It's the city of my young-adult past. In my early 20s, in the early '80s, I got my BA from the Seminar (now Eugene Lang) College, worked, and lived in an East Village walk-up with my cat Pekoe.
It is the city of my parents' past. Dad arrived here in 1947, a handsome, fresh Syrian émigré by way of Shanghai. Mom was born in Brooklyn, though her parents moved to Washington D.C. when she was a little girl. She came up frequently to see her cousins, and her parents moved to an apartment in the Franconia on W. 72nd Street (just off Central Park, near the Dakota) when Mom was in her early 20s, so she could find a Syrian husband. (There are differing versions of that story.) She found one. Mom and Dad married in 1950 and lived there briefly before moving to Washington.
And it’s the city of my ancestral past. The Syrian-Jewish immigrants began arriving here at the turn of the last century -- my maternal grandfather, Abe Beyda, and his family among them -- and settled in the Lower East Side before moving to Brooklyn.
On this trip, all my pasts are interlacing with one another and with my hopes for the future, and -- since New York never fails to keep us firmly rooted in the present -- with the exquisite now.
Yesterday was Memorial Day, our last day up in Westchester, and Charles's last day before flying home to go back to work. David and Carolyn took us to the beautiful Innisfree Garden in Millbrook ("one of the world's ten best gardens"), then drove Charles to JFK and me to the train station in Hartsdale, where I caught the commuter train to Grand Central, for a taxi down to Soho. Initially sad to be alone in the station Charles and I passed through three separate times in the past few days, my spirits jumped when I checked into my very own room at the Solita Soho Hotel (recommended by a friend from New Mexico who is also here for the Jewish Book Council conference). I unpacked and headed just next door to a French restaurant for a glass of white wine, a bowl of chilled melon-mint soup, and an hour with my journal before going to bed early.
On this Manhattan stage of my trip, I'll be giving a reading tonight at Congregation Edmond J. Safra, the synagogue in Manhattan for the Syrian community. This morning, I'll visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, just a few blocks from my hotel. I read there's a nice tea shop, Harney and Sons, a few blocks away, which I'd love to check out, and this is Soho, on the edge of Chinatown and Little Italy, which means, who knows what else...
First, breakfast: Baz Bagels, a few blocks down Grand Street from my hotel. Eggs (scrambled), tea (English Breakfast), a bagel (“everything”), and cream cheese (“plain”). I don’t know what it is – we can throw rings of dough into boiling water in Santa Fe, too – but there’s nothing like a New York bagel.
The Tenement Museum visitors' center has a fantastic bookstore honoring New York’s many immigrant stories (I hope soon to include Farewell, Aleppo; I sent them a copy.) The museum itself is a restored old tenement at 97 Orchard, built in 1863, home in its time to over 7000 immigrants before being abandoned and shuttered for decades. Today it has been upgraded to modern safety standards as a museum, while stylistically preserved in its earlier state.
On their "Shop Life" tour, our bright young guide tells us about the German, then Jewish, families that ran businesses here from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. In the 1870s a German couple opened a saloon in the basement that served as a restaurant, bar, bank, post office, support center and social hall for the upstairs tenants. In time "Kleindeutschland" spread north to 14th Street, and east all the way to the East River, enticing people down from wealthier uptown neighborhoods for German food, music, dancing and bier.
By the end of the century, the Germans had disbursed and Eastern European Jews took their place. By 1900, our guide explains, the "Jewish East Side" was not only the largest Jewish community in the world but the most crowded place on the planet -- with a higher concentration of Jews even than back in the shtetls in Europe.
Our guide doesn't mention the small subgroup of Middle Eastern Jews. Their far more numerous European Jewish neighbors greeted these swarthy-skinned, Arabic-speaking immigrants with skepticism, sometimes outright disbelief, that they were really even Jewish. My Grandpa Abe was part of this first wave of Syrian Jews, arriving with his mother and three siblings in 1902 as an 8-year-old boy who didn't speak a word of English. His father had come two years earlier, selling dry goods door to door and on the streets with a pushcart, until he saved enough money to send for the family. They lived for a time just a few blocks from here on Hester Street, in a two-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor (because rent was cheaper than on the lower floors), with a potbelly stove for heating and cooking, a sink in the hallway shared all four apartments on that floor, and an outhouse behind the building. Eventually they moved to Brooklyn, to the Syrian-Jewish neighborhood that thrives and expands to this day.
“The end of of a community like Little Italy or Little Germany means its success,” our guide says, "because they've moved up." For most immigrant groups, I can see this is true. The curious thing about the Syrian Jews is that they measure success precisely by their resistance to assimilation. Financial success has made the community more self-sufficient, more contained – more like a hive of bees, functioning together as a unit, than individuals making it on their own.
On the way back to my hotel I call Mom and Dad, who have just arrived in Maryland from Florida for the summer. My family's migration to this country once took them across oceans and continents. At this point in their lives, my parents have the migratory path of birds: south in the winter, north in the summer. This is good. I give Mom as vivid a sense as I can of the sights, sounds and tastes of my trip. To Dad I give a description of the talk I'll be doing tonight at the Safra Synagogue. I'll take him with me in spirit. Wish I could take him physically.