Surviving Past 2000: The Struggle of the American Jewish Lower East Side

by Canyun Zhang

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Streit’s is one of the prominent American Jewish establishments that still exists in the Lower East Side today.

“Eighty percent of Jews went through this neighborhood,” explains Sophie Lo, a member of the cultural education team of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The Lower East Side, once a prominent neighborhood in Manhattan flourishing with historic American Jewish sites, is now struggling to preserve its culture. Beginning in the early 2000’s, poorer New York City neighborhoods have been undergoing gentrification, as lower-class residents are forced to migrate from the increasing rents and property taxes of the now up-and-coming areas like the Lower East Side. The changing landscapes mean new corporate companies pushing out older, historic businesses that may be struggling with the new, more affluent customer base. In today’s world, finding a historic American Jewish business is like finding a rare jewel.

Streit’s Matzo Factory, nearly a century old, is one of these few existing Jewish businesses. One of the rare “absolutely family” owned places, Streit’s was started in 1925 by the great grandparents of its current owner, Alan Adler. Running the factory with three cousins, Adler is in charge of the entire business. “Not a whole heck of a lot has changed,” Adler said. The baking process remains very similar – Passover matzo must be made in exactly eighteen minutes. “No two pieces are exactly the same,” explained Adler. Now, with the rise of booming commercial companies, Streit’s is the only family operated matzo factory in the United States. “There used to be four domestic manufacturers,” Adler said. “They sold out one at a time.” Having graduated in 1974 with a degree in business administration, Adler recognizes that making matzo may not be the most profitable field of business. But, his passion remains in keeping the tradition alive, as making matzo is “one of the faded vestiges”.

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Katz’s Delicatessen claims to have the “best sandwich in town”, and it’s hard arguing with that seeing as how it’s still standing after 125 years.

Nearby, a couple blocks away, rests Katz’s Delicatessen, famous for its meats and past. Now 125 years old, two major families – the Katz’s and the Dell’s – run this deli. Jake Dell owns the entire business and explains the two most important components in the survival of the deli. “Food and nostalgia,” Dell said. “They remember the first time they came to Katz. It connects them to this place.” Yet, Katz’s Deli has experienced hard times that were out of anyone’s control. Around 1990, the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge nearly killed the business, as many regulars who commuted for work couldn’t come into Manhattan for their favorite meats. Now, Dell doesn’t even consider commercial deli products as competition because they aren’t in the same realm of family made meats. “For me, everything’s about quality,” Dell said. The endearing appeal of Katz’s is so extensive that Dell claimed that “vegans come here to cheat”.

A local favorite, Katz’s used to be where Jewish families came to eat and socialize around the neighborhood. A true part of the Lower East Side, Katz’s reopened the Wednesday after Hurricane Sandy just last year, “just for the sake of normalcy”. There was a small power outlet to power one light, and everything else was functioning through the use of candles. In that week without power, Katz’s gave away around 2000 pounds of meat. Dell explained, “It’s about taking care of the neighborhood.”

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The beautiful facade of the Eldridge Synagogue that still stands from the late 1800’s helped earn this building its landmark status.

When American Jews weren’t busy easy eating or socializing, they tended to their religious life by going to synagogue. The first synagogue built from the ground up by Eastern European Jews in the United States, the Eldridge Street Synagogue has been standing since 1887. Now serving as a landmark, museum, and synagogue on different days of the week, the synagogue fosters a small congregation of 20 people. An orthodox synagogue, everyone who attends the Eldridge Street Synagogue must live around the area because technology, like the MTA subway system, is not allowed on Sundays. Ever since the 1920s the congregation began to decline because of the Immigration Act of the 1924, which served to limit the amount of Eastern European immigrants in America.

“The building is landmark status for two reasons: the beauty of the façade and its historical importance,” explained Sylvia Weiner, a museum docent at the synagogue. In the 1980s, Gerard Wolfe, an NYU professor, began the restoration process of the place. The museum at the synagogue serves as a “reminder of who we used to be,” said Lo. “It’s not only a history of the Lower East Side but of the United States.”

Now, as gentrification ceases to fade away, these past Jewish businesses which successfully survived into the present must look into the future. Ultimately, with these places like Katz’s and Streit’s, raising awareness of the destruction of culture is only the first step to preserving it.

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