Today, New York City’s Lower East Side (LES) neighborhood is known for its eclectic mix of bistros, bodegas and Buddhist temples that have overtaken now-defunct synagogues nestled in between many old shmatte shops; remnants which pay tribute to a bygone era.
Around the turn of the century, the Lower East Side was known largely for its international Jewish community. While the landscape may have dramatically transformed over time, many Jewish monuments and locations can still be found throughout the neighborhood.
A walking tour of LES’s Jewish monuments and landmarks offer insight into the community’s significant heritage within NYC’s historical, cultural melting pot. As you explore the working class neighborhood, check out some of these prominent, Jewish religious sites, local attractions and eateries:
Eldridge Street Synagogue
12 Eldridge St. near Division Street
Amidst Chinese restaurants, hair salons and local fish markets, the Eldridge Street Synagogue stands out as a major Jewish-American landmark. Designed and built over a century ago, the temple became the first Eastern European Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the United States. In 2007, the building was renovated and is now preserved as the Museum at Eldridge Street reflecting a mix of Romanesque, Moorish and Gothic architecture. A feast for the eyes, the historic gem boasts 70-foot vaulted ceilings, stained-glass windows, trompe l’oeil murals and intricate carvings. The congregation remains active and continues to celebrate the Sabbath, hosting religious services on the first-floor bes medrash. Visitors can take advantage of informal tours or enjoy exploring and photographing the synagogues well-known architecture.
Angel Orensanz Foundation
172 Norfolk Street near E. Houston Street
Currently the site of the Angel Orensanz Foundation, the building was once the site of the oldest synagogue in NYC. Shut down for a decade, the building was vandalized until Orensanz purchased the property in 1986 and converted the landmark into an art studio. However, visitors can still admire the synagogue’s beauty, designed by Berlin architect, Alexander Saelzer, who took inspiration from the Cologne Cathedral. Founded in 1849, the synagogue became the largest one in the United States, holding up to 1,500 worshipers. Today, the foundation hosts occasional shabbas and offers a variety of cultural programs in addition to hosting weddings and bar mitzvahs.
7-11 Willett Street near Grand Street
Erected in 1826, the Bialystoker Synagogue holds an important presence in the crosscultural diaspora of America’s historic sites. The Federal-style building was originally used as a Methodist church — but also a stop on the Underground Railroad. History buffs and visitors can still spot a door and a 200-year-old ladder leading along the balcony to an attic where escaped slaves hid during the Civil War. In 1905, the building was converted into a synagogue after a congregation of Polish Jews purchased it and incorporated a stunning, three-story ark, complete with paintings of zodiac symbols corresponding to Jewish calendar across the sanctuary’s ceilings. Bialystoker still offers services for a 300-member congregation.
East Broadway Landmarks
East Broadway blocks between Jefferson and Montgomery Streets
Along a stretch of East Broadway, visitors can pay tribute to the site where a handful of turn-of-the-century Jewish landmarks and a small Orthodox community once thrived. This stretch is also home to the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. You can find tours and events hosted by this educational and cultural organization online.
175 E. Broadway at Canal Street
The site was once the headquarters of The Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language paper promoting social reform and seeking to expose its readers to American culture and customs.
East Broadway between Clinton and Montgomery Streets
Worshipers still gather at this site where a series of former tenement buildings, converted into shuls, once stood.
205 Houston Street at Ludlow Street
What’s a trip to New York without a stop at the famous Katz’s Delicatessen? As the oldest deli in New York and the only diner where pastrami and corned beef are still hand-cut. Katz’s is an international and cultural treasure for both locals and tourists. Once you enter, take a ticket and either wait for a table or withstand the lines. Photos of celebrities and politicians decorate the walls and you’ll spot the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal ate in When Harry Met Sally.
Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston Street near First Avenue
Operating since 1914, the specialty grocery store has hardly changed since its early days. Run by the Russ family, the store sells everything from fresh fish and cheeses to chocolates and baked goods. Check out the historic photographs displayed above the counters. At this shop, you can still find some of the freshest traditional Jewish dietary staples from smoked salmon to a classic bagel and lox, homemade pickled herring and Caspian Sea caviar.
A visit to these sites may be nostalgic for some and enlightening for others. It’s always a treat for the opportunity to explore the sites of one’s cultural heritage, especially in a city that acknowledges the sacrifices and contributions of its immigrant communities. I often remember what the Jewish Heritage Mural in the Lower East Side once stated: “Our Strength Is Our Heritage, Our Heritage Is Our Life.”