Living History

  • Letters
  • Saturday, 06 Jan 2007

State Side: By FOO YEEPING 

The Jewish heritage holds strong in the Big Apple where one in eight New Yorkers is Jewish. 

IN THIS rip-roaring city, echoes of a history that began three centuries ago are everywhere. It’s there in that carton of milk which carries the kosher trademark and the challah, a traditional bread sold in bakeries. More obvious are the synagogues in all the grandeur of a compelling past. 

Then there is the almost iconic bagels, in every flavour imaginable from garlic to blueberry, found everywhere from Dunkin’ Donuts to classy cafes.  

Yup, we are talking about the Jewish heritage in New York. 

Kosher means halal food, where the basic rules include no pork and no mixing of dairy with meat products.  

When they shop for food, Jewish people would look for symbols (with the letter U or K printed inside a circle) to verify it is kosher

Yummy bagels, so universally enjoyed now, were introduced here by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. 

The story began in 1654 when Jewish refugees arrived in the United States. They made their home at the Lower East Side of New Amsterdam, now known as New York . 

Today, one in eight New Yorkers is Jewish. 

Jonah S. Boyarin, who grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is one of those fine young men who take pride in their traditional upbringing. 

“There is an old saying that it’s hard being a Jew. But I enjoy being Jewish. It feels right and natural,” said the 20-year-old Boyarin, a double major student in religion and economics at a Connecticut university. 

He spoke of how, as a school kid, he often had to cram all his homework on Sundays because Jews observe the Sabbath (from Friday night to Saturday night) as a rest day. 

That time was spent instead following his father to the synagogue where they would pray in Hebrew. 

There was also the prohibition of switching on electrical installations and devices during the Sabbath. 

“In some orthodox apartments, the elevators would automatically stop at every floor so that the residents would not need to press the button during that time,” he said. 

Other ways of adapting include getting someone else to switch on the lights for them. 

A Malaysian friend who works in a Jewish hospital noted that his colleagues would not drive or answer the telephone during the Sabbath. The answering machine handles the calls. 

On Christmas Day, it has almost become a standard practice for Jews here to eat Chinese food since most restaurants are closed on the day. 

A Jewish woman wrote in the newspaper two weeks ago that she bought a Christmas tree, finally buckling to her yearning to have all the trimmings and tinsels. 

Didn’t Boyarin ever wish for a pine tree? “No, I never wanted one,” he replied. Neither did it bother him that he couldn’t eat bacon. 

The only sore point that he could recollect was how his parents forbade him from joining his friends for trick-or-treat on Halloween Day. 

But the grown-up Boyarin now cherishes his Lower East Side heritage although the place has lost most of its old culture since the original inhabitants moved out. 

“It is, however, still a piece of living history. It’s a truism to say that Lower East Side is a neighbourhood in transition,” said Chava Gottlieb, executive director of Congregation Chasam Sopher, New York’s second oldest synagogue. 

The numerous walking tours for visitors keen to explore the Jewish side of the neighbourhood are proof that it is not a forgotten place. 

As for Boyarin, he relishes sharing stories about his roots.  

The Three Stooges, he said, often made jokes in Yiddish, the common language of Eastern European Jews. 

Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen are just some of the famous Jewish celebrities from New York. 

American Jews, according to Boyarin, are overwhelmingly Democrats, which partly explained why New York is a blue state. 

Here, it is common to bump into the Hasidim, known to adhere strictly to Jewish laws, and where the men, dressed in black, keep long, curled sideburns. 

Last week, the city’s first Hasidic policeman was accepted into the force and the New York Post called him “The kosher cop”. 

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