When the movie Defiance came out in 2008, the New York screening was studded with celebrities. Heidi Klum came to the afterparty. As did Liev Schreiber and Martha Stewart. Richard Johnson of the New York Post‘s Page Six could be seen with pen in hand, hoping to catch a few pearls of gossip.
The party took place at Shang, a spanking new Asian restaurant in a boutique hotel called Thompson LES. LES, of course, stands for Lower East Side. Thompson LES sits on Orchard Street, in the heart of the historic neighborhood where Jewish pushcart operators once elbowed each other for space on the sidewalk. It seemed a fitting place for a splashy premiere of a movie about Jews. No other neighborhood in New York melds old world Jewry with the hip and the trendy.
There is still a mikvah on the Lower East Side and numerous landmarked synagogues. Jews in search of a cultural fix might stop by Yonah Schimmel’s for a knish, or Katz’s Deli for a pastrami sandwich. Or, to literally experience something schmaltzy, one can go to Sammy’s Roumanian, where each table comes equipped with a syrup jar filled with yellow rendered chicken fat which is applied liberally to any order of chopped liver.
But with the commercial nostalgia, there is also still a real Orthodox Jewish presence. Along East Broadway, there are synagogues and yeshivas that advertise themselves solely in Hebrew. Orthodox housewives in wigs can be seen ambling in pairs along Grand Street. There are still kosher butchers and bakers, and luncheonettes with names like “Zafis.” The Orthodox ebbed (starting in the 1930s) but in the last decade or so, the numbers have swelled again.
The Lower East Side wasn’t always Jewish. According to Kenneth Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, the first tenement appeared in 1833 and was inhabited mostly by Irish families. And since then Germans, Italians, Poles, and Chinese drifted in and out of its borders. But after the massive influx of Jewish immigration starting in the late 19th century, the Lower East Side became synonymous with the place where Jews got their start in the New World.