Before embarking on this article, I wondered if it’s going to be a love letter, biased by the undying passion I have for my city, it’s diversity, color, intoxicating energy, it’s art and culture, fashion and architecture, and the list just goes on. There is something indescribable in it’s uniqueness and the word that pops to my head – its New York-ness.
I have traveled the world and spent long periods in large and amazing cities in every continent, London or Paris, Rome, Sydney, Prague or Hong Kong, San Francisco, Moscow, you name it nowhere have I felt this exquisite joy that never fades, despite having lived here for a long time. Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy traveling and soaking up the beauty the world over, but there is something here, in the Big Apple, that makes my spirits soar as I discover new things daily, interact with fellow New Yorkers (who are similar to the Sabras of Israel, prickly on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside).
I fell in love with New York before I got to experience it as a grown up. As a child, there was the awe inspiring first visit with my parents, standing atop the Empire State Building and looking thru the telescopes at the magnificent view, sprinkled with skyscrapers and brownstones, Ellis island and Lady liberty with her torch. My parents rented the original King Kong movie before we left Israel, and I was super excited to be on the same iconic building the monster ape climbed and the film’s scariest scenes were shot. Then we went down to the financial district and on Wall Street took a cab across The Brooklyn Bridge. I looked back at the skyline and felt powerful and strong and made a silent vow to come back and live here someday.
Literature and film also colored my love for the city. Marjory Morningstar, The Fountainhead and Woody Allen’s movies, or Edith Wharf’s "Days of Innocence.’ The stories about the immigrants who first settled in the tenement houses of the lower East Side, with it’s bustling streets, kids playing and people shopping off carts pulled by old, tired horses. The entrepreneurial newcomers who rose from poverty to wealth, opening themselves to the wonders all around them. Italians, Jews, the Chinese and the Irish, they congregated in their unique neighborhoods, where the foods of their old homeland could be easily gotten, their temples, synagogues and churches catered to their spiritual needs, yet most strived to blend and assimilate. They worked hard, often sharing a tiny apartment with another family, pushing the boys to become doctors and lawyers and the girls, to marry one of those. Most desired to be like the American New Yorkers, all the while preserving their heritage. Lower Manhattan still displays remnants of this past… China Town still carries signage in Chinese, the spice and medicine shops are filled with clear jars displaying the components of the ancient medicine, reflexology and acupuncture are everywhere, and strangely, most people speak no English. Merchants sell knock off bags and scarves, cameras, jewelry, and perfume. It’s an adventure for the visitor, and I never tire of it. Fruits and vegetable stalls,(very inexpensive) dried and salted fish and strange sea creatures abound, with Chinese housewives loudly picking their merchandise, are a joy behold.
Little Italy, on the next block, is filled with tourists who flock here to visit what’s left from the recreation of insular Neapolitan village, in the new country. The local tenements, though not the largest but certainly the poorest of Italian neighborhoods in the NY, housed around 10,000 Italian immigrants in 1910. Mulberry Street, the heart of the district saw the rise of Mafia leaders, their stooges collecting "tax" from the local business owners, holding meetings in the back of their favorite restaurants. It had it’s own financial institutes, language and culture. After WWII most of the original residents moved to bigger and more prosperous homes elsewhere, having acquired wealth and thus a desire for space. and the only ones that still remain, are old timers, often seen sitting on stoops or standing under the awnings in Mulberry Street. The three blocks it still occupies on Mulberry Street is considered a representative veneer by the Italian community, yet what remains is still a most authentic urban village, not unlike an open-air theme park.
People come here to revisit the locale of the fictional Corleone Crime Family, of the three "God Father" films, and indeed, a slice of history in the life of early Italian immigrants. Mulberry Street still ooks much as it did over a hundred years ago..some of the shops bear signs declaring ‘opened in 1902’ .Difference is mainly the ethnicity of the population. Few Italians remained in the tiny apartments above the shops, most of which are old timers, often seen sitting on stoops or standing under the awnings in Mulberry Street, staring at the masses of tourists or discussing how much the world has changed.
Then comes my favorite, the Jewish lower east side, which is to this day a passion of mine to explore. Sadly, the stores on Grand and Orchard and Essex streets are becoming fancy boutiques and many Jewish storekeepers are moving to Brooklyn because the rent is impossibly high. Though even now you’ll find the odd cluttered Judaica store, the building on East Broadway, where the Yiddish newspaper ‘Forward’ used to be (a beautiful building, now converted to a condo), a place where they make shmura matzo by hand, and still a good number of stores, run by religious Jews, selling fabric and undergarments. Unfortunately, most of the yummy milchik soup restaurants are gone and the famous pickles shop is now run by Chinese people, but the Eldridge Street Synagogue is there, a jewel so old and so beautiful, especially after the renovation, you must not leave without visiting it.
