3. Harlem was once the third-largest Jewish settlement in the world
While Harlem is known today as a center for African American culture, it was once the third-largest Jewish settlement in the world behind the Lower East Side and Warsaw, Poland. From around 1870 to 1930, individuals of Jewish ancestry resided in East Harlem — sharing the area with Italian Americans — and in Central Harlem, where the majority of the population was German. A number of the 20th century’s most famous Jews lived in Harlem, such as composer George Gershwin, comedienne Fanny Brice, and singer Sophie Tucker.
During this time period, East Harlem housed 40 to 50 synagogues, while Central Harlem had around 150. One of the most famous synagogues in the area was Ohab Zedek — known for hiring Yossele Rosenblatt, considered to be one of the greatest cantors who ever lived. Rosenblatt rose to prominence after being featured in the first talkie movie, The Jazz Singer, as himself. Ohab Zedek is currently located on the Upper West Side.
Another prestigious synagogue in Harlem was Temple Israel, built in 1907 at 120th Street and Lenox. In 1925, the synagogue was purchased by Mount Olivet, an influential Black congregation in New York. Mount Olivet Baptist Church would go on to become a significant site during the Civil Rights Movement. Many prominent figures have also chosen to give speeches on the church’s steps, including Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Today, Mount Olivet Baptist Church retains the structure’s Jewish iconography with the Old Testament verse “Jehovah is in his holy temple; be silent, before him, before all the earth,” inscribed on the marble pediment leading to the baptismal pool. The Stars of David can also be viewed at the top of the building’s four columns and in the stained glass windows.