Mad about Manhattan

New York is a sort of paradise for the Israeli traveler.

blue umbrella 2 (photo credit: Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery)
blue umbrella 2
(photo credit: Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery)
There's excitement in the air as the El Al pilot announces that we'll be landing soon in New York. He talks about wind velocity and temperature on the ground, but doesn't tell us that with one or two exceptions, museums in New York are closed on Mondays and that you can't ride a bus unless you have a Metro Card (available in the subway) or a sufficient stash of quarters to pay your $2 fare - or $1 for senior citizens and the disabled. El Al is always my airline of choice, although it is not always up to me to decide on which airline I'm traveling. The cabin crew is much friendlier, and it's such a pleasant change to use stainless steel flatware instead of plastic because everyone is eating kosher. A friend who divides her time between Tel Aviv and New York had told me to take the Blue Van from the airport because its circuitous route would enable me to see a lot of Manhattan and get some sort of orientation. At the transport desk, they told me I would have to wait 45 minutes. As it turned out, it was two hours, by which time it was almost dark. The Blue Van fare into Manhattan is $21. Not wanting to repeat the waiting experience, I ordered Air Links, which costs $20, to return to Kennedy Airport, and when their van was 15 minutes late, I called to ask how much longer and they told me to be down in the street in 20 minutes. I waited in the street for an hour before I finally caught a passing cab, which charged just over $49. It was worth the extra money to be relieved of the frustration. There's also a train to Kennedy, but given the amount of luggage most Israelis have, they would never be able to schlep it through the station. You can take the Jew out of the Diaspora, but you can't always take the Diaspora out of the Jew. Wherever I go in the world, I automatically head for things Jewish, so for me New York - with its diversity of Jewish institutions, organizations and activities - was an emotional and intellectual treasure trove. Going to New York - or specifically Manhattan - is a bit like going to Tel Aviv. There are so many Israeli attractions that one might ignore at home, but one feels one has to at least glimpse in New York. I was staying in an apartment on the lower West side, only one street and half a block away from a building which under one roof contains: The Center for Jewish History; The American Jewish Historical Society; The American Sephardi Federation; the Leo Baeck Institute; the Yeshiva University Museum; and the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research. There was a wonderful photographic exhibition featuring Yiddish writers, but focusing primarily on Yitzhak Bashevis Singer and his older siblings I.J. Singer and Esther Singer Kreitman, who were also writers of note. A photo taken of a group of Yiddish writers in Warsaw included Melech Ravitch, the father of Tel Aviv-based artist Yosl Bergner. There was also a very nostalgic photo exhibition of Yiddish theater in New York featuring what were once household names: Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz, Boris Thomashefsky and many others. A pole standing between the photo displays was decorated with old Yiddish theater handbills. There was also a papercut Haggada by Jerusalem artist Archie Granot. His studio is less than five minutes from my home, but I had to go to New York to discover him. He was not the only Israeli artist whose works were featured in the museum. Others included Varda Rotem of Tel Aviv and Hana Behar-Paneth of Jerusalem. My friend Stanley Batkin of Scarsdale, who is involved with various museums and cultural organizations, took me to the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue, once the home of German-born investment banker Felix Warburg and his wife Frieda, and which still has wonderful examples of the superb carpentry that was part of the original structure. There was quite a lot of Israeli material there too. Batkin, who is 93 going on 60, is a collector of Israeli art. A third-generation New Yorker who takes the stairs instead of the elevator, he has state-of-the-art technologies installed in his car and knows how to use them, drives with the ease and skill of a professional, doesn't wear spectacles and loves to show off his city. Batkin literally kidnapped me to his home in Scarsdale to see his Israeli art and Judaica collection. A talented portrait photographer who has exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum as well as museums and galleries in the US, Batkin has photographed every artist whose work he owns, as well as many of Israel's famous personalities, such as Teddy Kollek and Yitzhak Rabin. It was Purim, and Batkin and his wife Donna took me to their synagogue in nearby New Rochelle to listen to the Megilla reading. A large complex that includes more than one chapel, plus educational facilities and a huge banquet hall, the Beth El synagogue has exhibits of Israeli archeological finds. The cut-stone facing of the sanctuary's eastern wall behind the ark resembles Jerusalem's Western Wall, and the stone was actually quarried in Jerusalem. Some of the Beth El congregants are deaf mutes, so there were two signers on stage who took turns explaining what was going on. After services, we went across the road to a small shopping mall with four kosher restaurants - one of which is owned and staffed by Israelis. The food was good, the prices reasonable, and it was the first kosher restaurant I'd been to in New York where there was no ethnic fusion. Everywhere else the staff had been Afro-American, Hispanic or Asian, and the clientele had also been mixed. But here at Grill Prime in New Rochelle, it was almost like being home. On the way to Scarsdale, we had driven along elegant streets with the most expensive and exquisite clothing and accessories - stores which only the very rich can afford to patronize. But New York is a shop-till-you-drop city with every imaginable kind of merchandise for every possible budget. A buy-out chain called Jack's World stocks some leading international labels in an extraordinary range of merchandise at prices not to be believed. I bought a pair of lead crystal candlesticks for just over $5. But my most satisfying purchases - not at Jack's - were glossy American magazines at list price instead of the outrageous triple and quadruple sums one has to pay in Israel. The Batkins took me to a preview of an art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that was organized by the Friends of Bezalel. The artist was of course a Bezalel graduate, who unlike several of the other Israeli artists who showed up actually lives in Israel. Born and raised in Jerusalem, the extremely articulate Sigalit Landau - who works out of a studio in Tel Aviv's Florentin district - is highly