafah and all that pettiness, they are a valuable treasure vanishing away.
Walled in one side by the river, the city in its infinite wisdom walled in it on two more sides by huge tracts of housing projects, one that is alone over 16 blocks long. In those projects any local cop could find his way blindfolded, so familiar were they were its interiors from domestic abuse, drug, suicide and shooting calls. They cut off the Lower East Side from the rest of Manhattan strangling it in a headlock of poverty and crime. Chinatown pressed in on the third side with sweatshops, tenements crowded with a dozen illegal immigrants to a room and resteurants with slaughtered pigs in the windows. The Jewish community receded to the co-ops which the Dinkins administration did their best to plant homeless people in.
Still the infinite wisdom of our authorities weren't done with the Jews of the Lower East Side yet. The congressional district for the Lower East Side was gerrymandered, sliced up, sectioned off along with pieces of Brooklyn and Queens into the city's only tri-borough congressional district. The congressman who had represented the Lower East Side was gone replaced with Nydia Velasquez heading a mostly hispanic district in which she couldn't possibly lose. Her website mentions her district as including Latinos, Chinese and Poles. As far as she is concerned the Jews of the Lower East Side are non-persons who do not exist.
Guliani time brought with it a new wave of developement, yuppies colonized the village and flowed upward bringing with them trendy stores, bars and boutiques. Chinatown wailed. The Latinos threatened action forming GOLES, Good Old Lower East Side (a vision of the neighborhood dating back to the 70's in which the Jews had no place.) The Jews as always remained silent. Their politicians as always served others leaving no one to speak for them. For the ordinary Jews and the ordinary people.
The wealth flowed in and real estate prices went up. There are now bars coating Clinton Street like ticks. There are a dozen healthfood stores, a thousand trendy fusion resteurants opening and closing by the month, their neon signs like fireflies winking in and out of the summer night. The prices went up. The real estate value went up and the bosses on the Lower East Side, the machers and the insiders heard, Sell, Sell, Sell. The co-ops privatized. Elderly men and religious families who had cheap apartments were suddenly being offered six figure sums for them. What could they do. They sold. They sold and the yuppies moved in. The co-ops have many Jews in them still but fewer and fewer of them are religious at all. The bikes are full of racks for the aging peter pans in shorts who pull down their own six figure salaries in the dot coms of Silicon Alley and the magazines of Fifth Avenue. And the Jewish Lower East Side is vanishing.
Ratner's where Jazz musicians, punk rockers, men from the garment district with last names like Shmulewitz and Horrockowitz and towards the end frum boys out of Mir and Chaim Berlin with starched white shirts and dates named Fraidy or Mindy, had dined in the quiet dignified opulence of red velvet served by elderly waiters who had seen a generation come and go, is now a Sleepy's mattress store. The lights out front which shone so many evenings on courting couples, on famous and infamous names, on saxaphonists and gangsters, on Rabbis and cutters shine on displays of foam matresses. Oi me haya lanu.
Mestiva Tiferet Yerushalayim where Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once walked between the marble plaques lining its interior is an oasis among the 99 cent stores and tenements of Chinatown where his son, Rav David Feinstein still delivers shiurim. Traditonally Jewish Essex and Orchard Streets are a strange fusion half-chinese, half-village. The Jewish bookstores are all but gone. A handfull of Jewish garment stores remain. The 2nd Avenue Deli is gone as well, Katz's exists but is non-Kosher. The Jewish community that now remains is in its synagogues. Many already gone.
The noble Pike Street synagogue like a temple of ancient days, its dignified grey masonry is befouled now with the leavings of the discount Chinese store downstairs and the idols of the Buddhist temple above. The Eldridge Street synagogue like something lifted from the streets of Seville, magically born on ships to be rescued from the mad priests of the Spanish Inquisition is half-museum now, but still it stands in all its roccoco grandeur.
Mysterious, the Greek synagogue endures. Chasam Sopher has a wealthy benefactor who comes to services in limousine. It is renovated from top to bottom with a garden on the side but lacks congregants. The Stanton Street synagogue experiments with liberalism obtaining its amateur Rabbis by the bushel from Rabbi Weiss' YCT. Magen Avraham is gone. Its roof caved in one friday night more than a decade and a half ago. Like foxes on the temple ruins, condominums stand there now. The Bialystoker gaudily painted on the inside still dominates the remaining Lower East Side with its red and gold like a calliope. By contrast Mestiva Tiferet Yerushalayim is all brown and dust and spiders make their home above, but Torah resounds there still over the worn cracked tile. And the Home of the Sages keeps its vigil, narrow and skinny, its peers out at Williamsburg Bridge where old men in black study the words of G-d on cushioned seats and the eternal flame burns in memory of all that was lost.
My way, circular and bewildered, takes me past all these and more. Takes me like a wandering drunk through the remnants of the Lower East Side. Takes me until unknowingly my feet lead the way to what once was the First Roumanian-American congregation, Shaarei Shamayim, the gates of heaven. It must have seemed very much like the gates of heaven once upon a time. A time when Moishe Oysher, Yossele Rosenblatt, Moishe Koussevitsky, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker sang there, their operatic voices soaring high to the vast celling, its interior a palace impossible to describe. It perservered through the lean years, gathering its minyanim from the workers in Orchard Street's clothing trade.
