Exploring Jewish History in the City Q&A

| 26 Feb 2015 | 01:08

To research his book, Jewish New York: A History and Guide to Neighborhoods, Synagogues, and Eateries, Paul Kaplan spent a year and a half interviewing museum curators, tour guides, nonprofit directors and historian. From Katz’s Deli to former Harlem synagogues and several not-so-celebrated locations -- as well as sites and places that no longer exist -- he ventured throughout Manhattan to document Jewish life both past and present. Kaplan sits on the board of directors for the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy.

You have a marketing background. What made you start writing?My work during the day is around digital marketing and marketing strategy for various industries. I also pursue historical preservation. I feel it’s important to capture the essence of the city and document it for future generations. I noticed that there were so many different places of Jewish interest, but there was no one place where it was all together. And I thought it particularly important to tell the story behind the sites.

Why do you think, as you said, nothing of its kind has been written before?Well, what’s been written before tends to be very focused, on particular restaurants and places. There are definitely a lot of those books. I think that people tend not to think holistically. So this is taking a step back and trying to connect the dots.

What is your family’s history in New York?My parents are both from Brooklyn, and I was born in Manhattan, lived here until I was five, and then moved to New Jersey. I grew up in Princeton, but I came here a lot growing up, so I witnessed a lot of the changes.

What were some things you learned from writing this book?I didn’t know that Harlem was such a hotbed of Jewish activity from the 1880s until around 1920. And that a lot of Jews had moved there from the Lower East Side, and you can see a lot of old synagogues in Harlem, many of which are churches today. You can observe some of the architectural relics of the past if you look closely. Another one would be that Second Avenue, between Houston and 14th Street, was like Broadway today for Yiddish theater. There was a real variety of quality in the theaters themselves. There was a Yiddish stars Walk of Fame, which was on the street, just like you have on Hollywood Boulevard. A lot of the buildings those theaters were in are still there today. For example, the theater that Stomp has been in for a really long time, was a Yiddish theater. There were 22 Yiddish theaters and two Yiddish vaudeville houses.

One of those Yiddish theaters became the Fillmore East.They used to call it “The Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It was the former Commodore Theater, erected in 1926, on Sixth Street and Second Avenue. It is the only building in the world I think that has been a Yiddish theater, a cinema, a playhouse, a very famous rock ‘n’ roll venue, an exclusive gay club and now a local bank. I just found it amazing that not only has it had many uses, which you would expect, but how varied they were. John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills and Nash played at the Fillmore East, and now you’re making your deposit at the bank. Hanging on the wall in the bank is a collage of photos and drawings from all the buildings that were there previously.

You hosted your book launch at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Your story about its restoration is fascinating.That’s really a significant story about historical renewal. It’s an important one to tell because a lot of times, unfortunately, many places fall into disrepair and that’s it. But this one has a very heartwarming story behind that. At its time, when it was erected in 1887, it was a very important synagogue, and a place where the poor and the rich sat together and worshiped. It was the first immigrant-built synagogue in the U.S. The neighborhood changed profoundly in the 40s and 50s, with a lot of people moving away to the suburbs, and fewer immigrants coming in because of the changes in the law. Yes, you always had a little service there, but it was disused and the whole sanctuary fell into disrepair. There just weren’t funds to keep it going and essentially from the mid-50s to the early 80s, that main sanctuary wasn’t used. In the early 70s, author Gerard Wolfe was very intrigued and had a caretaker let him into the synagogue and open it up and he said it was like a time capsule. There were many who helped with the restoration project and then it really took hold. They tried to restore it authentically so that it looks like it did in 1887.

Streit’s Matzo is one placed you toured. You wrote on your blog that it’s moving. They’re not going out of business, but they’re moving out of the Lower East Side, which is kind of sad. Just walking by, you can smell the matzo being made.

To learn more, visit www.paulkaplanauthor.com

Kaplan will be at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library on March 24th and the Upper West Side Jewish Community Center on March 29th for a Q&A and book signing