Jews in Coney Island: A History

From the fashionable to the freak-show.

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Beyond the Carnivals

coney island nathan's

Nathan's Famous Frankfurters

 Perhaps the most celebrated Jewish-owned business in Coney Island is "Nathan's Famous," founded in 1911. Nathan Handwerker, a Polish-Jewish immigrant, undersold his competition, charging only 5 cents for a frankfurter, instead of his former boss's 10 cents. Since the "hot dog"--a variation on a German or Austrian sausage--was fairly new to the U.S., Nathan hired actors conspicuously costumed in medical outfits to order from his stand. This apparently reassured wary customers of the cleanliness of his product, which did not contain dog meat! Nathan's Famous became a beloved icon of Coney Island, and by 1955, sold its one millionth hot dog. Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York, once stated that, "No man can hope to be elected in this state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan's Famous."

The burgeoning leisure industry featured numerous rising Jewish entertainers who performed at Coney Island theatres and clubs. Harry Houdini, George Burns, the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, and Fanny Brice all started out as Coney Island entertainers--even Irving Berlin worked there as a singing waiter.

Jews in Coney Island have been most conspicuous as consumers and participants in its amusements. In the early 20th century, Jews were among those who rented summer bungalows there. A way of life developed for many Jewish regulars around the area's "bath houses," which grew from simple changing rooms to establishments with restaurants, swimming pools, steam rooms, swimming pools, and nude sunbathing solaria. From the 1930s to the mid-50s, Jews dominated Coney Island's busy handball courts.

In the mid-20th century, many lower middle class Jews lived year-round in the nearby neighborhoods. Some worked in or owned small businesses in Coney Island, serving food and offering amusement-park rides or other entertainment.

Joseph Heller (Now and Then, 1998) and other Jewish writers, such as Neil Simon (Brighton Beach Memoirs, 1983) and Isaac Bashevis Singer (Enemies: A Love Story, 1972) grew up in or visited the local neighborhoods, and some of their works describe the wonders of daily life near the Coney Island sideshows. Darren Aronofsky, a Jewish filmmaker born in 1969, pictures a seamier side of the neighborhood in his Requiem for a Dream (2001). Photographers like Diane Arbus and Weegee also captured some of the more grotesque imagery of Coney Island. In Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen's anti-hero grows up in a house located directly underneath Coney Island's Thunderbolt roller coaster.

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Ilana Abramovitch

Dr. Ilana Abramovitch was formerly the manager of curriculum at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She is a writer, ethnographer, educator and co-editor of Jews of Brooklyn (Brandeis University Press, 2002).