Eldridge Street Synagogue
Eldridge Street Synagogue.

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. Many of these recent immigrants, struggled to survive on low wages and poor living conditions, leading many to eventually move away from the area. As the area became more gentrified and built up, many sites related to Jewish history on the Lower East Side began to disappear.

Former site of Ridley’s Department Store.

“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 leads Untapped New York’s tours of the Secrets of the Lower East Side. “There was an overabundance of people on the Lower East Side at the time. It’s been recorded and documented that 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-and-a-half-million left Eastern Europe, and about 2 million made their way to the Lower East Side.”

Secrets of the LES Tour and Tasting

Eldridge Street synagogue interior

Many Jewish people 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. One of the largest tenement buildings they moved into was 14-16 Orchard Street, which seemed to combine two buildings into one and featured an elaborate roof design. 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 use the bridge to come back on Saturdays from their houses 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 and tasting!

1. Forward Building

The Forward, a Jewish history site on the Lower East Side
The Forward Building.

The Forward, previously known as The Jewish Daily Forward, was founded in 1897 as a Yiddish-language daily newspaper with a socialist spin. It was edited by Abraham Cahan, who co-founded it with Louis Miller, for 43 years. After several years working with radical revolutionary groups, Cahan fled the Russian Empire and was among the first large wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to America just prior to the 20th century. At its peak circulation around 15 years after its founding, The Forward erected a ten-story building at 175 Broadway designed by architect George Boehm. The building competed with the Jarmulowsky Bank Building for the title of “tallest building on the Lower East Side.”

The building was considered the first skyscraper of the Lower East Side, which drew criticism from some prominent figures who believed that the building too strongly associated itself with capitalism. Others, though, believed that the building was a protective symbol of the working class, towering over surrounding tenements and sweatshops to signify what could happen with hard work and commitment to religion. The building was embellished with marble columns and panels, as well as stained glass windows. The facade includes bas relief portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Ferdinand Lassalle, who founded the first mass German labor party. The building was converted into condominiums in the 1990s, and The Forward moved its headquarters to East 33rd Street and then to the Financial District.

2. Jarmulowsky Bank Building

Jarmulowsky Bank Building, a Jewish history site on the Lower East Side
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. 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. It is now a boutique hotel called Nine Orchard.