As the port of arrival for thousands of Jewish immigrants from around the world, New York City is one of the great centers of Jewish culture. Upon arriving to New York, many Jewish immigrants originally settled in the Lower East Side, where a unique culture developed. Kosher food shops were on every corner, synagogues filled up every Sabbath and a thriving Yiddish theater district attracted Jew and Gentile alike. While the Lower East Side’s Jewish culture thrived in the first half of the 20th century, in the aftermath of World War 2 it started to fade rapidly, as Jewish families left the crowded tenements of lower Manhattan to the suburbs. Many of the old businesses and landmarks of the Lower East Side’s Jewish heritage have since closed their doors, several of them are still around today. Listed below are some of the more recognizable of these places, that have stood the test of time to become landmarks for New York City as a whole:
Russ and Daughters: Founded by immigrant Joel Russ in 1914, this counter shop has served as a temple for smoked fish. Their lox has been drawing devotees for generations, and to this day is considered to be one of New York City’s very best. It earned its current name in 1933, when Joel Russ made his three daughters partners in the store. The place is still in the Russ family, and as of last year, two of his daughters, 92 and 100 years old, were still alive, although since retired from the fish smoking business.
Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse: Located in what seems to be a basement on Christie Street, walking into Sammy’s feels like you’re walking into a time portal, an old-school New York bar mitzvah from the 1940s. The menus are covered in schmaltz stains, the portions are generous to say the least, the walls are covered with countless photos and entertainer “Dani Luv” spends the night pulling his schtick of live music and borscht-belt humor. All in all, a dinner at Sammy’s is the start of a wildly fun night.
Katz’s Deli: Arguably one of the most instantly-recognizable New York icons, Katz’s has been open since 1888 thanks to their tireless commitment to high-quality kosher-style eats. While they have no shortage of great things to offer, arguably Katz’s crown jewel is its pastrami, and serves 10,000 pounds of it every week.
Bialystoker Synagogue: The Bialystoker Synagogue has its origins in a congregation founded in 1865 by recent immigrants from the city of Bialystok in present-day Poland. It relocated to its current location in 1905 after the congregation purchased the building from a Methodist church. Built in 1826, it is the oldest building used as a synagogue in New York City.
Kossar’s Bialys: While Kossar’s has what is considered one of New York’s best bagels, it’s their bialy, a variant of the bagel, that is their crown jewel. The bialy is like a bagel, except with a fluffier texture and instead of a hole in the middle, there’s a depression, which is filled with dice onions and other ingredients. Although Kossar’s has been in operation since 1936, its current owners, Evan Giniger and David Zablocki, are part of a modern movement to revive Jewish cuisine and culture in the Lower East Side.
Tenement Museum: Between 1863 and 1935, this building at 97 Orchard Street housed an estimated 7,000 people from over 20 nations. Abandoned for over 50 years, when it caught the interest of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in 1988 it had become a time capsule, reflecting 19th and early 20th century living conditions. You can now take various tours of the museum, which reflect on the lives of the Jewish, Irish and German immigrants who once called the building home.
Yonah Schimmel: While many hot dog stands in New York City sell square fried knishes, Yonah Schimmel’s specializes in the more “traditional” knish, round, baked and doughy and filled with a variety of fillings (potato, sweet potato, kasha, vegetable and broccoli to name a few). Starting out as a pushcart in the early 1890s, the bakery has been in the same location since 1910, family-owned and stubbornly using the exact same recipes that the bakery’s namesake did. If you’re not in New York City, you can use their website to order knishes, that will ship overnight to anywhere in the US.