Fascinating to look at the Jewish community and the vast changes it experienced, from their traditional life in the Old Country, driven by a deep desire to be part of their new homeland shed the garb of the shteitel and became part of the local culture. Though in essence the New York Jew is so deeply tied to it’s root, that even non-observant Jews fast on Yom Kippur and most eat matzo during Passover. And as to their desire to be part of the local society, well, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. A young Jewish entrepreneur, Marcus Loews, opened the first Nickelodeon in a rented store. The show featured amongst the expected vaudevillian acts, the first moving picture, which was simply a train rushing toward the startled audience from the screen. People were hooked and couldn’t get enough. Eventually, Loews bought the failing silent film company ‘Metro’, which evolved into the Lowes theaters circuit, showing films done by Metro (which shortly became the first M in the name of the legendary studio, MGM) Louis B. Mayer his friend Samuel Goldwyn (Sam Godfish originally) partnered with Marcus Loews, owner of the Loews theaters and together produced the very first full length moving picture, and the studio Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.
In the very early days many silent films were made in New York City and Ithaca, before moving west to Hollywood. Just as an aside, when the studio system was created, MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers etc, all headed by Jews, producing the greatest films of the studio era. In fact most of Broadway and Hollywood were established largely by Jews like tycoon Adolph Zucker, head of Paramount pictures, who strong armed theater owners, forcing them to the "block booking" of movies (the rental of groups of film), assuring the studio films distribution. Genius talents, like David O Selznick eventually produced eternal classics, like "Gone w the wind&rdquo. Jewish actors and actresses graced the celluloid, with people like Louise Rainer (double academy winner), Errol Flynn, Paul Newman, Judy Garland Woody Allen Melwyn Douglass (winner of two Oscars, a Tony and an Emmy) not to forget academy award nominated director, Michael Checkov Walter Matthau, Marilyn Monroe and so many more.
Jewish musicians, influenced by their centurial roots became the rock stars of the early 20th century, making their mark on every aspect of culture, art science and more. Al Jolson, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Roger and Hammerstein,Leonard Bernstein , are just a small example of the meteoric rise of Jews not just in NYC but in the music scene worldwide.
Of course the same happened on Broadway- both the producers, writers and composers and a large percentage of the talent, some began as Vaudevillian acts, only to become superstars of Broadway. Zero Mostel, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson,Jacob Adler, Erich von Stroheim, Lorraine Baccal, and the list is so long it cant be contained in one article, especially since the crossover between stage and film is continuous.
New York Humor is Jewish Humor Mel Brooks comes to mind when I think of comedy, as writer actor and director of some of the funniest productions for both stage and film. The same can be said of Woody Allen, whose countless masterpieces break me up, just thinking about them.
The comedy scene has been mostly been driven by Jewish entertainers, some from Vaudeville, some stand ups who got their start in the Borscht Belt. Menashe Shkulnick, Fanny Brice, Syd Ceasar, Jack Benny, Rodney Dangerfield an the endless number of brilliantly funny people, of the present era, like Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller Rosanne, Joan Rivers and Mike Myers. Again, I’m omitting too many, but I have to laugh about it and remember "Young Frenkenstein" "I see a werewolf!&rdquo to which Marty Feldman responded ‘Where wolf?" I feel like my eyes are beginning to bug, like Marty’s, as I’m trying to remember and honor all the genius that was contributed by Jews. Let’s put Albert Einstein into the list and I think I’m done.
Yet New York has become the most affected by Jewish verbiage and many a Yiddish word became an integral part of colloquial speech. The same with foods – matzo ball soup, kasha varnishkes and chopped liver, just to name a few of the staples to be found on the menu of every deli restaurant in the city.
East Village and West village (both deserve more commentary, but can be summed as hip and fun) sit atop Soho, where the galleries still can be found, with the most beautiful and expensive boutiques alongside them, in loft buildings that used to be factories, then cheap artist’s studios, and now are million-dollar real estate for the rich and hip.
Chelsie is also gallery filled and is on the lower west side, up to the beautiful, wide Hudson River. Broadway runs between 7th and 8th Ave, with wondrous ornate theaters, that are filled with the spirits of superstars, some long gone, some currently performing in ongoing shows.
5th Ave cuts the city in half, with streets going from 1 to over 200 and the house numbers keep going up both west and east, with the lowest digits by 5th Ave, spreading out towards the Hudson River on the West and the East River on the East. 5th Ave, home of Tiffany’s, Sack’s and Bergdorf-Goodman, Louis Vuitton and such can be found. Next block, on Madison Ave, all the remaining world famous great designers and famous jewelers are represented, with a few, like Channel Dior and Burberry, in the strip of East 57th St. that runs between 5th and Madison.
57th St. is the heart of midtown and is called Sutton Place on the East. A little lower, on the east river, is Beekman Place, where Greta Garbo went into seclusion, as did Katherine Hepburn.
Upper east and West side surround Central Park, The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West and 81st.
Harlem and Washington Heights are the top of the Island of Manhattan, full of exquisite pre-war buildings (most of which are on Central Park West), and each area has its magic and unending discovery of something you never seen before. Even if you lived here all your life Central Park is a huge park, filled with ponds, a zoo and a magic castle, in the middle of the island of Manhattan. Its splendid lawns sprawling beside the natural rock the island is built on, feel like one is in the country, while surrounded by some of the city’s most beautiful buildings.
It deserves an article all it’s own…but truly, so does each and every part of this magnetically dynamic city.
‘Love is the most powerful way to create profoundly tangible transformation in everyone who crosses our path. Yet we must be mindful to endow the self with pure, unconditional love and acceptance, which will result in an infinite fountain of empathy and joy, readily available to give others.’
img credit: dormroomfund.com