Lower East Side Then and Now

for all the tours I’ve done with the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, I had only done a mini tour of the Lower East Side. It was time to fix that, so I joined this weekend’s tour, the Lower East Side Then and Now. Among other things, I was excited that it included Bialystoker, a building about which I’ve been curious for some time.

I can say without a doubt that this was one of the most interesting tours I’ve done, and also one of the most stunning.
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It was a perfect spring day with scarcely a cloud in the sky, which I think led to the vibrant light within the buildings we visited, but I also think Bialystoker would be beautiful wrapped in black construction paper.

While Bialystoker is best known for its mazalot (great information and more and photos), I found the architectural history even more amazing. Yes, the presence of zodiac signs in an orthodox shul is slightly surprising, but challenges of dealing with the conversion of what was the Willets St. Church into Bialystoker Synagogue in 1905 was awe inspiring. I also had no idea that the Manhattan Schist from which it was built was from a quarry practically next door on Pitt St. While the building looks distinctly Jewish with its Stars of David, there are telling pieces of its christian history, including the stained glass and an altar-looking Ark of the Torah, for which the congregation received dispensation for it not facing east. That is believed to be one of the reasons for the extensive imagery of Israel in the synagogue’s interior. While I knew Shelly Silver worshipped at Bialystoker, I had no idea it was once home to Bugsy Siegel and Max Lansky, father of Meyer Lansky. Living history, not all positive.

From Bialystoker we headed down E. Broadway past:

  • some of the original buildings of the Henry Street Settlement;
  • the recently landmarked Bialystoker Center (called “one of the last remaining physical reminders of the Jewish Lower East Side”);
  • a few of the remaining shteibl of what was once Shteibl Row;
  • the Forward Building (yep, an interesting mix of then and then with Tatum O’Neal trying to buy crack in Seward Park); and
  • an unexpected view of One World Trade with the Manhattan Municipal Building.

It’s a really striking mix of then and now. While the neighborhood has changed (and will continue to change with SPURA-more on that later), there’s still a swing back that has been going on since 2000. While the old shteibl aren’t expected to survive long term as their congregations die off, the young returners are worshipping at Bialystoker again.

From E. Broadway we had a quick detour up Norfolk Street to Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the shell of the oldest Russian, orthodox congregation in the US. This was the synagogue that first caught my attention back in November and which I’d thought about recently while wondering how much of the neighborhood SUPRA would touch. It turns out that in addition to the building in which the Conservancy’s visitor center is located, SPURA will come right up against the old Norfolk Street Shul. Hopefully the visitor center will find a new home within Essex Crossing, but there’s no doubt the development is going to change the neighborhood. I find it amusing or amazing, not honestly sure which, that both SPURA and the Second Avenue Subway are finally happening.

Our next and final stop was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the only remaining congregation of Romaniote Jews in the Western Hemisphere. Another amazing interior, and the women’s section doubles as a museum.  This was one of the many landmarked places we saw/visited on the tour that it’s going to be interesting to see how the landmarks of the old neighborhood hit among the new SPURA buildings. I found the Museum Director’s explanation that they’re “less neurotically Orthodox” an interesting one. If not for the gorgeous torah scrolls I’m not sure I’d have realized this was an orthodox shul.

With Bialystoker today, Eldridge St. many times over and Stanton St. and Angel Orensanz last November, I think I’ve hit all the iconic synagogues of the Lower East Side. I’ve also seen some of the amazing uptown architecture, but alas I haven’t been in any. I’m especially glad that I was able to visit Angel Orensanz as it is currently closed due to structural issues and there is no timeline for when/if it will reopen.

All in all, another amazing day on the Lower East Side.

9/11 Remembered

The new museum must help those unborn or unaware on 9/11/01 to understand an awful time. That means telling stories. ” ~ Rick Hampson (with audio)

Reflections of WFC in the South Tower pool
Reflections of WFC in the South Tower pool
Controversial Virgil quote
Controversial Virgil quote
Slurry wall and iconic Last Column with visitors
Slurry wall and iconic Last Column with visitors

The rest of the photos are here.

