The Lower East Side
I just returned from a wonderful weekend in NYC. Although seeing my grandson Nate (and his parents and his great-grandparents) was the best part of the weekend, I also had an opportunity to do two things I’ve wanted to do for a while: go to the Lower East Side and see where the Brotmans lived in the early 1900s and go to the cemeteries where my great-grandparents and grandparents are buried. I am going to divide those two experiences into two posts rather than one. This one will be about the trip to the Lower East Side.
On Saturday morning Harvey and I left our hotel down near Wall Street and walked north through the financial district and Chinatown, under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, to the Lower East Side. As we crossed streets like Grand, Henry, and Delancey, I tried to imagine what that neighborhood would have been like on a Shabbat morning a century ago. Now it is a mix of various ethnic groups, but I was surprised to see a number of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men dressed for shul, walking past us. I hadn’t expected to see any sign of a Jewish community surviving there. As we passed two men dressed in Satmar garb (big furry hats, long black coats, beards and payes), I wondered, “Did Joseph dress anything like that? Were they at all observant? Did they go to shul? Or were they completely non-religious once they got to the US?’ I know that my grandmother had a kosher kitchen at first, but gave that up by the time I knew her. She was not at all religious, and I know that my grandfather was also not at all religious. What about your grandparents? Do you know how observant any of them were?
We crossed under the Williamsburg Bridge and then down Broome Street to where it intersected Ridge Street. Joseph and Bessie lived at 81 Ridge Street in 1900; it is where they lived with Max, Hyman, Tilly, Gussie, Frieda and Sam. It is also where Joseph died in 1901. The picture below shows the corner of Broome and Ridge:
Although I was sad that there was no longer a tenement building there, I thought that having a school there was the best possible alternative. Education helped our predecessors and all of us get to where we are today, so replacing what was probably a run-down tenement building with a modern new school seems appropriate.
Across the street at 80 Ridge is a newer building also, so obviously the original buildings are all gone.
I took these pictures at the corner of Ridge and Rivington where there was an older building. Perhaps that was more like the one where our family lived.
As we walked up and down the street, I tried to imagine my grandmother being a little girl, living there. I thought of her being just five years old when her father died, and how awful that must have been for them all. And I thought of poor baby Samuel who was four months old and would never know his father. It must have been a sad and very hard time for them all.
New York City is a remarkable place. The layers of history are all there, and you can feel them as you walk from neighborhood to neighborhood. Ridge Street is a nice street with clean and newer apartment buildings. You wouldn’t know today that it once was a crowded street with tenements filled with new immigrants, speaking Yiddish, and struggling to survive in what was supposed to be a place with streets lined with gold. As we walked past Asian and Latino residents who themselves are likely immigrants or the children of immigrants, I realized how that experience continues to make New York the rich, fascinating and challenging city that it is. I may have left the New York area long ago, but it still calls out to me as my home. I am sure the same is true for many of you, whether you are living in Ohio, Virginia, South Carolina, California, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts—or New Jersey or Long Island.
Isn’t it also interesting how some of the fifth generation children have returned to New York City themselves?