West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 20 | October 17 - 23, 2007

The Lower East Side Traditions and Transitions
A special Villager supplement

Pimps, prostitutes and pickles: Kinky L.E.S. history

By Daniel Krieger

Women lining up for $5 abortions, prostitutes in the shadow of the el train, 250 immigrants crammed into a tenement without bathrooms and a layer of grime covering it all. This is what hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw when they got to their new home, the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

On a sultry Sunday afternoon earlier this month, 25 men and women led by a guide and an Italian greyhound dressed in a T-shirt that said “Rock Star,” set out on a three-hour journey through time and space, beginning on East Broadway and winding up on E. Houston St., 353 years later, having completed the third “History of Sex and Sexuality on the Streets of the Jewish L.E.S. Walking Tour.”

Co-sponsored by the 14th St. Y., the tour was designed by Jay Daniels, the founder of KinkyJews — “the next generation of Jewish kinksters” — an organization that brings like-minded Jews together with events like a clothing-optional seder, Jewish lit-erotica readings, and a Chanukah burlesque show.

“We are sexually progressive Jews who share similar values in terms of sexuality and how we relate to Judaism in our lives,” Daniels said.

Daniels was inspired to look into the history of the Lower East Side from this angle after hearing about it and reading books like, “Bookleggers and Smut Hounds.” He wanted to illuminate the seamier side of the immigrant experience in New York City from “a Jewish sexual perspective.”

So he collaborated with Gideon Levy of Levys’ Unique New York, a family-run tour company that offers “nuanced history” tours of New York City for New Yorkers, like “Hey Ho! Let’s Go! Punk Rock on the Bowery!” and “Bohemian Broads of Greenwich Village.”

I arrived late, just as the tour was getting underway, having thought Broadway was East Broadway because it lies east of West Broadway. Guide Gideon, a basketball player-tall, 25-year-old native Brooklynite, officially welcomed me with a KinkyJews paddle and condom, both emblazoned with a Jewish Star.

Paddles in hand, the group headed west on East Broadway. Gideon began with an info-packed, rapid-fire account of the first Jews who arrived in New York City in 1654 from a Dutch colony in Brazil. We then walked to Straus Square by the Forward Building and became acquainted with the villain of the day: Anthony Comstock, a postal inspector who in 1873 founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which enforced Victorian-esque morality. His main target was “lewd material,” like anatomy textbooks and literature about reproductive health.

Challenging him on the very streets we walked were Margaret Sanger and her mentor, Emma Goldman, Jews who fought for women’s reproductive rights and were persecuted by Comstock for their efforts to educate women about birth control, a term coined by Sanger in 1914.

Meanwhile, rebels like Morris Glattstine, a 26-year-old Polish Jew, described by Comstock as “shrewd and lazy,” sold black-market contraceptive goods. And just to make sex a little easier to come by, a group of friendly neighborhood Jewish pimps, like the notorious Motche Greenberg, formed The New York Independent Benevolent Association, which managed some of the thousands of Jewish prostitutes who earned a healthy $75 a week cruising the Jewish red light district on Allen St.

On to the first New York synagogue on Eldridge St., surrounded by Chinese restaurants and hair salons in what is now Chinatown. Though the two cultures haven’t intertwined much, Happy Endings, a former Chinese massage parlor-turned-bar that now features Jewish erotica readings, is about as close as it gets.

At snack time, we hit Guss’ Pickles on Orchard St., where for $50 you can eat the juiciest, tastiest barrel-cured sour pickle in the world. Lest we forget the day’s theme, one group member effortlessly inserted the entire pickle, with uncanny depth, into her mouth.

Next, after passing a Rock ’n’ Roll Jesus poster, we paid a visit to Sultan Bras and Girdles on Grand St., where everything was a remarkable 50 percent off.

“I prefer undergarments 100 percent off,” said Gideon.

Toward the end of the tour we heard a 21st-century Jewish immigrant success story at Apollo Braun on Orchard St. Mr. Braun, who came to New York from Israel in 2001 with $13, ended up designing edgy clothes for his boutique frequented by celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. A sweatshirt in the window read, “I had sex on the first date.”

I asked a middle-aged Israeli man who was passing through town what he thought of the tour.

“It’s good to get a bit of history,” he said.

Then Richard, a middle-aged New Yorker and veteran walking-tour enthusiast: “It was a bit over-promised on the kink,” he said. “I’m wondering where the kink went.”

Less critical was Mark, a fourth-generation Lower East Side Jew, who thought learning about the history of Jewish sexuality on the L.E.S. was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

“I don’t think of it when I think of this neighborhood or Judaism,” he said. “I’ve lived here my whole life but didn’t know anything about the subject.”

For information about upcoming KinkyJews events, go to: http://www.kinkyjews.com/.

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