Author Archives: Max Gross

Max Gross

About Max Gross

Max Gross is a reporter for the New York Post and is the author of From Schlub to Stud: How to Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City. He lives in Queens and his musings can be read at www.fromschlubtostud.com.

The Lower East Side: Then & Now

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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.
yonah shimmel's knish bakery
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.

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George Eliot

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The 19th century British novelist might not seem the likeliest champion of Jews and Zionism. But an exception has to be made for George Eliot.

Eliot was born in 1819 on a farm in rural Warwickshire, England. Her parents named her Mary Anne Evans, but in 1856 she began using the masculine penname “George Eliot” to ensure that her books would be taken seriously. Eliot’s father was a deeply religious Anglican, and under his influence Eliot attended church almost every Sunday during her formative years (her mother died when she was 16). But she experienced a crisis of faith in the early 1840s.

george eliot zionist

Portait by François D’Albert Durade

According to Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009), it was after moving to the town of Coventry that Eliot met Charles Bray, who had recently published Philosophy of Necessity, which made the positivist case for agnosticism. Through the Bray family, Eliot was introduced to a circle of intellectuals and free-thinkers. A few months later, she stopped going to church.

Eliot’s father died in 1849, and after his death she traveled to Geneva with the Brays and began writing for some of the intellectual journals of the time. Sometime thereafter, she became fascinated with Jews. Before she tried her hand at fiction, Eliot translated Spinoza’s Ethics into English (the translation was never published.) She also wrote essays about Heinrich Heine (who was involved with the Wissenschaft des Judenthums before converting to Lutheranism), and made Jewish friends.

But probably the thing that most drove her extreme fascination with Jews was her friendship with Emanuel Deutsch, a Silesian-born assistant in the library at the British Museum, whom she met in 1866. According to Himmelfarb, it was Deutsch who began sending Eliot writings about the Talmud, as well as books on all sorts of Jewish topics at her request.

Was Silas A Jew?

Eliot’s most famous work is a novel called Silas Marner (1861), which does not have the word “Jew” in it even once. However, it contains one of the most poignant and detailed portraits of an outsider and his plight.

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