regarded in New York art circles, but prefers to create in Israel. Most of the Israeli artists in the Big Apple live in Greenwich Village or Soho, where one can also find the New York branch of the Israeli coffee-shop chain Aroma. Soho is also the venue for Rosebud, an Israeli concept store owned by Fern and Leslie Penn, who are frequently in Israel to look at new merchandise. They crystallized the idea for the store over breakfast at the King David five years ago and tried it out on me. I thought it was great, and given the amount of publicity the store has received, they were certainly on the ball. I dropped in on them without phoning first, and saw that in the space of more than an hour the shop was never without customers who generally bought several items at a time - clothing, leather clutch bags, jewelry, et al. It was extremely heart-warming to see how enthusiastic they were about Israeli fashion. Some of them knew it was Israeli. Others just liked it. Elsewhere in the city, the Gesher Theater ensemble was appearing at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and Danny Sanderson was appearing at the 92nd Street Y - one of several Israeli entertainers who'd come to take a bite out of the Big Apple. Whoever invented the system of numbering Manhattan's streets and avenues is undoubtedly blessed by almost every tourist. Sure, if you have no sense of direction you might go out of your way, but you won't go very far out of your way, and you'll quickly realize what you've done. Broadway is, of course, one of the most exciting places in Manhattan, especially at night, when crowds are rushing to the theaters and the bright lights wink invitingly. Broadway also has a large information and reservations office between 46th and 47th streets, right next to MacDonald's. Whether you're a first-time or tenth-time visitor to New York, the information office is one of the places you should go to as soon as possible after your arrival. You can make reservations for theater tickets, bus, air, and water tours, watch video clips of all the shows on and off Broadway, use the internet for free, get directions to your next destination, develop photos and use the public toilets. There are also dozens of leaflets and pamphlets for all kinds of sightseeing and entertainment. If you're on a really tight budget but want to keep up with the news, you should be aware that there are so many free newspapers in Manhattan that it's a miracle that any papers one has to pay for are sold. You should also know that you can go to Sunday afternoon theater performances, but that very few theaters operate on Sunday night. Although one can walk forever in Manhattan (I was doing 40 blocks at a stretch), the buses are great. The drivers are extremely polite, greet passengers as they enter and say something nice to them when they leave. The seats are arranged in such a way as to comfortably accommodate the elderly and disabled. They don't have to climb a steep step to sit down in the front, and the three front seats on either side are flush against the wall of the bus, which gives passengers plenty of room in which to move. Israeli bus companies should really take a good look at New York buses. When there's a lot of traffic but you don't feel like walking, you can take a bicycab, which is like a rickshaw. It can sit two people comfortably, and three in a pinch, and can weave in and out of traffic to get you to your destination in a remarkably short time. Construction is being carried out at a rapid pace in New York, and much of Manhattan is under scaffolding. But in Manhattan they have consideration for pedestrians, and special walkways are built so they do not have to walk in the road. In addition, there are signs on construction sites advising passers-by that if they see or hear something that makes them doubt the safety of the site they should call in anonymously to report. Among the funniest sights in Manhattan are people walking their dogs. There are a lot of canines in the city, but most are midgets. I saw only two regular-sized dogs. One sees big burly men walking dogs the size of cats, and most of the dogs are wearing doggie vests. Yes, it is interesting to go to museums - and I went to several, but people and their customs are much more interesting. For instance on Friday night, on the advice of a friend, I went to the Emunat Israel Congregation on 23rd Street, where they serve a good Sabbath meal after the service. What my friend didn't tell me was that most of the people who come are dysfunctional. It was like walking onto the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And yet it was a memorable and even enjoyable experience, because my fellow diners were not stupid. They were just off the wall. The following day I went to the Chabad Synagogue on 19th Street. Arriving at 9 a.m., I had a long wait. I had forgotten that Chabad services start later than most others. The only person around was Lucy, an Hispanic woman who gets the synagogue ready both for prayers and lunch. When asked when services start, she shrugged and said maybe 9:30, maybe 10. Well, it was after 10 when Rabbi Naftali Rotenstreich showed up, accompanied by his two boisterous young sons Mendy and Yossi. Other than the rabbi, I was the only congregant. He waited a few minutes, then started the service, yelling out the page number every now and again. People slowly began to file in, but not enough. By the time it came to the Torah reading, there was still no minyan - the required quorum of 10 men. So Rotenstreich took a break and went out in the street to grab a passing Jew. It took at least 20 minutes. Apparently, he had another Jew in reserve - someone who works in a local clinic. He sent one of the regulars to get him, and finally was able to go ahead with the Torah reading. Rotenstreich conducted the service with that special joy that is part and parcel of Chabad, and put his heart and soul into what he was doing. But what was particularly fascinating was his voice which has a built-in echo chamber, so that when he sang, it was if a choir was singing. After the service, he invited everyone to lunch and conducted a scintillating conversation. Lucy trotted out with the gefilte fish and the cholent. Both were excellent. Rotenstreich will also be conducting a public Seder for those who have nowhere else to go, so if you happen to be in New York for Pessah you can go to his Seder, or if it's too far away you can contact Chabad to find out where else in the city they're celebrating the Festival of Freedom. Despite their sometimes brusque manner of speaking, New Yorkers are generally very friendly, which is a good reason to go to a Shabbat service at which a meal is served. It's not really the food you're going for, it's the company. As soon as they learn you're from Israel, they'll start plying you with questions, and in no time you'll find yourself with a lot of friends. For the Jewish traveler - especially the Jewish traveler from Israel - New York is paradise.