June 23, 2024
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June 23, 2024
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The Jewish History of Harlem: A Virtual Stroll Through a Neighborhood Where Jewish Voices Echo

Say “Harlem,” and the first image to come to mind is not a Jewish neighborhood. But thanks to a virtual tour by Barry Judelman, presented by the indefatigably glorious Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy (LESJC), Jewish audiences are now learning that for 60 years (1870-1930), the stretch of New York from about 116th to 125th Streets, the Harlem and East Rivers to the east, and the Hudson River in the west, was the third largest Jewish community in the world (175,000). Only the Lower East Side with 350,000 Jews and Warsaw, Poland, with 343,000 had more.

Enshrined on video available on the LESJC website, the almost 90-minute tour, led by the enthusiastically entertaining and breathtakingly knowledgeable Judelman, provides stories, photos and artifacts that weave together the tale of Jewish migration to Harlem, the Jewish dignitaries and celebrities who lived and thrived there, funny, quintessentially Jewish anecdotes, and, finally, the societal and economic reasons for the Jewish residents’ exodus.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Jewish escape from the Lower East Side was motivated by a need for space. Few places on earth had such dense living conditions, a fact that led reformers to press for the 1901 Tenement Law, requiring landlords to provide natural light and sanitary airflow.

Instead of investing the necessary funds, many tenement owners either abandoned their buildings or relinquished them for other purposes, including the building of the Williamsburg Bridge, known affectionately as Jews Bridge. Begun in 1896 and completed in 1903, the bridge required 14 blocks of slum clearance, which forced 14,000 Jews to find new apartments.

Some chose to relocate to Brooklyn, a move that allowed them simply to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge and, six years later, the Manhattan Bridge, to jobs in Manhattan.

Escape by Train

Other options were becoming available as well. In 1879, the elevated trains, known as the Els, on Second and Third Avenues, allowed Manhattan residents to travel to East Harlem, a commute that became even easier in 1904 when the subways were inaugurated.

In fact, there were actually two Jewish neighborhoods in Harlem. East Harlem, from the East River to Fifth Avenue, was where poorer Jews first arrived. As their economic situations improved, they often moved west to the area bordered by Fifth Avenue on the east and either Morningside Avenue or the Hudson River on the west.

The first synagogue in Harlem, Yad B’Yad, was established in 1869 when fewer than a dozen or so families decided the trek to the Lower East Side was too far. The Orthodox synagogue was already part of the neighborhood in the 1880s, when German Jews arrived in Harlem, joining the area’s heavily non-Jewish German and Irish populations.

In 1887, with the active encouragement of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Maurice Harris, the synagogue changed its name to Temple Israel and adopted the liturgy of the Reform movement. In 1888, the battle between the traditionalists who wanted to retain the custom of men wearing skullcaps for prayer and the reformers who wanted them discarded was won by the latter, and the new synagogue, erected in the classical beaux-arts style, moved to the fashionable corner of 125th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Today, the building, with the addition of a prominent cross on its side, is the home of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church. According to Judelman, the church’s interior retains many of the synagogue’s elements, including its Stars of David ornamentation, the Aron Kodesh that once held Torah scrolls, and its organ.

The Temple Israel congregation is today housed on East 75th Street in Manhattan.

Hundreds of Shuls

Before 1930, there were between 40 and 50 synagogues in West Harlem and another 150 smaller ones in East Harlem. Judelman’s tour included six of them, three of which had their roots in the Lower East Side.

Shaare Zedek was founded in 1837 on the Lower East Side, but by 1899, so many of its congregants had moved to Harlem that the shul purchased a new building on West 118th Street for this “splinter group.” While the shul was Orthodox on the Lower East Side, once relocated in Harlem, it allowed men and women to sit together.

In 1921, needing more space and uneasy with the neighborhood’s changing demographics, Shaare Zedek left Harlem for its current location on West 93rd Street. The Harlem building was sold to Congregation Chevra Talmud Torah Anshei Yagustover, often considered one of the “lost synagogues of Manhattan,” former shuls that were either torn down or repurposed, usually into churches.

Chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt

Ohab Zedek also began in the Lower East Side. Founded by Hungarian Jews in 1873, the shul moved first to Norfolk Street (the current home of the Angel Orensanz Center, the oldest surviving synagogue building in New York) and then to its monumental Gothic-Moorish Revival building on 116th Street in 1906.

From 1912 to 1926 and again in 1929, the Ukrainian-born cantor and composer Yossele (Josef) Rosenblatt, widely regarded as the greatest chazzan of his time, served Cong OZ, as the shul is still familiarly known. A superstar, Rosenblatt commanded a reputation far beyond the Jewish community. His presence at the shul could prompt New York officials to close 116th Street to allow the long lines of admirers waiting to hear “the voice.”

