In vain, we searched for the pickle shop. Wandering around New York’s historic Lower East Side, it seemed improbable, impossible even, that we wouldn’t encounter a Yiddish-speaking man selling barrels of flavoursome and juicy cucumbers and telling us we had chutzpah when we tried to negotiate a good deal.
We did eventually find some (delicious, too), although only in a trendy coffee shop on a run-down but fashionable street, where the clientele ate them ironically with one hand on their Apple computers or their chai lattes.
Pickles aside, finding traces of Jewish life and history in New York was not much of a challenge. A century from its peak, the Lower East Side is as empty of Jews as it once was full. In that respect, it’s like London’s East End, a thriving hub reduced to a whisper. But what used to be there is still clear, from shops bearing the names of their Jewish founders to delis that are, if now no longer kosher, still steeped in an unequivocally Jewish cuisine, and streets and buildings adorned with the names of Jewish impresarios.
The history is not dissimilar to our own. Many Jews from far flung lands ended up in New York, but many, too, my ancestors among them, ended up in Liverpool, Cardiff – and the East End.
As in New York, they built lives, set up shuls, schools and newspapers, became visionaries, wrote books and built industries.
Physically, there is more to see in New York than in our old Jewish hubs; many of the buildings that British Jews once inhabited have gone, destroyed during the Blitz or torn down, with perhaps a solitary blue plaque to denote their presence. But, beyond this, what struck me during my stay was the locals’ pride in the past – particularly pride in this very Jewish story of survival and success against the odds.
Down the road from the café was the Tenement museum, offering heritage tours of the area and a video history of the “huddled masses” – Italian, Chinese and of course Jewish – who arrived there in the late 19th century. A look inside the tenement itself we had a glimpse into the lives of the Jews who came to Ellis Island from shtetls, impoverished and not speaking the language, only to leave the factories and the slums for a better life just a generation or so later.
This comment piece was first published in the JC. Read the rest of it here