Remnants of Jewish Culture in the Lower East Side

By Leah Li

Millions of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America came to America between the late 1880s and 1930. In large part, it was the prospect of employment that drew many of these immigrants to leave their homes. They were willing to uproot their families – their entire lives – in pursuit of the liberty and freedom America’s rapidly developing industrial economy caused them to dream of. As various ethnic groups settled down over the years, the Lower East Side in Manhattan became known as a reflection of Jewish culture in New York City.

Jake Dell, the fifth-generation owner of the popular Katz’s Delicatessen in New York, goes as far as to call the Lower East Side of Manhattan “a place that is the origin for most people, in some way.”

Established in 1888, Katz’s Deli is one of the oldest – and one of the few – remaining Jewish businesses in the neighborhood. Its well-known kosher style pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs are ranked among the best in the city.

Established in 1888, Katz’s Delicatessen is one of the few Jewish businesses left in the Lower East Side

In celebration of its 125th year anniversary this year, Dell announced that on Sunday, June 2nd, Katz’s is planning something really special: they would recreate an “1888” day.

“We’ll put hay on the street, we’ll hang clothes from the windows, we’ll have old horses and firebricks,” said Dell. “Everyone I’ve spoken to loves the idea.”

Dell attributes much of Katz’s continued success to its long history: “We’ve been doing this for longer; we know how to do it.” And in comparison to all the other delis making pastrami sandwiches out there, Dell says, “The way they cook it up is not the traditional way – and you can taste it.”

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery was establish in 1890 in the Lower East Side.

Just a couple of blocks down the street, Ellen Anistratov, the co-owner of Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, says something similar about the restaurant’s own goods: “This is the original. We’re the only ones that make these knishes in the neighborhood.”

Since the knishery’s creation in 1890, Yonah Schimmel’s has been family owned, and is also currently managed by the fifth generation in the family. Enjoyed by locals and tourists alike, the classic potato-filled dough snacks are displayed in the store with a sign next to them: “You Don’t Have To Be Jewish To Eat A Knish.”

Adam Adler, chief operating officer of Streit’s Matzo Factory, says you don’t have to be Jewish to eat matzo, either: “There are no preservatives, so vegetarians and vegans love it.”

Since its establishment in 1916, Streit’s Matzo Co. has kept its distinctive pink packaging.

Founded in 1916, Streit’s is now the only family-owned and operated matzo company in the country. Adler, who has been working in the company since he was eight year old, is the great grandson and grandson of the founders.

Like the few other traditionally Jewish businesses left in the Lower East Side, Streit’s offers its customers a chance to reminisce on important times passed.

“They remember the pink box sitting in their kitchen as children,” said Adler, referring to Streit’s characteristic pink packaging. “It’s sort of a memory, and a history, of us. They remember their ancestors and parents passing through Ellis Island.”

Much of the Lower East Side is hardly the same now as it was in the 1880s. But Katz’s, Yonah Schimmel’s and Streit’s have somehow each managed to hold on to a key piece of Jewish culture and history. Visitors are able to be transported to a nostalgic time and place when they enter these establishments, which, in itself, is a true testimony to the value of these businesses in this neighborhood.

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