Exploring New York's Jewish heritage
New York City has the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel. There's lots to explore including museums, historic sites and a trendy new TriBeCa restaurant.
The Associated Press
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NEW YORK — Museums and historic sites, the world's largest menorah, and a trendy new Tribeca restaurant inspired by an old-school Catskills resort. They're all part of Jewish New York, with a heritage that stretches back 400 years and a vital contemporary community that's reinterpreting old traditions for the 21st century.
New York City has the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, according to the Jewish Databank, which put the city's Jewish population at 1.4 million in 2002. The stories of European Jews who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are relatively well-known and easy to find in places like the Lower East Side. But visitors with an interest in Jewish New York will also want to explore many other parts of the city, from the Jewish Children's Museum in Brooklyn to a 17th century graveyard on a Chinatown side street.
An obvious place to start is Ellis Island, where the ancestors of so many American Jews first set foot on U.S. soil. Boats run from Battery Park to the National Park site in New York Harbor. The Ellis Island museum offers a wealth of artifacts connected to Jewish immigrants, including a photo of a kosher kitchen that opened on the island in 1911 and an eye chart with a line of Hebrew letters.
From where the boat lets you off on your return to Manhattan, you can walk to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City. Through summer 2012, the museum is hosting a fascinating exhibit about Emma Lazarus. Lazarus' sonnet "The New Colossus," with its famous line "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," is engraved on a tablet in the Statue of Liberty's pedestal, and Lady Liberty can be seen from the museum windows.
A little farther uptown you'll find a newcomer restaurant with nostalgic ties to New York's Jewish past. Kutsher's Tribeca, which opened in November at 186 Franklin St., is the brainchild of Zach Kutsher, whose grandparents ran Kutsher's Country Club, a popular Catskills resort in its mid-20th century heyday.
The menu reinvents and updates favorite Jewish comfort foods, offering savory brisket meatballs, chopped liver made from duck and yummy matzo ball soup with dill. You can even order caviar with your latkes — though the roe is not from sturgeon, which isn't kosher.
Drinks at Kutsher's hark back to fun times at the resort with names like Bungalow Bunny, the term for a wife spending the summer with her kids in the Catskills while her husband worked in the city; and Bug Juice, originally a summer camp drink for kids made from a combination of leftover juices.
Next, head to Chinatown, where Jewish history is hiding in plain sight. Near the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, just south of Chatham Square, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the U.S., at 55 St. James Place. The graveyard was used from 1682 to 1828 by Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Today Shearith Israel's synagogue is uptown at 2 W. 70th St., but the congregation was founded in the 1650s by Sephardic Jews who settled in Lower Manhattan when it was New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony. Emma Lazarus belonged to the congregation, as did her famous relative, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo.
The St. James cemetery is one of three historic Shearith Israel graveyards located on lonely Manhattan side streets; the others are at 76 W. 11th St., used from 1805-1829, and on West 21st Street west of Sixth Avenue, used from 1829 to 1851.
Heading north, where Chinatown runs into the Lower East Side, you'll find the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St. It was founded in 1887 as the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the U.S. In 2007, after a 20-year, $18 million restoration, a museum opened on-site about the synagogue and local Jewish history.
Nearby is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St. The building dates to 1863, but it was a time capsule when the museum acquired it in 1996: Its apartments had been sealed off since 1935. Museum tours ($22) tell the stories of the real people who lived there. The museum also offers "Foods of the Lower East Side," a walking tour ($45) with tastings at neighborhood eateries like Kossar's Bialys, 367 Grand St., and The Pickle Guys, 49 Essex St.
Other worthwhile stops in the area include the Bialystoker Synagogue, organized in 1865 and housed in an 1826 building at 7-11 Willett St.; and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, which offers walking tours on New York Jewish history and operates a storefront visitor center at 400 Grand St. with interesting exhibits.
The Jewish Children's Museum, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, offers hands-on interactive exhibits about holidays and culture along with a climbing wall for young children and a mini-golf course. Kids can crawl through a challah bread tunnel, go shopping in a kosher supermarket and walk through the creation story from the Old Testament.
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