The Old World In New York Part II

By Helen Bullitt Lowry

In like manner do the solemn religious observances of the orthodox Jews tell their history__the history of centuries of exile. In a synagogue at 91 Rivington Street, I sat in the balcony reserved for women. There were only a handful of us__most of us old with a shawl around our heads. But below us each seat was filled by men. it is the Jewish man who comes to the Temple before he goes to work and after the day's work is over. It is man who comes there to read and to study the law that has kept Hebrew learning alive.

Most of the men below me upon that Friday night were bearded. High above the altar were the Tablets of the Law. The paraphernalia of worship were as simple as in the days of the Tabernacle. The singing reader and the choir of men and boys were robed in the gowns of medieval scholars. They stood on an enclosed platform before the seven-branched candlestick and sang the service in a chant so ancient that it would seem the ancestor of the Gregorian chant of the early Christian church. Paul himself may have brought it across the Mediterranean.

So passionate a drama was being enacted in the ring of the voice of the chanting reader that without understanding a word, I knew that we wept by the Waters of Babylon. Men rose from their seats and swayed as in agony. The women about me rocked back and forth. One held a grandchild to her ancient bosom and wept in his hair.

We went out on Rivington Street, which was almost deserted in the Sabbath quiet of Friday evening. A few straggling peddlers of the pushcart market were covering up their wares. They were putting out the flaring gasoline lights which rise from every pushcart and illuminate the stocks in trade of food and stockings and china the lights which make Rivington Street east of Second Avenue an Old World glory of beacons on Thursday and Saturday nights. The law of Moses was being carried out as it was 4,000 years ago.

This indeed is to the "tourist" the fascinating part of the orthodox Jewish quarters. On those barren streets, where not for seventy-five years has a tree leafed, the two plentiful harvests of an ancient land flowing with milk and honey are celebrated a land whose very fertility is exhausted with the physical changes of 4,000 years.

For each sacred anniversary, the orthodox Jew commemorates two days, because of the tabernacle days when the beacon light from hill to hill was the signal that told that the fast day or the day of rejoicing had arrived. It took two nights for the beacons to signal to all twelve tribes.

Characteristically the one really gay holiday of the Jewish east side goes back so far into history that it is Queen Esther's Day. And on this day little boys on the Jewish east side are allowed to stamp their feet right in the synagogue whenever Haman's name is mentioned. It is the one day when it is permitted them to make noise in the Temple of Jehovah.

But, if you would know your orthodox Jewish community, with all the dignity of its ancient tragic history wrapped about it, go down on the 2d of June when the fast of the Destruction of the Temple is consecrated that double destruction of the Temple, which, by the strange lottery of history occurred five centuries apart on that same day of June. The second generation, usually so impatient of the stern religion of their fathers, walk softly that day in the presence of the sorrow of those gray-bearded patriarchs. it is a national tragedy, which like a national art, has taken centuries in the making.

These are Galician Jews. Among the orthodox Levantine Jews the tragedy is not so poignant. They are the Jews who fled out of Spain in the days iof the Inquisition. They fled to the Near East from a civilization in which they had been the doctors and scholars. They carried their education and some worldly goods with them nor did they ever encounter such persecutions as those of Galicia. On Pearl Street in New York today they speak a strange medley of elegant sixteenth century Spanish, modern Turkish and ancient Hebrew. They write classical Hebrew instead of the Yiddish, which is a Jewish variant of German. Their hair is straight like the Spaniard's. On the east side you may know them by their proud carriage.

Out of the Near East, too, come our Syrian immigrants, bearing with them the traditions of the melting not of bygone centuries. In their veins flows the blood of Phoenicia and Egypt of Assyria and Babylon and Persia, of the ancient Israelites, of the Hittites, Romans and Arabs, of Crusaders and Turks of every nation, in fact, that by turns since 1500 B.C. has lorded it over the mountains of Lebanon, the rivers of Damascus and the valley of the Jordan. The result, strangely enough, has been a type rather above the average in physical beauty.

Our immigration is Christian, although Syria itself is three-fourths Mohammedan. Some of these immigrants belong to the orthodox Greek Church, left by the receding waves of Byzantium's power. Some are Catholics, dating from the days of the Crusaders and the monasteries left in their wake; while a few are Protestant from the most recent wave of Protestant missionaries.

Yet all of the Syrian Christians in New York's Syrian quarter tell of the New Testament events with the naivete of eyewitnesses. Modern Syria embraces the lower end of Palestine, and that has made it a land of Christian miracles, handed down by word of mouth. Old women on Washington Street will inform you simply that "If you brush your hair on the Night of Increase, Epiphany Eve, your hair will grow beautiful."

