The Human Spirit: Shabbat in Harlem

Jews fled to the Bronx, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. By 1930, 5,000 Jewish residents remained of the hundreds of thousands who had lived in Harlem.

New York street 521 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
New York street 521
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
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 Harlem?
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 through it.
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 X.
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 music.
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 escalated.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 building.
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.
The 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 well.
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 1997.”
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 time.”
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.”
I think 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 Jerusalem.
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.