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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

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Letter from the Lower East Side

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A bustling bastion of new immigrants streaming into New York City, the aLower East Side has been settled by a succession of ethnic groups since the 17th century.

The Dutch, followed by the British, were the first to live in this now-congested southeastern corner of the island of Manhattan. Next came the Germans – who inhabited the first tenements – Irish and Italians, who lent it more flavour.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this neighbourhood gradually changed, becoming virtually synonymous with eastern European Jews, whose shops, synagogues, institutions and kosher or kosher-style delicatessens marked it as a predominantly Jewish enclave.

On iconic streets such as Delancey and Hester, newly arrived Jews learned to be Americans as they shed old ways and habits. With the onset of prosperity, Jews moved on, their places taken by, among others, Chinese, Polish, Ukrainian, Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants.

Of late, a process of gentrification has taken hold as crumbling but architecturally interesting buildings are renovated, stodgy shops are remodelled into trendy and pricey boutiques and brand-name cafés establish beachheads. Who knows what the Lower East Side will look and feel like in another generation?

Despite the changes, the Jewish component of the Lower East Side is still very much in evidence, as my daughter and I discovered during a long and leisurely stroll through its precincts recently.

On a wooden bench outside Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery on East Houston Street, we kept hunger at bay by sampling its potato and mushroom knishes, steaming, mushy and delicious.

We wandered into Russ & Daughters, a few doors away, a mecca of smoked fish. On Orchard Street, a hub for bargain shoppers, a heady aromatic brine emanated from Guss’ Pickles.

On a more spiritual level, the Lower East Side is still replete with synagogues, such as the Bialystoker and Greek shuls on Willet and Broome streets.

At the corner of Broadway and Rutgers stands what was perhaps the most important landmark in the entire area, the 10-storey beige and yellow brick Forward Building, which faces Seward Park, the first municipal-built public playground in the United States.

Designed by George Boehm, and finished in 1912, this striking Beaux Arts structure was the headquarters of the Jewish Daily Forward, the Yiddish newspaper of record in the United States. As a child in Montreal, I remember my father and uncle reading the Forverts from cover to cover.

Founded in 1897 by socialists, the first edition was published on April 22 of that year. Widely regarded as the successor of New York City’s first Yiddish-language socialist newspaper, Di Arbetier Tsaytung, the Forverts was driven by a social democratic editorial agenda.

One of its first editors, Abraham Cahan (1860-1951), was born in the Russian empire, in what is now Lithuania. The scion of Orthodox Jews whose grandfather was a rabbi and whose father was a Hebrew teacher, Cahan was steeped in Jewish tradition and seemed bound for the rabbinate.

Drawn to secular culture, Cahan studied to be a teacher in Vilna. He graduated in 1881, when nationwide pogroms broke out, and found a teaching job in Vitebsk, where the painter Marc Chagall was born.

Being a socialist, Cahan was eager to leave repressive and antisemitic Russia. Arriving in New York City in 1882, he earned a living as an educator and writer, contributing articles on socialism and science to Di Arbeiter Tsaytung.

He also began writing fiction. His first novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, was published in 1896 to critical acclaim, with the influential critic W.D. Howells comparing him to Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage).

Cahan’s second book, The Imported Bride and Other Stories, appeared two years later. It, too, was hailed by critics.

In the meantime, Cahan joined the staff of the Forverts, but left abruptly in a dispute over its political orientation.

Having learned English sufficiently well, he offered his services to a daily, the Commercial Advertiser, where he worked for four years, honing his skills as reporter and observer of the American scene.

He returned to the Forverts after receiving iron-clad assurances of full editorial control. Under Cahan’s editorship, it became the single most important Yiddish newspaper in the United States, its circulation reaching 120,000 in 1912.

One of its most popular features, Bintel Brief, encouraged readers to send in questions on life’s pressing problems. The column was designed to help Jewish immigrants adapt to life in America, one of the mandates of the Forverts.

In its heyday, during the 1920s and 1930s, its daily circulation skyrocketed to 275,000, a figure that has never been matched by any Jewish publication in the United States. But as Jewish immigration to the United States slowed to a trickle, due to nativist restrictions, its circulation suffered, dropping to about 170,000 by the eve of World War II.

The Forverts was blessed with a stable of gifted writers, including Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose short stories were enjoyed by many readers.

Cahan retired in 1946, having written his major novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, and his memoirs, The Education of Abraham Cahan. By then, the Forverts was something of a spent force.

Circulation declined to 56,000 by the early 1960s and to 5,000 at last report. A weekly English edition surfaced in 1990, but a Russian version did not survive.

The Forward Building, adorned with deeply inset windows, ornate pilasters, marble columns, a huge clock that lights up at night and golden letters in Yiddish that spell out Forverts, is truly a relic from another era.

Sold to Chinese investors years ago, the once mighty building, now in a mainly Asian neighbourhood, has been converted into a condominium whose units have sold for between $600,000 and more than $5 million. Like upscale condos in the Big Apple, it has a 24-hour doorman. But like prewar condos, it has no balconies or an underground parking garage.

As I walked toward the building, my daughter’s dog, Rainbow, leading the way, I passed a profusion of Asian food markets, electronics stores and a Chinese funeral home, where a band in frilly white uniforms stood outside playing dirges to a departed member of the community.

Listening to the sorrowful music, I wondered how many people around here had ever heard of the Forverts or Abraham Cahan?

As Bob Dylan put it in his plaintive ballad, “The times they are a-changin.”

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