As one of the oldest neighborhoods in New York City, the Lower East Side has a long and varied history. Starting out as a farm, it’s since been the home to all sorts of immigrant groups: Germans, Puerto Ricans, hipsters, but perhaps most famously it once served as the cultural center of New York’s Jewish community. As much of New York’s Jewish community left the Lower East Side for the Upper West Side and the suburbs, much of that has changed. Nonetheless, there are still some institutions in the neighborhood that remain standing, serving as a testament to the neighborhood’s Jewish heritage. Here are a few of them:
Katz’s Deli: In 1930, New York City alone was home to over 1,500 Jewish delis. That number has shrunk to below 50, so whoever is still standing needs to be very good at what they do. And Katz’s, open since 1888, is very good at what they do. As far as Jewish delis go, it’s pretty touristy, but that’s only because it’s hands-down the best pastrami in Manhattan (sorry, Fine & Schapiro).
Russ & Daughters: Over 100 years old, this is a true New York City institution, and serves what is universally considered one of New York’s best bagels and lox. It’s been owned by the descendants of Joel Russ since it was first opened, who have stuck to the family recipe. Here, the main focus is fish, whether that’s sturgeon, whitefish, herring and of course lox.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum: A former brick tenement house, from 1863 to 1935 this building housed over 7,000 people from 20 different countries. Boarded up for over 50 years, it served as a time capsule to immigrant life in the early 20th century, and has served as a museum since the late 80s. The museum features a gift shop with an impressive book selection, and offers various special tours that reflect the experiences of various tenants.
Eldridge Street Synagogue: In operation since 1887 (even longer than Katz’s), this is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in New York City. In addition to serving as a synagogue, it’s since become a museum that offers tours related to the history of Jews in America.
Kehila Kedosha Janina: Most Jews who came to the Lower East Side were Ashkenazim; a smaller number were Sephardim, and an even smaller number were Romaniote, a unique sect of Judaism that originated in Greece. Much of the already-small Romaniote community was wiped out in the Holocaust, and this is the only Romaniote synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Every year they host the “Greek Jewish Festival”, celebrating their unique heritage through song, dance and food.
Yonah Schimmel: The potato knish is a traditional type of dumpling, consisting of a filling (most frequently potato) covered with dough. While they’re often deep-fried and square, they’re traditionally baked and round. And the best place to enjoy them in their original form is at Yonah Schimmel, the knish bakery that’s been open in the same location since 1910. In addition to various knish flavors (my favorite is sweet potato), Yonah Schimmel serves some of the best latkes in the city. Once you’ve had your fill, you can catch a movie next door at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, or maybe pick up a beer at Fool’s Gold.
Sammy’s Roumanian: Located in an underground store front on Christie Street, Sammy’s is a true experience. A delicious Jewish steakhouse, Sammy’s also serves traditional Jewish dishes like kasha varnishkes and kishka, as well chilled vodka. To top the whole thing off is Dani Luv, a borscht belt-style entertainer who cracks jokes and plays live music six nights a week. The overall experience feels like a time portal back to a 1940s Bar Mitzvah.
Kossar’s: The bialy is like a bagel, except with a different texture and an onion filling in the middle instead of a hole. While it’s not as famous as its hole-y cousin, the bialy has an extremely loyal cult following among New Yorkers. One of the oldest bialy spots in New York City is Kossar’s, who slings them by the oven-load every day. In addition to bialys, Kossar’s makes one of the Lower East Side’s best bagels.