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Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York

The then and now of New York’s Orchard Street. Story and photos by Lydia Aisenberg

A tiny, dim and absolutely claustrophobic apartment on New York's Lower East Side is where I recently realized how different my life would have been had my Polish-born paternal grandfather not mistakenly,like so many others, disembarked from a boat in England, eventually ending up in the Welsh town of Ystrad Mynach.

One can hardly imagine a young Polish Jew excitedly leaping out of bed in the late 1800's intent on making it to what became my childhood green, green home - the Rhymney Valley -in South Wales. Now - the Goldene Medina - that's a different matter.Had Grandpa Joseph remained on board all the way to New York, I would have ended up perhaps a Jewish New Yorker and not a Welsh-Israeli living in the Jezreel Valley for the last five decades.

During a recent working visit to the Big Apple,I was invited to visit Manhattan's Lower East Side and the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. I soon discovered that the whole neighborhood is a living, breathing, somewhat loud but fascinating museum in itself. The visit to the Tenement Museum also included a walking tour of an extensive area around Orchard Street during which one is literally walked and talked back into yesteryear by one of a number of extremely professional volunteer guides who lug around folders full of sepia photos of the 1800's, helping one take the fast track back to those times – and what a riveting, emotional journey it turned out to be. 

The treadle- pressing tailor at work ... a statue in New York

A strong sense of déjà vu struck as street names such as Orchard, Hester, Rivington and Delancey caught my eye,and the realization that I was actually walking the streets I had seen in documentary and feature films and read about in books some 40 or more years ago. Among them were Belva Plain's Evergreen, the story of a Jewish immigrant girl from Poland arriving in New York in the early 1900s, and the author's subsequent books following that immigrant and her descendants, and of course, the magnificent literary gems of Chaim Potok. All of these suddenly came alive together with a deep appreciation of just how those authors had so vividly described and instilled in their readers a true sense of the poverty, daily toil and struggle to survive both physically and spiritually as the immigrants shaped not only their own futures but also that of America.

The original building housing the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street was built in 1863 and for the following 60 years or more became an immigrant portal housing over 7,000 people hailing from 20 different countries, including many Jews from Eastern Europe.

Through personal stories, the museum does a grand job of preserving the history of those immigrants and of sharing with present-day visitors the squalor in which the first wave of newcomers lived, before New York legislation forced landlords such as the owner of 97 Orchard Street – a German immigrant by the name of Lukas Glockner– to install gas, lighting, heating, running water and toilets, albeit only one on each of the five floors shared by scores of residents.

For many, the tenement was not only where they lived in miserable conditions but also where they worked. Tailors and seamstresses supplied the garment industry, spending long back- breaking hours bent over sewing machines wedged into dark, dank corners of their tiny abodes or they stood all day and half the night pressing the finished items, using extremely heavy irons.

The visit to the Orchard Street of yesteryear began with an impressive 30-minute film,An American Story,exploring the history of the Tenement Museum. One learns that the present- day ability to take an emotional walk back into history is thanks to historian and social activist, Ruth Abram, and her friend and museum co-founder, Anita Jacobson. Yearning to build a museum in honor of America's immigrants, the friends decided that the Manhattan tenements - the humble, multiple family buildings and first homes in America for so many newcomers, would be the perfect place for keeping the past alive for present and future generations 

However, after extensive searches for a suitable property proved fruitless, in the late 1980's they were on the verge of giving up when they unexpectedly stumbled upon 97 Orchard Street – and the rest is history, literally.

Initially inspecting a storefront at the building that had been shuttered for over 50 years, they entered a hallway in search of a bathroom, and instead they found the answer to their envisioned museum becoming a reality after discovering ceilings made of sheet metal, solid wood banisters, old furniture and layers of plaster and paper dangling from the walls.

Among the squalid apartments and crumbling floors, tools of the garment trade and other gems of those times were discovered. They gave the impression that people had just picked up and left, leaving a time capsule and graphic blast from the past for the women to excitedly come upon in their quest to pay homage to those very people and tell their story.

Following the discovery and a number of years of research and restoration, the first portion of the Tenement Museum opened to the public in 1992. This was the 1878 home of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family.

Creaking wooden steps, banisters one is asked not to touch, rickety furniture and old-fashioned kitchen utensils give an authentic atmosphere as one views a number of apartments and the narrow corridors between them. Adding to the experience are somewhat worn- looking photographs in old wooden frames,of family members who had lived there. They might have passed on many a year back but they are still very much with us in this building today.