Known as “the Jewish Caruso,” he was invited to join the prestigious Chicago Opera, but turned it down for religious reasons. He did give highly successful concerts at Carnegie Hall. Asked to star in the first feature-length “talkie,” “The Jazz Singer,” about a cantor-turned-popular singer, Rosenblatt again said no, although he did agree to lend his voice to the deeply moving Kol Nidrei sung as the moving climax of the film. He died in 1933 in Jerusalem, where he was about to make a film.

OZ left Harlem for its current location on West 95th Street in 1926, and its building on 116th Street is now the Harlem Baptist Temple Church.

A Good Fit

Another Lower East Side transplant was Ansche Chesed, a shul founded in 1828 by a group of German, Dutch and Polish Jews.

By 1850, Ansche Chesed’s membership was mostly German-Jewish, making it a perfect fit for Harlem. In 1908, its pillared, neoclassical structure was completed at 114th Street and Seventh Avenue, where it was known for its magnificent stained-glass skylight.

In 1927, the congregation left Harlem for its current home on West End Avenue and 100th Street where, according to its website, it welcomes “young and old, individuals and families, traditionalists and seekers, LGBTQ and straight, those married to Jews and the intermarried.”

Its Harlem building is today the Mount Nebo Baptist Church.

Shul With a Pool

One of the shuls on Judelman’s list was actually born in Harlem, the product of a dream of its founding spiritual leader, Rabbi Herbert Goldstein, often called “the maverick rabbi.” A product of the Lower East Side himself, Rabbi Goldstein was ready to enroll at Columbia Law School when he decided the American-Jewish community needed a new kind of rabbi rather than another attorney.

In 1917, concerned that too many young Jews, new immigrants as well as some who were second-generation, were turning away from Orthodoxy, he found space in a building that was originally a Harlem theater, across the street from Ohab Zedek. There he opened the Institutional Synagogue, which he engineered into a new kind of religious center to meet the needs of these American Jews.

He introduced English-language sermons, cultural activities and outreach programs. To attract the growing number of Jewish children in public school, the shul featured an innovation—an after-school Hebrew school. Perhaps most importantly, he built a gym with an Olympic-size swimming pool in the synagogue.

“It was a shul with a pool, a forerunner of the Jewish community center, a place where people would want to come and, once there, would become more involved,” said Judelman.

In 1937, the Modern Orthodox West Side Institutional Synagogue moved to its current location on West 76th Street. Its original building on 116th Street is now home to the Salvation and Deliverance Church.

Commandment Keepers

Perhaps the most unusual synagogue in Harlem was not really Jewish at all. In 1919, a West Indian immigrant, Wentworth Arthur Matthew, influenced by the pan-Africanism and Black nationalism movements, established Harlem’s Commandment Keepers synagogue.

Practicing Modern Orthodoxy in the Sephardic tradition and preaching that Black Jews were the descendants of Solomon and Sheba, Matthew actively recruited converts among the growing African American residents of the neighborhood. Never accepted by mainstream rabbinic organizations, he founded the Israelite Rabbinical Academy to teach and ordain African American rabbis.

Shortly after his death in 1973, the congregation dissolved.

Blumstein’s Department Store

Judelman’s tour included far more than Harlem’s Jewish spiritual landmarks. For example, in 1898, on 125th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, Louis Blumstein opened Harlem’s most prestigious department store.

“When you think of Blumstein’s, you should have in mind Harlem’s answer to Macy’s and Bloomies,” said Judelman.

For years, Blumstein advertised for and accepted customers of all races, but he would not hire any of the African Americans who were moving into the neighborhood except as porters and elevator operators. This practice came to a screeching halt in 1934 when a boycott of the store was initiated with the slogan “Don’t shop where you can’t work.” In six months, Blumstein’s was fully integrated and became known for featuring some of the first Black Santa Clauses and mannequins in the country.

Today, Blumstein’s is long gone and the building is owned by Touro College.

Other Landmarks

Across the street from Blumstein’s was the Apollo Theater, which had opened as a burlesque house in another location in 1913 (with Black theater-goers confined to a section of the balcony) and moved to 125th Street in 1928. It had a series of Jewish owners and operators, including Jules Hurtig, Harry Seamon and Bill Minsky, and, in 1932, Sydney Cohen not only integrated the theater, but actually focused its programs for the growing African American community.

In 1935, Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher took it over and began the theater’s Wednesday evening Amateur Night performances. Graduates of that program included many of the most important African American performers in the United States.

Other Harlem landmarks with Jewish connections include the Theresa Hotel, built in 1912 by Gustave Seidenberg (whose wife was named Theresa) and became known as “the Waldorf of Harlem”; and the Harlem Club, a gentleman’s club established in a grand, imposing building on the southwest corner of Lenox Avenue and 123rd Street in 1889. Besides the most expensive furnishings, draperies and carpets, it also boasted parlors, a library, billiard rooms, private dining rooms, a café, 10 bedrooms, and, in the basement, a bowling alley.

