04 March 2007

New York: Lost Jewish civilization in the Bronx

In 1639, Jonas Bronck operated the first farm in a region of New York that would eventually take his name -- the Bronx. The Jews of New Amsterdam (later New York) traversed the area on their way to Jewish communities in Westchester County and New England.

Some 17th-18th century Jewish families who settled in the area included the Hays (in New Rochelle), Marks (Greenburgh), Jacobs (Rye) and Davis (Northcastle) families.

In Newburgh, Lewis Gomez traded with Native Americans in 1712, while Abraham I. Abrahams went to Bedford and Philips Manor, through The Bronx, to perform brit milahs in the later 18th century.

Early Westchester Jews were members of Shearith Israel in Manhattan, and shlepped through the Bronx frontier to worship.

The first large group of Jews arrived from Germany and Hungary in the 1840s. An 1871 city directory lists no synagogues in the area of the Bronx. In 1884, the first Jewish institution opened - a Sunday school which later became Reform Temple Hand in Hand, the first synagogue in the Bronx. It was followed by Adath Israel in 1889 and Agudat Achim Anshe Podal in 1890. The first Hebrew school opened in 1896 and the first Talmud Torah in 1907.

For much more on Jews in the Bronx, including all the synagogues that were or are, go to the "Remembrance of Synagogues Past: The Lost Civilization of the Jewish South Bronx" Web site, founded by Seymour J. Perlin and Rita Perlin. Their site is fascinating. I recommend reading "Personal Impressions," recollections of those who lived in the area.

As a child of Parkchester, grandchild of the Bronx, and great-grandchild of the Grand Concourse, I was delighted to learn that the Perlins will speak on this topic at the next meeting of the Jewish Genealogical Society of New York on March 18 at the Center for Jewish History. For more information, click here.

Joy Rich, editor of the society's journal Dorot, first became aware of the site after both her parents had passed away. She searched it for information and found the synagogue in which her parents had married - Temple Zion on the Concourse. "When I found it, I fell in love with Dr. Perlin for putting it online. I printed out the photo and practically hugged the piece of paper."

Joy's family moved to New Jersey when she was six, and she remembers driving to the Bronx to visit her grandmother and strolling with her father to Burnside Avenue to look in shop windows.

When she was 8 or 10, her father took her on "a train ride in the sky." Later, of course, she realized it was the El (elevated train), a part of the subway system. The El also took her to a magical place where you put coins in a slot and took food out from behind a glass door - the Horn and Hardart Automat. Likely, she recalls, it was the one at Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse.

For a picture of a different Horn and Hardart Automat, click here

I rememer going to H&H and eating coconut cream pie that came out of one of those little windows. Joy also suggests an interesting New York Public Library Web site - The Robert F. Byrnes Collection of Automat Memorabilia 1912-1990s bulk (1940-1960s).

If your grandparents lived in the Bronx, you might have had an experience similar to Joy's. "When I stayed with my grandmother for a few days, she'd say 'Let's go to the benches.'" These Burnside Avenue benches weren't on the sidewalk but on an island in the middle of a busy street, inhabited by her grandmother and her friends.

Ah, the nostalgia. Anyone with memories to share?

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