The Lower East Side is home to some wonderful architecture, artistic carvings in the masonry, wrought iron railings and, although not exactly attractive, the external iron fire escapes which zig-zag from floor to floor and hold a certain artistic attractiveness when viewed from varying angles.

A particularly stunning building is the restored 19th century landmark and historic synagogue on Eldridge Street, nowadays a museum. Renovated in 2007 and known as The Eldridge Street Synagogue, it was the first Eastern European orthodox synagogue to be developed as a luxury hotel synagogue in America. The breathtaking architecture, both inside and out, is an astounding mix of Moorish, Romanesque and Gothic influences, gracefully towering above a few oriental restaurants, somewhat seedy-looking shops and a nearby fish market exuding a cacophony of street noises that the graceful, imposing synagogue building seems to silently snub from above. Of particular beauty are the vaulted ceilings 70 feet tall with intricate carvings, murals and attractive stained glass windows.

Not far from the synagogue and with a direct connection to one of its founders was a building I particularly wanted to see, the Jarmulowsky Bank, but it was under wraps – sheathed in scaffolding and tarpaulins – but what could be seen of the 12 floor building now being developed as a luxury hotel is still pretty impressive.

Standing across the street from the former bank, the Tenement Museum guide(armed with an impressive folder of photos)filled us in on the story of Sender Jarmulowsky, who established the bank in 1873, and was one of the founders and the first President of the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

Jarmulowsky's rags to riches story began in Russia where he was orphaned and taken in and raised by a rabbi, eventually studying at the prestigious Volozhin Yeshiva. He married the daughter of a wealthy Polish merchant, and in 1868 moved to Hamburg where, realizing the business opportunities with the impending mass migration to America, cheaply bought up a huge stock of steamship tickets to New York and sold them at a tidy profit to German and East European Jews seeking a new life. Some years later he uprooted his own family and settled in New York where he opened his financial business, employed Russian and Yiddish speaking clerks who took deposits, gave loans and also heavily dealt in the sale of tickets for sea passages.

In 1912, a new bank building was opened at Canal Street but Jarmulowsky, a renowned scholar and philanthropist, unfortunately died a short time after the impressive building opened. Just a few years later, on the eve of World War I, with customers clamoring for their money to send to relatives back in Eastern Europe in the hope of saving them, the bank was forced to close its doors.

The Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street, New York

The lower section of the building is faced with limestone and the higher section with architectural terracotta into which the name, S. Jarmulowsky, is engraved and very prominently displayed. Under historical protection laws, the name in stone will remain for all to see when the building eventually opens as a boutique hotel.

Just a short walk down the road from the hotel-to-be is The Jewish Daily Forward building, presently being redeveloped as apartments. It was built in 1912 when the socialist newspaper was enjoying an all-time high circulation among immigrant Yiddish speakers. The Forward, first published in 1897, however, moved on and out of that building over two decades ago. The modern day socialists might have moved, but sculptures of a rather stern- looking Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and other revolutionaries still gaze down on the busy thoroughfare from ledges above the main door.

The Forward fought for social justice and assisted generations of immigrants adjust to the American way of life through a language they loved and understood, Yiddish - and ceaselessly fought to defend democracy and human rights.

At this point the small group of visitors to the Tenement Museum bade farewell to the guide and wandered off, each with his/her own thoughts after hearing and experiencing so much history in just a few hours. Walking back in the area of Orchard Street, my friend and I stopped to admire some stonework on one of the buildings. A lady, thinking we were lost, offered her help and soon realized that we were not lost souls, but just still full of curiosity to see and learn more. She was holding a pack of leaflets advertising her family business. In bold letters was written: "SALE, GREAT BARGAINS UP TO 70% OFF." On offer were bed linens, towels, shirts, hosiery and underwear and much more and the promise of a free gift if one spent $25 or more.

Seeing my Magen David and hearing the non-American accent, she asked in a very New York Jewish way: "So where are you from?"

The lady, who lived in Queens and was probably in her sixties, was spending the day helping her older sister out in the business founded by her immigrant grandparents, Russian Jewish immigrants who had lived in the tenements when they first arrived in the country.

"Because of the gentrification of the neighborhood – look at Jarmulovsky's a boutique hotel indeed - we locals are having difficulty in remaining in the area because of the rise in costs," she tut-tuts.

As she walked away, I took a closer look at the printed page she had handed me. The address of the shop, was on Orchard Street (between Hester and Canal). So much has not changed!

I still have a great deal of unfinished business in the fascinating Lower East Side and Midtown districts of Manhattan. 



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Tuesday, 05 March 2024

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