This year I spent Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year holiday) in Brooklyn, New York. Even though I have visited NYC many times before, it was the first time I’ve been there over a major Jewish holiday. Meaning this was also the first time I got to see just how Jewish a city New York can be.
Of course, you probably don’t need me to tell you that a lot of Jews live in New York.
For the past 150 years or so, not only has New York been one of the world’s preeminent cities, it has been one of the Jewish world’s preeminent cities, too. A place where Jews from around the world have found refuge, and which has not only tolerated, but actively embraced and fostered a thriving, living Jewish culture in its midst.
Jews began arriving in “the New World” of America from as early as the 16th century, and for most of them, New York was their point of entry. Many stayed where they landed. Things really took off though from about 1880, when successive waves of Jewish migrants, fleeing poverty and persecution in Eastern Europe, made their way across the Atlantic. In less than 30 years over two million Jews migrated to the United States, and more than half of them settled in New York.
Ever since, the city of skyscrapers’ Jewish community has blossomed. Nowadays, about two million Jews live in New York, making it the city with the largest Jewish community in the world, and where about one in eight New Yorkers identifies as being Jewish. In some areas, like Brooklyn where I was staying, that ratio is closer to one in four. (And for those of you sticklers for statistics, yes, I know that the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area in Israel has a larger number of Jews, but New York City proper’s Jewish population is actually greater than Tel Aviv city’s).
More than the raw numbers though, it is the Jewish character of a place that counts, and in New York you’ll find the full spectrum of modern-day Jewish life, everywhere you go. So whilst most of New York’s Jews are generally secular in orientation, a myriad of other Jewish denominations are also represented in the city, ranging from the ultra-liberal to the ultra-orthodox (It is completely normal to see men in skullcaps and long black coats wandering along the street in central Manhattan; and indeed, the world headquarters of some of the more prominent ultra-orthodox Jewish sects are to be found here – see my previous post on Borough Park).
Jewish culture pervades almost every aspect of life in New York. It is found in the prevalence of traditional Jewish foods, dished up not just from specialty delis but at almost every corner stores. Like sliced brisket, corned beef, chicken soup, and bagels, which when paired with smoked salmon and cream cheese is virtually the city’s signature dish.
It is found in the Yiddish slang that peppers the speech of all New Yorkers, regardless of religion or origin. (Like the lady in the subway who told me: “it can be a real schlepp to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan at times”). It is found in the high visibility of Jews in New York’s public, business and artistic life. Like the city’s former mayor and global business luminary Michael Bloomberg. Or like the city’s not so luminary former businessman, and current full-time jail-bird, Bernie Madoff. Or like Barbra Streisand – international entertainment icon, but also a born-and-bred Brooklyn girl.
And it is found in the countless depictions of New York’s Jewishness – in movies, in TV shows, and in pop culture. Like Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen, for example, who have virtually built their careers out of being whiney Jewish New Yorkers.
In short, New York is a very, very Jewish city. Possibly even the most Jewish of all cities there is.
But it was not until this recent visit that I realized just how much so.
The first inkling came while chatting with a friend about plans for the upcoming Jewish holidays. He mentioned that in New York public schools would be closed for two days over Rosh Hashanah. Apparently this is because so many Jewish teachers take leave of absence on those two days it is impossible to run schools as normal. The result, however, is that all school age kids in New York City de facto observe Rosh Hashanah, Jewish or not. Perhaps not a big deal if you live in New York, but there is nowhere else in the world (besides Israel) where this happens.
I went for a run around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park a few days before Rosh Hashanah. On my way I stopped at an intersection to wait for the lights to change, alongside a bus shelter. On which there was, as usual, advertising. Only the advertising here was not for make-up, or cell-phones, or supermarket products. Instead the advertising that I found myself leaned up against was for a Jewish New Year Synagogue service that would be taking place nearby.
