Humus on St. Mark's Place

'Little Israel' in NY's East Village joins the city's ethnic mix.

st. marks 88 (photo credit: )
st. marks 88
(photo credit: )
Walking from one block to the next in New York City's East Village may feel like crossing an ocean. Everyone knows that 6th Street belongs to Bangladesh, and 7th Street to Ukraine. There are streets in the neighborhood that were once Irish strongholds, then Italian communities - today they are neither. Now Israel too can lay claim to one of those blocks. A corridor of St. Mark's Place between First Avenue and Avenue A, has become the hub of young Israelis in the city and is often called "Little Israel." Like other ethnic enclaves, Israelis have made this block their own with restaurants, cafes, bars and stores that bear a distinct Israeli stamp, some more subtle than others. No one can explain how the block became a "mini-Israel," but everyone acknowledges the change. "Now it's all Israelis all the time," said Erez Ziv who runs a theater, Under St. Mark's, on the block featuring stand-up comedy, improvisation and theater. "This way, I get my humus and Pesek Zman [candy bar] at the same place. It can't be better." At center stage is Holyland Market, the Israeli makolet [grocery store] towards the end of the block which blasts Israeli music and sells everything from daily Israeli newspapers, to Bisli and Bamba snacks as well as kosher meats, cheeses and Israeli detergents. Announcements about rooms for rent and job opportunities are taped in Hebrew to a wall by the cashier, and the market seems to act as an information booth for local Israelis. "Holyland sells things you wouldn't buy unless you are Israeli," Ziv said. Before converting it into a market, owner Eran Hileli ran the Global Trance record and clothing store. "But the music industry slowed down because of the iPod and something in my energy needed to change," he told New York magazine when it opened in 2004. The market is the only one of its kind in all of Manhattan, and Israelis flock from the outskirts of the city to buy Israeli specialty goods. Across the street the Hummus Place is almost always crowded and is considered the best humus in town. Arriving relatively late to the scene, restaurant manager Shai Erlich says that having Israeli-run businesses on the block was one of the reasons they moved to this corridor of St. Mark's Place. "We have a beautiful relationship with the owners of the other businesses," Erlich said. "It gave us the feeling that the area has become a little Israel." Unlike the other restaurants on the block which are owned by Israelis but do not have typical Israeli menus, the Humus Place specializes in what Israelis do best. They serve three kinds of humus and shakshuka as well as Turkish coffee and home-made lemonade with mint. "We opened here because we felt that in New York in general and the East Village a lot of Israelis missed the feeling of being home," said Erlich. "There is a beautiful spirit in here and it's so fun to serve these people because they know how to appreciate it when they feel some kind of home - you can see it the minute they come into the restaurant." Since opening on St. Mark's Place, the restaurant has opened two other branches in the city. Recent immigrant migrations to the East Village differ from their poverty stricken predecessors who usually settled in the neighborhood because it was affordable. "The East Village was usually the place immigrants moved, especially if people from their country were there," said Joyce Gold, a Manhattan historian who has given tours of the neighborhood for over 30 years. It is clear that some Israelis who frequent the local businesses live in the East Village, but the area is becoming increasingly less affordable. "The East Village is a prime location," said Miriam Sirota, vice-president of the Corcoran Group, a New York real estate company. "I have rented and sold properties there that have sold at some of the highest prices." A two-bedroom apartment rents for roughly $3,800, according to Sirota, who said demand exceeds supply in the neighborhood. It is only in the last few years that this area of St. Mark's Place has become recognizably Israeli. Originally named for St. Mark's in-the-Bowery, a church two blocks north of the street, St. Mark's Place has been made and remade alongside New York City history. In the mid 19th century the street was part of what was then called "Kleine Deutschland," or little Germany, for the wave of German immigrants that settled in the neighborhood, according to historian Suzanne Wasserman, the director of the Gotham Center of New York City History. The street was the site of a 1914 labor racketeering shootout between "Dopey" Benny Fein's Jewish gang and Jack Sirocco's Italian mob, an event that led to the takeover of the Italian American gangsters over the Jewish American gangsters. Successive waves of immigrants have since flooded the neighborhood. In 1983 when Caf Mogador, a Moroccan restaurant, opened, the block was a wasteland. "We were the pioneers," said Gal Ohayon who has been a part owner and manager of Caf Mogador for the last 10 years. His uncle and aunt opened the restaurant in 1983 and are still part owners. At the time the neighborhood was Polish and the only businesses to speak of were a carpentry shop, an art gallery, and a couple of other businesses according to Ohayon. Nothing about the Caf Mogador is explicitly Israeli, and Israelis are often surprised to hear the owner speaking Hebrew, he said. Ohayon, who calls himself the only Moroccan kibbutznik, can't explain the trend, but says the street is full of Israelis. "If you walk on the sidewalk, especially on the weekend, all you hear is Hebrew," he said. One Israeli business has built its image on the back of a long history of counterculture in the area. The 1960s rock band Led Zeppelin featured the facades of two buildings on St. Mark's Place on their album Physical Graffiti. Now a store by the same name which sells vintage clothing occupies one of those buildings. Owner Ilana Malka said she named the building just after opening in 1994. The latest addition to the block is the bar 10 Degrees which opened five months ago. "Israelis hear that there is a bar owned by Israelis so they come," said co-owner Aviv Kastoriano, a former employee of Caf Mogador. The bar, he said, is doing well but still had room for improvement. Wednesday nights the bar has live jazz, and Kastoriano is looking to bring more Cuban and Latin music in addition to Sunday brunch. It is hard to say how long Israelis will manage to hold on to the block given the ethnic mobility that has always been part of East Village history. But economic minister to North America, Yair Shiran, said he sees this as part of a larger trend of Israeli businesses in New York. "Israeli companies today think more globally and think they can offer something to a global society." Why there is such a concentration on St. Mark's Place, Shiran can't say, but one Israeli business breeds others, he said. "Once there is an Israeli lifestyle business, it is easier for others to come and be near; that's the way it usually works," Shiran said. "Greater concentration means greater value."