Museums and historic sites, the world’s largest menorah and a trendy new Tribeca restaurant inspired by an old-school Catskills resort: They’re all part of Jewish New York, with a heritage that stretches back 400 years and a vital contemporary community that’s reinterpreting old traditions for the 21st century.
New York City has the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, according to the Jewish Databank, which put the city’s Jewish population at 1.4 million in 2002. The stories of European Jews who arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s are relatively well known and easy to find in places like the Lower East Side. But visitors with an interest in Jewish New York will also want to explore many other parts of the city, from the Jewish Children’s Museum in Brooklyn to a 17th-century graveyard on a Chinatown side street.
An obvious place to start is Ellis Island, where the ancestors of so many American Jews first set foot on U.S. soil. Boats run from Battery Park to the National Park site in New York Harbor. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum offers a wealth of artifacts connected to Jewish immigrants, including a photo of a kosher kitchen that opened on the island in 1911 and an eye chart with a line of Hebrew letters.
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
» Ellis Island: Schedules at www.statuecruises.com
» Museum of Jewish Heritage: 36 Battery Place, 646-437-4202, $12 admission (children 12 and under free), www.mjhnyc.org
» Lower East Side Tenement Museum: 97 Orchard St., tours $22, www.tenement.org
» Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy: 400 Grand St., www.lesjc.org
» Jewish Museum: 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue, $12 admission (children under 12, free), closed Wednesdays, www.thejewishmuseum.org
From where the boat lets you off on your return to Manhattan, you can walk to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City. Through summer 2012 the museum is hosting a fascinating exhibit about Emma Lazarus. Lazarus’ sonnet "The New Colossus," with its famous line "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," is engraved on a tablet in the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, and Lady Liberty can be seen from the museum windows. Lazarus was born in New York to an old Sephardic Jewish family; a letter about religious freedom from her great-great uncle to George Washington is part of the show.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage was created as a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. Many of its permanent exhibits are related to life before, during and after the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe during World War II.
A little farther uptown you’ll find a newcomer restaurant with nostalgic ties to New York’s Jewish past. Kutsher’s Tribeca, which opened in November at 186 Franklin St., is the brainchild of Zach Kutsher, whose grandparents ran Kutsher’s Country Club, a popular Catskills resort in its mid-20th-century heyday. The menu reinvents and updates favorite Jewish comfort foods, offering savory brisket meatballs, chopped liver made from duck, and matzo ball soup with dill. You can even order caviar with your latkes — though the roe is not from sturgeon, which isn’t kosher. (Kutsher’s is not strictly kosher, but it does not serve forbidden foods like pork or shellfish.)
Next, head to Chinatown, where Jewish history is hiding in plain sight. Near the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, just south of Chatham Square, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States, at 55 St. James Place. The graveyard was used from 1682 to 1828 by Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Today Shearith Israel’s synagogue is uptown at 2 W. 70th St., but the congregation was founded in the 1650s by Sephardic Jews who settled in Lower Manhattan when it was New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony. Lazarus belonged to the congregation, as did her famous relative, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.
The St. James cemetery is one of three historic Shearith Israel graveyards located on lonely Manhattan side streets; the others are at 76 W. 11th St., used 1805-1829, and on West 21st Street west of Sixth Avenue, used from 1829 to 1851. One can still make out dates and names in Hebrew and English on many tombstones. "It is indeed remarkable seeing these old cemeteries amidst all the buildings — silent tributes to our ancestors and a New York of days gone by," said Rabbi Hayyim Angel of Shearith Israel.
Heading north, where Chinatown runs into the Lower East Side, you’ll find the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St., www.eldridgestreet.org. It was founded in 1887 as the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the United States. In 2007, after a 20-year, $18 million restoration, a museum about the synagogue and local Jewish history opened on the site.
Nearby is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard St. The building dates from 1863, but it was a time capsule when the museum acquired it in 1996: Its apartments had been sealed off since 1935. Museum tours now tell the stories of the real people who lived there. The building housed immigrants from various countries and religious backgrounds, but several tours — one called "Hard Times" and another called "Sweatshop Workers" — focus on Jewish families. The museum also offers "Foods of the Lower East Side," a walking tour ($45) with tastings at neighborhood eateries like Kossar’s Bialys, 367 Grand St., and The Pickle Guys, 49 Essex St.
On Manhattan’s Museum Mile, the Jewish Museum is hosting "The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats," a moving tribute to the beloved author of books like "Whistle for Willie." Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The exhibit looks at how the poverty and anti-Semitism he experienced as a child influenced his work. Young visitors will enjoy a reading room inspired by Keats’ stories.
The Jewish Museum is also hosting an exhibit of 33 Hanukkah menorahs chosen from its permanent collection by another favorite children’s author, Maurice Sendak, who wrote "Where the Wild Things Are." Sendak, also born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust. The Keats and Sendak exhibits are on view through Jan. 29.