And just in case I thought this was an aberration, over the course of my run that morning I saw another three similar ads: one on another bus-stop, one on a billboard, and one on a poster taped onto a wall. It seems that in New York synagogue attendance is a promotable commodity, just like everything else. And so just like with any other advertisements, these High Holy Day ones were unashamedly trying to attract my custom (so to speak), by extolling the virtues of one particular synagogue’s service over others (“All Welcome”; “Toddler Friendly”; “Free Entry”, etc).
The next afternoon, on the recommendation of a friend, I visited Shelsky’s on Court Street, for a smoked fish sandwich. Shelsky’s is what is known as an “appetizing store”, a uniquely New York description of a place that purveys Jewish cuisine of a very specific type, namely being only those things you can eat with or on a bagel. This therefore is the place to come to if you are after things like chopped liver, egg salad, assorted herrings, and of course smoked salmon and cream cheese.
But not just any old smoked salmon and cream cheese. At Shelsky’s you have eleven different types of cold cured fish to select from, and if that ain’t enough, another nine types of hot smoked fish are on offer, too. Ranging from regular to Canadian to Scottish to Norwegian, and from salmon cured in Szechuan Pepper to the house-signature of salmon cured and then smoked “pastrami-style” (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, is all I can say).
Then, once you’ve settled on the salmon, you still have to choose between a dozen or so different types of cream cheeses, and then add other toppings and accompaniments. All quite overwhelming, really, and I guess it is for this very reason that Shelsky’s offers a number of pre-set salmon-bagel combos. Like the fabulously named “Fancy Pants”, comprised of “Fatty Lake Sturgeon, House-Cured Gravlax, Cream Cheese, Tomato and Red Onion Served on a Bagel”. Which, from first-hand experience, I can tell you is a fairly bland description for what is one mother-fucker of a bagel, stuffed two inches high with mounds of the most delectable smoked fish, and topped further with so much cream cheese it literally oozes out the sides and all over your hands as you devour it, so that you need to lick yourself clean.
That said, Shelsky’s is by definition Jewish. Far more demonstrative of New York’s innate Jewishness was a visit to Wholefoods on the corner of 3rd and 3rd in south Brooklyn – the local branch of a national chain of supermarkets-cum-warehouses devoted to all things green, organic and good for you. Except that at this particular New York Wholefoods, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, about half the deli counter had been entirely given over to Jewish festive foods of all sorts, arranged according to whether they were kosher (meat and milk items separated, of course), or “kosher-style”.
On offer was everything and anything you could ever need to stage a full-blown Jewish banquet. From honey-glazed carrots to massive fluffy matzo balls (and the chicken soup to go with them); from chopped liver to pickled cucumbers as thick as my wrist (available in multiple flavor varieties, including regular, garlic, sweet and sour, dill and fiery chili); from fresh falafel and humus to tzimmis (stewed sweet carrots) and cholent (a slow-cooked Jewish stew of Eastern European origin, usually eaten for Sabbath lunch); from sliced beef to boiled ox-tongue to paper-thin shavings of peppery pastrami; from lokshen pudding (noodles and raisins baked in a sweet custard) to kugelhopf.
Best of all though, samplers of most items were laid out on tasting plates around and alongside the deli counter. So then and there in the supermarket I was able to stuff myself to bursting on every traditional Jewish food there is. And, I was not alone. The counter was a hive of activity, with dozens of people stocking up on their New Year necessities.
It all seemed so comfortable and oddly familiar, and then it dawned on me why this was so. It seems that in honor of the impending Jewish New Year holiday, Aisle Twelve of Brooklyn’s Wholefoods had temporarily been transformed into something that looked a lot less like a supermarket, and a lot more like the buffet at your average Bar Mitzvah celebration.
Right down to the pushy Jewish grandmas taking little nibbles from the tasting plates while standing in line, waiting to be served.
Although if any single episode is to best sum up the entire New York Rosh Hashanah experience, it was my attempt to buy honey-cake on the eve of the New Year.
