Simply put, Harlem was the synonym for inner-city crime while I was growing up
in America. Every comedian’s repertoire included a joke about getting off the
subway at 125th Street.
So when the broker from a short-term apartment
rental agency in Manhattan clarified that the listing for “a luxurious and
spacious, yet affordable apartment, 15 minutes from Central Park and a quick
subway ride to Grand Central” was in East Harlem, I nixed it.
We would be
arriving from Jerusalem, meeting up with our Sabra son, who is in the States for
a post-doc stint, and his family. How could I tell them we were staying in
A young American house-guest assured me that East Harlem – alternatively
called Spanish Harlem or Il Barrio – is now hip and popular. I typed “synagogue”
and “Harlem” into a search engine and found the Old Broadway Synagogue on 125th
Street. After correspondence, my husband, Gerald Schroeder, was invited to give
the sermon there about science and Torah.
WE ARRIVE in Harlem. The
apartment turns out to be roomy and convenient. The young moms with strollers on
the street are smiling and helpful. The only problem is noisy late-night street
partying at the 24/7 McDonald’s across the street. By the second night, I sleep
Comes Shabbat, and on a sunny, late autumn morning, we walk
toward the Old Broadway Synagogue. Congregation president Paul Radensky has sent
walking directions. Red and yellow trees surprise us along the busy city
streets. New Yorkers are in the midst of a planting an additional million trees
in their city. They reached 500,000 in October, right here in Harlem, with the
planting of a pin oak. The greening initiative is supported by Jewish singer and
actress Bette Midler, a Harlem resident. Former president Bill Clinton has his
offices here. Harlem’s main streets, squares and playgrounds bear the names of
famous black Americans: Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm
Ironically the decades of neglect in Harlem meant that some of the
finest townhouses were never replaced by high rises. Ubiquitous for-sale
signs announce luxury condos. City demographers say the black population in
Harlem has been shrinking for half a century; in the last decade, white, Asian
and Puerto Rican residents have been moving in. Chain stores like Marshall’s,
Starbucks, and Cohen’s Optical line the main streets, along with pushcart
vendors selling incense, “I Love Harlem” T-shirts and CDs of reggae
Amid the festivity, a middle-aged man is hawking tickets to a new
show at the Apollo Theater. This is where famed black singers and musicians
performed when white stages were not welcoming. Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder,
Aretha Franklin and dozens of other megastars got their break at the Apollo, a
club owned by Jews.
TWO DECADES before Lady Ella sang “A Tisket, a
Tasket” at the Apollo, a Ukrainian-born cantor named Yossele Rosenblatt
revolutionized Jewish cantorial music at the neighborhood’s Ohab Tzedek
synagogue. Rosenblatt introduced tearful sounds – krechts, as they’re
called in Yiddish – before an adoring congregation. As the Roaring Twenties
opened, Harlem was the thirdlargest Jewish community in the world, after the
Lower East Side and Warsaw, Poland. Between 175,000 and 200,000 Jews lived here.
More than 100 synagogues and Torah study centers flourished. Perhaps my own
grandparents lived right in East Harlem with the other Jewish factory workers.
I’d never thought of it.
Jewish Harlem was never romanticized like the
Lower East Side, even though Broadway composer Richard Rodgers and radio/TV show
creator Gertrude Edelstein, who wrote The Goldbergs, lived in Harlem; the
beloved Goldbergs lived in the Bronx.
What happened to the rich Jewish
life in Harlem? Black Americans moved to New York City from the south, seeking
inexpensive housing in the northern part of the city. The Depression
shriveled economic opportunity. Unemployment and crime
Jews fled to the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. By
1930, only 5,000 Jewish residents remained of the hundreds of thousands who had
lived in Harlem.
Although the majority of property owners in the
neighborhood were now black, Jewish business owners, landlords and shopkeepers
who had remained there became the target of frustrated, poverty-stricken
residents. Three years before Kristallnacht, rioters smashed windows and
looted Jewish shops in Harlem. One by one, the great synagogues of Harlem became
churches. Today, Ohab Tzedek is the Baptist Temple Church. Other churches
retained their stained-glass windows and women’s galleries. Only Old Broadway
Synagogue has remained. It began as a minyan meeting in storefronts, and just as
the tides were changing in the Jewish community in 1921, it inaugurated its
Despite the touted gentrification of the area, as we walk to
synagogue, a parade of men and women marches down 125th Street carrying a banner
calling for the end of neighborhood shootings. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman
is preaching at the corner of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building
Plaza about the destruction of the Israelites. Turns out she’s reading our own
Isaiah. Gwendolyn Pratt says she’s answering a calling to wake up the people of
the neighborhood. I invite her to the synagogue lecture.
stained-glass windows with the Star of David on Old Broadway Street are a
welcome sight. The windows, boarded up after the brick-throwing in the violent
1960s, have been restored with a grant from New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Congregants step out of the sanctuary to meet us. Coffee and tea are waiting in
the women’s gallery.
The wooden pews are old and unvarnished, the ceiling
peeling. About 30 men and women have come to Shabbat services, two-thirds of
them Caucasian, one-third black. The man leading the prayer service isn’t
Rosenblatt, but has a melodious voice. The only unusual touch in this
standard Orthodox Shabbat service is that after the misheberach for sick Jewish
men and women, prayers for the ill among non-Jews are elicited as
RADENSKY HAS been attending services here for two decades.
According to him, Old Broadway’s 100-year steadfastness while all other
synagogues disappeared is due to the determination of its former rabbi Jacob
Kret, “the heart and soul of the shul from 1950 until his retirement in
Says Radensky, “We are in much better shape than we were a few
years ago. The Jewish population in the neighborhood is growing. I suspect that
most of the Jews in the neighborhood are young and not connected Jewishly, and
if they are, they are largely not connected to Orthodox Judaism. But I
think the prospects are good that more religious Jews will move in over
After services, everyone takes part in spicy vegetarian cholent
and Middle Eastern salads while they hear about Torah and science. A
Saturday night program is announced: An Israeli musician, originally from
Ethiopia, will perform together with local talent. We say the Grace after Meals,
introducing it with Psalm 126, “Shir Hama’alot.” It was Rosenblatt’s most famous
piece, a runner-up to “Hatikva” as our national anthem. “Those who tearfully
sow, will reap in glad song. He who bears the measure of seeds, walk along
weeping, but will return in exultation, a bearer of his sheaves.”
of the ebb and surge of the tides of Jewish history, not only in Europe, but
here, in the most Jewish of all Diaspora cities. The liquor store near our
apartment already has five different kosher wines, a sure sign that the Jews are
moving back. Harlem will be Jewish again, but the shadows of the past are not
easily banished, at least not for this short-term tenant from
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel Director of Public Relations
for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.