By: Mackenzie Cash
“Learn about a people you never knew existed. Discover a lost tribe just around the corner.” Reads the brochure that guides welcomes visitors to the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue. The faded honey-colored brick building adorned with stained glass images of six-pointed stars and tablets of the Ten Commandments guarded by the two lions of Judah seem almost out of place nestled firmly in the commercially-driven Chinatown. The Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue is the last surviving vestige of Romanionte Judaism in the Western hemisphere, functioning in part as both a place of worship and museum that serves to preserve the culture and traditions of Greek Jewry. But the Janina Synagogue is just one of the surviving testaments to the Jewish Lower East Side seeking to preserve an increasingly disappearing culture.
Streit’s Matzo Factory and Katz’s Delicatessen are two of those testaments of a surviving nostalgia. “To some, it’s a food staple. To others, it’s a religious item. To some, it’s a memory.” Says Alan Adler, one of the owners of Streit’s Matzo Factory. As Adler stands before the aged convection oven turning out stacks upon stacks of their world famous Matzo, the sense of nostalgia is prevalent and a key ingredient to making their product. As Adler says, customers have come to look for Streit’s iconic pink packaging. For Streit’s, it isn’t about commercializing their product. It’s about sticking to tradition and preserving a piece of Jewish heritage.
Four blocks uptown from the Matzo Factory is the legendary home of the When Harry Met Sally scene, Katz’s Deli. Much like Streit’s, Katz’s Deli is a business that has been passed down from generation to generation until it ended up in the hands of 25 year-old Jake Dell. As the store approaches it’s 125th anniversary, little has changed in the decor since the expansion and renovation that the store went under in 1949. But even with the changing landscape, two economic collapses, and the closure of the Williamsburg Bridge several years back, Katz’s Deli has survived with its neon signs and celebrity photographed-lined walls intacct. “People remember the first time they come to Katz,” says Jake Dell. “They remember when their grandfather brought them here.”
Whether they’re preserving the Jewish culture of a nearly extinct sect of Judaism or providing food and comfort to long-time customers, the owners of these landmark Lower East Side hot-spots would all agree on one thing. As Jake Dell says, “Being in business in the city is about taking care of the people and taking care of the neighborhood.” Whether that be to provide memories of days past or to have a hot pastrami sandwich ready to go before heading home, the Jewish Lower East Side thrives on the nostalgia and the memory of the people who once lived here.