Gertel’s Bakery on Hester Street closed its doors in June of last summer. Gertel’s had served up kosher bread and pastries on the Lower East Side for more than ninety years, since it opened on the same spot in 1914. Now, so the locals say, the owner has made a cool 3 million off of the property—the narrow, low building standing there now will probably come down to make way for condos—and another old Jewish establishment has finally left the Lower East Side.
For most, this news is no news. In New York, common knowledge is that the Jewish Lower East Side is a thing of the past. Today, this neighborhood, once the epicenter of the American-Jewish world, bears little association with its older identity. Places like Gertel’s and the odd narrow, crowded bookshop of judaeica that cling on mostly between Chinese restaurants and electronics shops; the first trendy restaurants poking in on each block signal what could be the beginnings of an equally wrenching transition. This Lower Manhattan neighborhood, once the heart of Jewish New York, has seen its Jewish population ebb since the middle of last century, but still, a significant legacy remains.
The Jewish Lower East Side saw its height at the beginning of the twentieth century. Swelled by waves of new immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Lower East Side teemed with the old and new arrivals. More than 700 shuls served the Lower East Side Jews. The vibrant café scene offered meeting places for the more politically inclined to argue for hours over their coffee (the neighborhood veterans say that’s what put these places out of business in the end). The Lower East Side was a bustling Jewish center of commerce and intellectual activity.
An alternative explanation for why the coffee shops closed is that those old men were no longer there. Fewer and fewer Jews were left through the 60s and 70s as the neighborhood lost its residents to the suburbs and old age. The neighborhood’s Jewish population has actually been growing since the 90s, but news of the closing of another old institution surfaces every few years. The last hangers-on in this neighborhood are the toughest hold-outs.
There are older residents who have stayed along with them through the decades, and who attest to a feeling of threat for an older generation whose world has transformed so drastically around them.
“There goes the neighborhood,” remarked one of the members at the seniors’ luncheon at the Educational Alliance on East Broadway, established in 1889 by New York’s first wave of German Jews seeking to aid and assimilate their Eastern European counterparts. “You hear, Jack? They’re closing up.”
Things change. The shifting identity of the city’s neighborhoods has historically been a tremendous source of New York’s dynamism. The one thing most New York neighborhoods seem to have in common is that once they were inhabited by someone else. I try not to romanticize the circumstances of the immigrants to New York City in the early twentieth century, but their daily life held a great deal I wouldn’t want to be forgotten either and whose loss the older residents of Lower Manhattan articulate with tremendous regret. Though struggling today, the historical culture of the Jewish Lower East Side contributed substantially to shape living Jewish experience and the current cultural fabric of the city.
The historical memory of the Lower East Side is still a living one, but it is increasingly threatened in its details. The outline of what daily life on the Lower East Side was once like becomes increasingly vague and those who remember its prime grow older by the year.
The reality on the Lower East Side is that of a neighborhood undergoing a transition much more personal and prolonged than suggested by the abstract image of historical forces of change. While the heyday of the Jewish Lower East Side is certainly identified as a thing of the past, right now, we still have connections to that era. It is tremendously difficult to maintain them. Aaron Lansky, the director of the Yiddish Book Project, began rescuing thousands of Yiddish books from their aging owners in the 1970s. Today, Lansky has been immersed in the project for three decades, but still, he wrote, all these years later, his friend Sam, not ten years older, but a native Yiddish speaker “has more Jewish knowledge in his smallest fingertip than I can hope to acquire in a lifetime of study.”
Nevertheless, Lansky wrote, though he worries about the continuity of Yiddish culture, the struggle to keep and comprehend a cultural identity is, to his mind, a uniquely American act. And today, reading the old stories that were nearly didn’t survive, gives Lansky great joy.
Gertel’s has actually relocated to Brooklyn, vacating its historic premises for Williamsburg, where it continues as a strictly wholesale operation. The connection between the old and the new though, will be preserved for now largely in the city’s collective cultural memory. No physical link exists. Places like Gertel’s have no historical significance. An aging population remembers picking up their ruggulah for the family at Gertel’s, a part of the daily fabric of their city. As the connections to the past life of the city age, an ever-present imperative exists to do what we can to preserve our collective historical memory. A week later, walking down Hester, I wouldn’t have known what wasn’t there.