The Harlem Club’s Christian-only membership was challenged when New York State Senator Jacob A. Cantor (later Manhattan Borough President and U.S. Congressman) was asked to join. The controversy prompted one old-time member to inform Cantor that “in this club, we draw the line at Hebrews.” The members who had proposed Cantor for membership told him they would fight for him “if it took all summer.” It took longer than that, and Mr. Cantor was never admitted, but when the club closed in 1906, it was assumed it was due to its anti-Semitic policies.

Who’s Who of American Jewry

Considering Harlem’s huge Jewish population during this period, observers should not be surprised that the area’s residents included a virtual Who’s Who of American Jewry, including Milton Berle, who lived opposite Congregation Shaare Zedek; actress and writer Gertrude (Edelstein) Berg; screenwriter, television producer, and novelist Budd (Seymour Wilson) Schulberg, who wrote “What Makes Sammy Run?” “On the Waterfront” and “A Face in the Crowd:” and Lena Himmelstein, an immigrant seamstress who came up with the idea of designing and promoting clothes for pregnant and stout women. When she applied for a bank loan, they loved the idea but hated her name, so Lena became “Lane,” and they coupled it with her husband’s surname, “Bryant.” The word “pregnant” was deemed too provocative, so the more demure “maternity” was substituted.

Other Jewish Harlemites included Sholem Aleichem (Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich), whose funeral procession in 1916 from the Bronx to the Lower East Side made a stop at Congregation Ohab Zedek so that Cantor Rosenblatt could sing the Kel Maleh Rachamim; and escape artist Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss) who lived at 278 West 113th Street. (He bought the house in 1904 for $25,000, and it sold in 2018 for $3.6 million.)

Oscar Hammerstein, a cigar maker who became a Harlem real estate developer, owner of the Harlem Opera Theater on 125th Street, and grandfather of the great librettist Oscar Hammerstein III, lived in Harlem, as did the librettist’s musical partner, composer Richard Rogers. George and Ira Gershwin, Fannie Brice and Sophie Tucker also had homes in Harlem.

Sudden Departure

Judelman gave several reasons to explain the rather sudden departure of the Jewish communities from Harlem. “First, many Jews prospered financially and were able to move to more prestigious neighborhoods,” he said.

But there was no denying that racial prejudice played a part as well. Between 1910 and 1920, the Great Migration, the movement of millions of African Americans out of rural Southern states to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West, resulted in an enormous influx of Black Americans into Harlem.

In 1910, Harlem was about 10% Black, while the rest of New York City was less than 2% Black. Although many real estate agents in Harlem were opposed to dealing with African Americans, by 1920, 70% of Manhattan’s 107,000 African Americans lived in Harlem, and throughout the 1920s, an additional 175,000 arrived. By 1930, Harlem was over 70% Black, and the number increased to 98% by 1950.

During this demographic shift, almost the entire white population of Harlem was Jewish. “As the Jews left, an increasing number of apartments became available. These went to African Americans,” said Judelman.

Continued Jewish Presence

Judelman made clear that current gentrification efforts may mean that Harlem’s Jewish history is far from over.

The Old Broadway Synagogue, which was founded in 1916 and still stands as an Orthodox shul on West 125th Street, is filled with congregants who walk there from the Upper West Side as well as from Columbia and Yeshiva Universities.

Chabad of Harlem was established in 2005 and from its headquarters on 118th Street, engages in classic Lubavitch outreach.

One of the more surprising institutions is the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy. Established in 2013 on West 118th Street, it is a charter school in which all instruction is conducted in Hebrew. One of eight such schools throughout the U.S., it offers no Jewish studies, but it gives its students, 40% of whom are African American, 30% white, and the rest Hispanic, a chance to be exposed to the positive aspects of Israel and Jewish identity.

“There’s a waiting list to get in, and the original building has had to be expanded to the tune of about $20 million,” said Judelman.

Tours Where Jewish Voices Echo

Judelman’s Harlem Walking Tour, whether in-person or in its online virtual version, should not be missed. The buildings he knows so well echo with voices long gone, providing a connection with Jewish history, a shared immigrant community in which people established themselves and created a legacy while living or yearning for the American dream.

For more information about this and other tours, contact the LESJC at www.nycjewishtours.org, where the organization’s mission—to celebrate, preserve and share the Jewish heritage of New York City’s neighborhoods—comes alive. Email [email protected] or call

The Jewish experience in New York began with poverty in New Amsterdam, continued with overcrowding in the tenements of the Lower East Side, and then moved uptown to Harlem before splitting into smaller communities dispersed far and wide. It is intriguing to wonder where the LESJC tours of the 21st century Jewish migration will lead.

Two Sues on the Aisle bases its ratings on how many challahs it pays to buy (rather than make) in order to see the play, show, film or exhibit being reviewed. “Jewish History of Harlem” received five challahs.

By Sue Weston and Susie Rosenbluth /Two Sues on the Aisle / www.TheJewishVoiceAndOpinion.com 


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