Around the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States and settled on the Lower East Side. Many moved into tenement buildings and took up employment at sweatshops, factories and local stores. Among the largest was 14-16 Orchard Street, which seemed to combine two buildings into one and featured an elaborate roof design. Many of these recent immigrants, though, struggled to survive on low wages and poor living conditions, leading many to eventually move away from the area. And as the area became more gentrified and built up, many of the historic Jewish sites of the Lower East Side were lost to history.
“I think one of the fascinating things about the Lower East Side is that it’s been estimated that there were probably over 600 houses of worship that existed between 1880 and 1924 around there,” said Richard Soden, a longtime Lower East Side resident and Museum at Eldridge Street docent who will be leading a tour of the Secrets of the Lower East Side starting in September. “There was an overabundance of people on the Lower East Side at the time. It’s been recorded and documented that probably the Lower East Side as we define it in those days probably had the largest population [of Jews] in the world during that period of time. About two-a-half-million left Eastern Europe, and about 2 million made their way to the Lower East Side.”
Many Jews would frequent 113 Allen Street, which housed public baths for those who did not have baths or showers in their apartments. Many shopped at Ridley’s Department Store on Grand Street and bought from pushcarts on Hester Street. Restaurants like Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery and Katz’s Deli opened in the early 1900s and quickly became go-to spots for the local population. And even the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges played a major role in the lives of Jewish immigrants, enabling people to leave the area and spread out; the former of which was even known as “Jew Bridge” because so many people would come back on Saturdays from their house of worship.
With assistance from Soden, here are 10 Jewish history sites on the Lower East Side, from modern-day museums and synagogues to abandoned buildings whose connection to Judaism is not as obvious. Be sure to join us for our Secrets of the Lower East Side tour in September and onwards.
Secrets of the LES Tour
1. Jarmulowsky Bank Building
The Jarmulowsky Bank Building is a 12-story building that formerly housed the Jarmulowsky Bank at Canal Street and Orchard Street. The building is named after Sender Jarmulowsky, who established his bank in 1873. Jarmulowsky was born in 1841 in Grajewo, Russia — now a part of Poland. He was orphaned and raised by the Rabbi of Werblow, and he was sent to an elite Talmudic academy called the Volozhin Yeshiva. He soon after married Rebecca Markels, the daughter of a wealthy Polish merchant, and he was on track to become a renowned scholar.
However, Jarmulowsky had other plans. In 1868, he moved his family to Hamburg, Germany, purchasing steamship tickets and selling them to German and East European Jews who hoped to immigrate to America. Jarmulowsky’s anticipation of hundreds of people going to America allowed him to outcompete steamship companies, leading him to move to New York and open up a bank — where he made his wife a full partner. The bank, at 54 Canal Street, was considered a “bank” for immigrants that provided loans, deposits and ticket sales. The bank was open all day on Sunday, which allowed Sabbath-observant Jews to take care of their financial needs on the weekend. The bank was reputed to serve more than 60,000 depositors and survived bank runs in 1886, 1890, 1893 and 1901. When World War I broke out just two years after the bank building was completed, German investors withdrew funds to send to relatives abroad, and the bank subsequently failed.
The Beaux-Arts façade of the building has been landmarked, although a boutique hotel may move in soon following restoration and renovation. The building is faced with limestone on the lower section and terra cotta at its top section. Until 1990, the building featured a rooftop Greek tempietto that rose 50 feet to a dome ringed by eagles, and a recreation of this was unveiled 30 years later. The exterior decorative banding “S. Jarmulowsky” will remain to honor the man who founded the successful bank, the Eldridge Street Synagogue with a few other successful businessmen, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.