June 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The History of Harlem I Never Knew

Thank you for that informational and enlightening article on the evolvement and development of Jewish Harlem by the “Two Sues” (“The Jewish History of Harlem: A Virtual Stroll Through a Neighborhood Where Jewish Voices Echo,” December 3, 2020). This type of article is fascinating and a bit different from your usual content and I strongly encourage you to continue on this track.

Most interesting is the role of the very Jewish Lower East Side in that scenario. I was born and raised in the Lower East Side in the late ‘30s and ‘40s and still was not aware of much of what the article addressed. I literally lived in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge and never did I ever hear it referred to as the “Jews’ Bridge.” Coincidentally I also worked, “covering” hospitals in the Harlems for years, and still this information was virtually all new.

I say Harlems because then and now there were always two Harlems. West Harlem (5th Avenue is the dividing line) had a large Jewish contingent and the roots of a surge of African-Americans. East Harlem today is referred to as “Spanish Harlem,” but at the time of the article its residents were predominantly Jewish and Italian. In fact, East Harlem was probably more Jewish than its western counterpart.

Who knew that those areas had such a plethora of shuls, one of which is still “alive” with active minyans? That Yossele Rosenblatt, truly the Jewish Caruso, would travel there to share his golden voice. The Jewish roots of the famous Apollo theater or the fabled Theresa Hotel, now designated a U.S. National Registered Historic Place, that Sholem Aleichem slept there?

The article brought to mind something I once read in a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia, who lived in East Harlem at that time.

LaGuardia was running for Congress and his opponent was a local Jew. Although born in America, LaGuardia’s parents were from Trieste in the northeast of Italy. His mother was Jewish, his father not. During the campaign, it got back to LaGuardia that the other candidate was accusing him of not being concerned with Jewish issues and in fact was anti-Semitic.

Fiorello, known for his short fuse, was about to raise all kinds of havoc. His reserved, cerebral secretary, instead, advised him to challenge the other Jew to a debate in Yiddish. LaGuardia was fluent in English, Croatian and Yiddish. The other man couldn’t speak Yiddish. LaGuardia won the election in a landslide.

Irving Gerber
Fair Lawn

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