One of my oldest school friends lives in New York, and I’d been invited to his place for the traditional holiday dinner. I asked if I could bring anything, and he suggested perhaps a honey-cake (it is customary to eat honeyed foods on Rosh Hashanah, to symbolically represent the hope for a sweet year to come).
One of the best honey-cakes in New York is apparently made at a bakery near Union Square in Manhattan, which was not that far away. So I hopped on the subway and fifteen minutes later I was walking through the front door of one of the most chaotic bakeries I have ever seen.
The place was packed, perhaps owing to the fact that it was just hours before the start of the Jewish New Year, with about fifty customers all clamoring about trying to secure their festive bakery items. Tray after tray of fresh-baked yumminess was being wheeled from the kitchen to the shop floor – probably three or four new deliveries a minute – and the array on offer was staggering.
So there were piles of round-shaped challahs (a challah is a plaited sweet bread that Jews typically eat on Friday night; at Rosh Hashanah it is made round instead, to signify the completion of the circle of a year). They were available in every form imaginable – plain; coated in sesame seeds or poppy seeds or various grains; white, brown, sweet, salted, or gluten free. Some even had been baked with a small decorative dish set in the middle of the challah, into which honey could be poured (more of that sweet New Year vibe).
Not to be outdone there were also shelves overflowing with regular challahs, bagels, long crunchy-looking baguettes, and a huge selection of other breads of all sorts. Not to mention cakes and cookies of every type – date loaves, honey-cakes, Mandelbrot (almond biscuits), donuts, and my personal can’t-get-enough of, rugelach: mini croissant-type biscuits with fillings of chocolate, poppy seed, or jam. Needless to say, the smell of all this freshly-made deliciousness was intoxicating.
A small army of extremely harrowed looking service staff were buzzing about frantically, trying their utmost to address the free-for-all. So it took me some time to be able to catch the attention of one of the store assistants. I asked for a honey-cake, he turned around to the shelves to grab one, and then immediately turned back with a pained look on his face. In a heavy Hispanic accent he informed me: “I am sorry Sir, but that lady just took the last honey-cake. There is another batch baking but they won’t be ready for another forty-five minutes, if you’d like to wait?”
I must have looked incredibly crest-fallen at this news, because he immediately suggested an alternative. “How about a Babka?” he asked, pointing to a six-foot high metal trolley on wheels that had just arrived behind me, and on which were stacked eight trays, each carrying a dozen or so Babkas, all still warm in their baking tins.
Now I love Babka, I really do – done right it is possibly my favorite cake. But this was beyond mind-blowing. I don’t think I have ever seen so much Babka accumulated in one place in all my life. Even more mind-blowing was the selection – one rack of poppy seed Babkas, two racks of chocolate, and one rack each of cinnamon, cinnamon and raisin, and cinnamon and apple. It was all I could do not to ask if I’d be allowed to set up a camping bed and move in for the holidays.
Instead, showing considerable restraint on my part, I limited myself to asking for one chocolate Babka and one cinnamon Babka, to take to my friend’s house. And for good measure I grabbed another plain cinnamon Babka, just a little something for me to nibble on the road, although that doesn’t really count, now does it?
The guy who was serving me wrapped up the three Babkas, put them in a plastic bag, and rang them up on the till. I handed over the money, he handed over the goodies, and at the same time he smiled and cheerily said to me: “Shana Tova” (“Happy New Year”, in Hebrew). And as he did that, I glanced for the first time at the name tag pinned to his shirt pocket.
It turns out that my server’s name was, of all things, Jesus. Sure, it is a common name in Latin America, and pronounced “Hey-soos”, but still, come on….
The American comic Lenny Bruce once famously said: “If you’re from New York and you’re Catholic, you’re still Jewish”. When a Hispanic fellow named Jesus wishes you Shana Tova while he wraps up your Babka in a Lower East Side bakery, you know it’s true.
And that, my friends, is why New York is a very Jewish city.