The prosperous Syrian district on lower Washington Street, just west of the Rector Street subway station, and the larger district about Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn seem at first glance just a conventional Main Street, specializing in drawn work and embroidery dealers, with occasionally a Syrian restaurant or a window full of Syrian sweetmeats or narghills. In the apartments above the shops flutter curtains of American lace. It would seem that all the Orientalism had been washed out by our laundering melting pot.

But too much Eastern blood flows in the veins of these persons named Saadi and Kzami for them to lose their Orientalism so simply. You begin to notice the people. Who are these black-haired men with mustaches of such noble thickness as to make a generation of Gillette fans blush at their own inadequacy? As they pass, you hear them speak with the liquid tongue of Haroun as Rashid. Who are these maidens that stand for an instant in a doorway, with their oval faces and ardent eyes modestly to disappear when the bold eye lingers too long? In two short blocks in Washington Street it was my fortune to see two beautiful young creatures, one of whom had the grace to be wearing a modern hat adapted from a gold cloth turban. Allah is good.

The Syrian women in America lead the sheltered life of the Orient where sometimes even the Christian women wear veils to shield them from the rude stare of Mohammedans. The Syrian girls here, more than any other of our imported nationalities, are keeping to the social conventions of their home land. For one thing the ratio of young men to girls is so great that there is no question of the girls having to go out in industry. If a Syrian girl of 15 on Atlantic Avenue shows signs of adopting the American freedom, her father promptly selects for her a husband.

A Syrian woman of education explained: "We do not trust our young girls less than you do. But we trust human nature less. For we are an old, old country, with the wisdom of the centuries. The wisdom of Arabia runs in our veins and the ancient wisdom of Egypt. In 1500 B.C. we were making our experiments with marriage. Doubtless we were experimenting with some of the theories that your Western civilization is now trying out. And we have found that marriage is something more than an emotion between two young things. Tell me, how can a girl, blinded by love, select the proper husband for her maturity and the father able to support her children?

"Syria gave of her culture to the Occident when the Crusaders brought us together. During this last fifty years, the Occident has been repaying the debt by sharing Occidental education with the Orient. But the Christian East will again be the giver, for she will teach the West her sane marriage customs. Your girls come to their husbands without dignity. If the husband is unkind, he has no one to answer to. But when a man marries in our land, with an alliance arranged by the girl's father, the husband marries the whole family connection."

Indeed, the foreign-born women of our east side colonies, almost without exception, lead the home life of the older civilizations sometimes through the second generation. The Jewish second generation is apt to break away from the old customs, because their passion for education drives the girls as well as the boys out into woman's world. But in general the rule holds for the girls, because there is a constant infusion of young man blood from the old country, demanding wives with the old social conventions. When man admires a certain type, supply follows demand.

Nor think that this Italian or Syrian or Polish Woman is envying American woman her freedom. "The American men, they no love their women," shrugs Maria of Sicily. "No take care of her." And "You maka your own girls finda their own husbands?" murmurs the shocked voice of a wrinkled old crone. And at least their divorce record is low.

So, too, the immigrants pity the Americans for the food they eat. Our foreign-born population may drop its folk costume at the dock, but its menu lasts to the ceremonial funeral.

"You Americans," smiles a Greek grocer, courteously offering me a bite of the claw of a raw devilfish, "have no variety. You know only codfish, ice cream and potatoes." Chop suey was invented because Li Hung-chang grew homesick one day. He called to him a Chinese cook. "Make me a Chinese dish, after this miserable food I've been eating." "And what would your worshipful honor have in the dish of miserable me?" inquired the chef.

"Everything in your larder," replied Li Hung-chang. "that I may be reminded of every dish that I have ever eaten in China." And so chop suey came into existence, and spread all over America, leaving morning-afters in its wake. "Of course I cannot deny that Chinese cooking is better than American cooking," politely deprecates a Chinese student from Columbia University.

Each foreign colony imports the fish and the fruits and the flavoring bark of its home. The Near East has brought with it forty-two ways of cooking lamb greasily in its own fat and imports its candied pumpkin seeds. Syria has a way of serving up dishes that, like Li Hung-chang's chop suey, yield up five memories to a bite. Each foreign colony is filled with restaurants, because of the large bachelor population, and these restaurants may be explored by the tourist by just going to the district and selecting one by the eye.

Yet a foreign restaurant is like a flower which is plucked only to wither. As far as a national restaurant is discovered and the tourists begin to go there, it begins to play up to the lime-lights. Six short weeks ago an Indian restaurant was discovered on Eighth Avenue near Forty-second Street. Grave Indian gentlemen, with American clothes but with great turbans on their heads, used to come in for their curry and rice. Six short weeks and already the restaurant is half full of tourists, eagerly peering at each other for turbans and local color. A week ago in a Syrian restaurant on Atlantic Avenue, two people dined plentifully for 85 cents. The menu was written in Arabic with the letters running from right to left. I was the only American there. Pluck that flower at your peril.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Old World In New York Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times April 3, 1921
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