Rabbi Yaakov Spiegel, a man who had he not been an Orthodox Jew and in good shape, could have passed for Santa Claus, kept it all going. Tall, always with a ready chuckle, the street was renamed after him. He died and his son took over and the roof once again, the roof always, fell in. The insurance company wouldn't pay to fix it and the Synagogue fell in. Of that vast palace of the King, the Creator of earth and heaven, of the synagogue named The Gates of Heaven, all that remains standing now is a single gate. Oi me haya lanu.
Rivington Street is now lined with trendy bars and the lamposts with trendy stickers advertising bands, clubs and causes. ! 'heart' Beirut stickers are glued on everywhere. The sort of trendy propoganda trendy people tend to deploy. The night congeals blue over the eastern horizon. Light, noise, laughter leaks out of the clubs and bars. It's the 20's all over again except the alcohol is legal, just not remotely cheap. It's the 20's without the Jews, the Jews are gone.
A wooden clumsy fence of boards is set around the remains of the demolished Roumanian American Congregation. There isn't even the rubble left inside. If there was a remaining Mikdash on the Lower East Side this was it. Now it is nothing but dust on the earth. No foxes roam there but perhaps mice. Around it the village continues to grow. The space will be bought up for condominums. The money paid will filter into the community chest as it tries to put on air of confidence and keep the Jewish community going. More shuls will surely fall. A national landmark dating back to 1858, Jewish soldiers prayed there once, Beit Medrash Hagadol is endangered. Developers want to build condos there too. It recently suffered a fire and teeters as always on the edge of time's knife.
Community Board 3 those wise authorities in cooperation with the city now have a new mandate to drastically limit development on the Lower East Side. Those good people are upset over all the bars and condominiums across the neighborhood. I am no great fan of these but I recognize that the alternative is housing projects, crack vials, muggings, murders, empty liquor bottles on every corner and homeless encampments. The bars serve yuppies. The bodegas served the sort of people who when they can't afford their malt liquor will cut your throat for it instead. The bodegas though are considered a part of the community, the bars are not. CB3 wants the Lower East Side to be a ghetto, not a Jewish ghetto of course but a ghetto ghetto. A place where people hopelessly collect and cash their welfare checks and walk among the rubble and trash to the soundtrack of screams, crying children and police sirens.
Ethnic groups who have barely been on the Lower East Side for three decades claim it as their exclusive territory. Latinos insist that the bars and village eateries are crowding out their hair salons and bodegas. Jews of course said nothing when the hair salons and bodegas crowded out our resteurants and book stores. That would have been racist. A Chinese civil rights organization shouts that Orchard Street is Chinese (part of the south since 1993 perhaps) and that any non-Chinese development is an occupation of their territory. Oddly photos of Orchard Street from 70 years back show yarmulkes by the pushcarts. Clearly an illusion of time.
Jews though make no claim on the Lower East Side but the emotional, threaten no one but only hold on to what little there is, as it dwindles away. There is no belligirence to be found. People make their plans while the real estate mavens profit from them, profit from the destruction of a neighborhood and put out cheery bulletins branding the Lower East Side as Loho and celebrating what they have wrought. The insiders who grabbed two apartments for themselves, smashed down the walls and called it a 'Break-Through' are profiting by selling those apartments for a million or more. The parasites rejoyce while new funeral notices appear daily on the walls.
I tear down an 'I 'heart' Beirut' sticker and wadding it up toss it up into the night over the wooden fence where the Roumanian-American Congregation once was. It falls back down to the sidewalk into the dirt and I go uptown returning home. Oi me haya lanu.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Towards dusk the fireflies flicker in the garden sending coded messages to each other, tiny wisps tracing their mysterious imponderable circles. The green light on my camera glows steadily resembling them but they move too fast for pictures, their tiny lights going in and out before the ponderous flash of a digital camera can capture them.
It is August again.
Summer is New York City's shortest hurrah, a heavy thick blanket of heat clamped down on a city of concrete and steel, a city made more properly for winter than summer, more for snow scenes than the sight of sweating masses baking on grim grey streets. In summer the city itself seems to sweat people. Summer is a relief from cold, a release from long dark days that begin in the afternoon and carry on into the morning. A release from the strange twilight of weather that is neither warm nor cold that dominates the climate these days.
But summer itself is not a relief but a sort of pressure, an explosive decompression of temperatures in which we escape from the bleakness of winter into a raving madman's heat, a heat enclosed in steel and concrete walls, deprived of green pastures and rushing brooks and all the accompaniment of summer to frame except for the occasional grimy yellow beach, an afterthought sticking out from behind rows of malformed coney island, rockaway and brighton beach condominums.
The passing of the seasons is also the passing of time, the reminder that each thing we have is also doomed to pass away, that the things we look forward to like summer never meet our expectation and that finally we never appreciate it when it is worth having.
And so each passing of the seasons, each change bears within it a mourning for a time to come.