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What a difference a year makes. Last autumn, New York City was all agog at the prospect of “Sukkah City” taking root in Union Square Park. Eleven different designs of an outdoor hut, the fruits of an international design competition, were scattered around the perimeter of the park, drawing thousands of visitors and generating considerable press, all of it favorable.

Sukkah City
Sukkah City, 2010. Flickr/SpecialKRB
But this fall, in striking contrast, an attempt to install a sukkah in nearby TriBeCa’s Duane Park by a local Chabad rabbi and his wife kicked up quite a rumpus of disapproval.

In lieu of a chorus of hosannas, of sprightly talk about open source tradition and artistic innovation, the dominant register was of negativity and resistance. Citing the First Amendment, opponents of the sukkah claimed that the structure ran the risk of violating the separation of church and state. “I don’t want to encourage having all sorts of religious things in our public parks,” stated a neighborhood resident.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that “Sukkah City” might betoken a sea change in the public’s embrace of the ancient ritual structure. After all, for much of their history, urban American Jews found it much too difficult to erect a sukkah of their own, preferring to rely on that of their local synagogue.

When American Jews first lived in tenements, there was hardly any room for a sukkah, save for an uncongenial fire escape. Later still, when upwardly mobile American Jews moved to well-equipped apartment houses, erecting a sukkah clashed too strenuously with their newly acquired bourgeois norms of discretion and politesse. And these days, amid heightened concern about the establishment of religion, a public sukkah continues to be somewhat of a shaky proposition.

Still, as things turned out, there is room for common ground. Happily, the residents of TriBeCa secured an alternative venue for the Chabad sukkah. Instead of nesting in a public space, it found a temporary home on an empty lot, the private property of a local real estate company with a strong sense of neighborliness.

Traipsing around the Lower East Side on a beastly hot summer day, I had lots of company. The streets were filled with tourists, shoppers and the cool cats who now call that downtown neighborhood their home. Most visitors, I suspect, were in search of the fabled hipster haven that the Lower East Side has become of late. As for me, I was in search of history.

Lower East Side tenement fire escapes
Fire escapes on the Lower East Side near the Tenement Museum. Flickr/manyhighways.
It’s hard to find. The Lower East Side, that “great ghetto” of the late 19th and early 20th century, is now a living and breathing palimpsest of past and present. Sleek glass condominiums nestle, cheek by jowl, with the area’s characteristic brick tenements, while Katz’s Delicatessen, whose stock in trade is a hot pastrami sandwich, is just yards away from il laboratio del gelato, a bright, clean, laboratory-like space that purveys all manner of gelati, from pink pepper tarragon to thai chili chocolate.

Yes, the streets are still filled with signs that dangle in the wind from a metal chain. That’s not something you see too much of uptown. But they’re no longer hand-lettered or written in Yiddish and Hebrew. Instead, crisp, stylish graphics in English beckon passersby.

The multi-layers that constitute the Lower East Side put me in mind of an equally layered short story, “A Cycle of Manhattan,” that was first published in 1919, when that one square mile of downtown real estate was bursting at its seams with Jewish immigrants. Written by Thyra Samter Winslow, one of the bright young things of the interwar years, whom no one reads any more (but should), the story chronicles the deracination of an immigrant family.

Starting out in a New York tenement neighborhood as the Rosenheimers, they steadily make their way out of the ghetto. By the time they reach Riverside Drive, they have jettisoned their past and acquired a new name – Ross – in the process. Their son, an artist, rejects the bourgeois comforts and conceits of his parents. In search of authenticity and truth, he ends up living in a downtown tenement. But not in any old downtown tenement. In a wonderful denouement, this one turns out to be the very same tenement which his parents and grandparents had inhabited when they first arrived in America.

The life cycle of that fictional family, and doubtless that of their real life counterparts, parallels the life cycle of the city. And still does.

In New York, change is the coin of the realm. Nothing remains intact or in one place for very long. Businesses come and go, neighborhoods rise and fall, synagogues and churches shutter their doors and move away.

Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun. Source: Wikipedia
But not Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (or “KJ,” as it’s commonly called), a stalwart and true urban presence on East 85th Street since 1902.

A raging fire claimed the life of its dignified limestone and brick building last night, leaving me, along with thousands of New Yorkers, with an acute sense of loss.

While I’ve attended services on occasion, my relationship to KJ happens to be professional rather than personal. Years ago, I wrote a book about modern Orthodox Jewry in which the history of the congregation figures prominently. One of the book’s chapters, in fact, contains a description of the building’s cornerstone-laying ceremony, which took place 109 years ago.

Spirits ran high that day, the sources tell us in what now makes for painful reading. There was a band and bunting and the usual complement of official dignitaries. A “vast concourse of Jewish citizens” also turned out to participate in the proceedings. Everyone on hand agreed that Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun was the “most modern and beautiful orthodox synagogue in New York.”

May it rise again.

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As an historian, my stock in trade is change. Chronicling and analyzing how one thing gives way to another is what I do for a living, day in and day out. But taking the measure of Clio’s slings and arrows is one thing; actually experiencing them is quite another. When the forces of change affect me personally, dispassion goes out the window.

Scott Beale
Flickr/Scott Beale.
What prompts this confession is the news that a beloved New York City neighborhood institution, H & H Bagels, called it a day and closed its doors. As long as I can remember, the store hugged the corner at 80th Street and Broadway, the smell of onions and yeast wafting through the air.

Bagel cognoscenti might debate the merits of H & H’s offerings -- some palates fond them far too doughy, others just right -- but for me, the modest little storefront stood for something larger than a rounded piece of dough heaped with “everything.”

It represented the multiple ways in which a certain kind of Jewishness -- a decidedly vernacular, easy-going and undemanding form of Jewishness, at that -- found a place for itself within the urban landscape and within the deeper reaches of American culture.

Along with appetizing stores and kosher (or kosher-style) delicatessens and other Jewish food purveyors that once peppered the city street, the bagel shop brought about a sea change in what Americans ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bagels became common fare. Expanding the American diet, the bagel also helped to expand, deepen and round out America’s relationship to its Jewish citizens.

I’ll miss my occasional bagel from H & H. But what I’ll miss even more is the history nestled within its little circular frame.

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