I argued with myself about attending tonight’s industry preview of the 9/11 Museum, which opens to the public on Wednesday. I nearly didn’t walk through the door and probably would not have if I hadn’t been engaged and talking to a colleague as we approached. But I went, and I’m glad.

As I said briefly on Facebook. I think we have a responsibility to go. I said to a colleague on site, “if it took 13 years to get it right, I’m glad it took 13 years.” This was not something that could be rushed. 9/11 changed the world and the museum needed to reflect that. And I think they beyond nailed it. Perhaps the most poignant thing about today was that the Plaza/Memorial is no longer fenced in. You can cross it to enter the museum, visit the Pools, etc. It is truly public space again.

9/11 is odd to me. I had moved to Osaka three weeks prior and followed 9/11 though a very time shifted and distant lens. I am forever grateful that I wrote that up because my initial reactions to the 9/11 Memorial are lost to time. That’s why I’m writing this now.

While the tridents are meant to be the museum’s icons, it was the Last Column and the controversial Virgil quote that repeatedly hit me today. The museum’s own posts about the Last Column say more than I can about the symbol of our city’s resiliency. The Virgil quote has been an issue for three years but it recently bubbled up again due to the context. I was aware of the controversy and the context, but seeing it in the atrium today was no less powerful. And I wasn’t even aware on site that it was the “guardian” to the museum’s tomb of the unknowns.

I did not read the captions today. I can’t. I wasn’t ready to see 9/11 as a museum. It’s still living history to me. One day I will go back, see the exhibits, and read captions

Today was about stepping foot on a plaza I hadn’t since at least August 2001 that is now hallowed ground.

Review: Jeneration X

So I realized something sad when I started to read Jeneration X, Jen Lancaster’s 2012 “chapter” of her non-fiction series: I think I’ve outgrown it. This is equal parts sad and odd because a) I used to love her non fiction titles and b) I’m at least a decade younger than she is.  At some point between My Fair Lazy and the latest chapter in her “I’m a fancy author and now so is my friend Stacey and I have to remind you every other page”, I got bored.Also sad, it look me four weeks to get through this book, only the sixth one I’ve finished this year. I am so off pace it is sad. I think the biggest issue with this one was a lack of filter or editor. Seriously, a book shouldn’t read like a blog, and there’s a reason I don’t read her blog.That said, there were some funnies in this book as well as some things I identified with — unfortunately they were somewhat drowned out by her egotism. Midway through the book when talking about eBay she identified herself as “hypercompetitive asshole”. At least she knows her shortcomings.Note to self: read the Amazon reviews before buying. A good number of them nailed exactly what I was thinking.

Those of us born between 1965 and 1980 had none of the benefits of the generations that came before or after us. We know nothing of the kinder, simpler America from the Camelot days, nor were we born with an innate understanding of how to operate Microsoft Windows. Today, we’re a beeper generation in a smartphone world. Watching this generation operate makes me very glad that people my age understand that tools like technology and social media are a means to an end and not the end itself. My generation didn’t play soccer so we know that when the game is over not everyone gets a trophy. Yet here we are, trapped in middle management between two massive cases of generational arrested development.So that’s what those of us in Generation X have done to define ourselves. We’ve become the only adults in a world full of children. I mean, if I could finally grow up? Anyone can.

In hind sight, that’s probably where I should have quit reading. Although I may or may not be Gen X depending on who is drawing the boundaries, I’m definitely closer to Gen Y/Millennial than her broad strokes.

“I don’t do shots anymore because I hate how they make me feel in the morning. Coincidentally, this is also why I no longer eat Lucky Charms for dinner. Much as I enjoyed both acts, I haven’t the liver or the stomach of a college kid anymore.”

Attempt to open the boxes of shipped items with a tablespoon. [Hey, it was the most handy pointy thing.]

I admit – this is me, to a T. Although it was Fruit Loops and not Lucky Charms, which are gross.