Close to two million Jews call the five boroughs home – the highest concentration in the world, outside of Israel. They came here from around the globe – Ashkenazi and Sephardic (Eastern European and Spanish Near Eastern descent respectively), Latin America, Africa, and even Asia. Yet, for these disparate groups, perhaps more than sharing a common religion or cultural heritage, New York City is the glue that binds them all together.
Jewish customs, traditions, humor, food and vocabulary have been integral in shaping the character of our City. Oy vey…Schmear…Schlep…Schmooz…Shmuck…Schmaltz…Tchotchke…Verklempt – thank you, Mike Myers – chances are you’ve used one or more of these words without giving a moments’ thought to their Yiddish, literally Jewish, origins. Today, it’s simply part of New York-speak…a colorful fusion of multi-cultural languages that has evolved over time, and helps make this City so vibrant.
Movies have done much to showcase New York Jewish culture….and more often than not, food is involved. Who can forget Meg Ryan’s infamous orgasm scene opposite Billy Crystal, in the classic romantic comedy, “When Harry Met Sally”? Filmed at Katz’s Delicatessen, this Lower East Side institution, once popular with Jewish immigrants during the late 19th century, is as famous today for its status as an iconic film location, as it is for its piled-high pastrami-on-rye and other authentic classic deli fare. Just try and finish one of their over-stuffed sandwiches.
At Russ and Daughters, another popular Lower East Side fixture since 1914, it’s a veritable rite of passage for to wait on line for smoked fish on a bagel. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy lox or nova with a schmear (a.k.a. cream cheese) a slice each of tomato and red onion, lovingly arranged on the world renowned New York City bagel. Still run by the Russ Family, this classic Old World “appetizing” store remains as popular as ever with todays’ hip foodies.
Although the Lower East side is a living testament to Jewishness, all five boroughs have embraced the culture as if it was their own. Matzo ball soup, blintzes and latkes are practically staples on diner menus throughout the City; there’s even a pork-centric restaurant in Williamsburg that borrows its name “Traif” from the Yiddish word meaning “not kosher.” Culinary humor…go figure.
So here’s what it all comes down to: Judaism is a religion; Jewish is a culture; And being Jewish in New York City is an experience. Now eat…you’re too skinny.
Featured image courtesy of Russ and Daughters