Volume 79, Number 20 | October 21 - 27, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

East Meets East
The East Village and Lower East Side | A special Villager supplement

Villager photos by Lesley Sussman

LEFT: Howard Markowitz; RIGHT: Sam Gluck, with a photo of his father.

The last Jews of Orchard St., hanging on by a thread

By Lesley Sussman

It was a street of dreams to many of the more than 2 million Jews who, from the 1880s to World War II, arrived in New York City, fleeing persecution, poverty and whatever else motivates a desperate people to pack their bags and willingly become strangers in a strange land.

Many of these new immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe expected to find streets paved with gold. What they found, instead, were low-paying jobs in factories and sweatshops and life in the dismal tenements of the Lower East Side where sometimes seven members of a family were crammed into small, dimly lit apartments sharing one bathroom in the hallway.

But despite such hardships, many of these mostly Orthodox Jews who clustered around Orchard and Delancey Sts. gradually began to create the American dream. After years of hard work, they were able to scrape together enough money to open small neighborhood shops, turning Orchard St. into a hugely successful bargain mecca that attracted throngs of New Yorkers from all across the city and a comfortable livelihood for themselves.

Even as late as the 1960s, the eight city blocks between East Houston St. and Division St. that make up Orchard St. had a primarily Jewish flavor, with most of the businesses owned by Yiddish-speaking, bearded, and yarmulke-wearing Jews who closed shop each Saturday for the Sabbath and reopened their doors Sunday morning.

In their pidgin English, they peddled everything from fabrics and underwear to luggage and leather, with more than a dozen fabric shops once lining this street.

LEFT: Sammy Ben Zaken; RIGHT: Joseph Zarfati, right, with a young Lubavitcher visitor, who held up a photo of the late Hassidic leader — some say, messiah — Rabbi Menachem Schneerson.

Today, however, most of these fabric merchants, along with ethnic food vendors, tailors, shoemakers and other Jewish-owned businesses have faded into history. Posh has replaced the past, and where there were once rows of homey stores like Steinberg’s Fabrics, Weiss’ Lingerie, Hamp’s skullcaps and A. Jassin & Sons Butcher Shop, at 156 Orchard St. Orchard St. is now host to sleek bistros, chic boutiques and shiny new condos.

And while some of the more old-fashioned luggage, leather and clothing stores remain, today their wears are being peddled by merchants with Pakistani and Bangladeshi accents rather than Yiddish ones.

Still clinging to the street like some stubborn old vines, however, are less than a dozen Jewish merchants, some Orthodox and some not so religious. Despite the radically changed complexion of the street and a business environment most describe as not so favorable, they are linked to the past — and still dream of a return of the good old days when Orchard St. reeked of Jewish-accented prosperity.

They are the last Jews of Orchard St.

One of these dreamers is Sam Gluck, 56, owner of Global International, a “Famous Designer Menswear” shop at 62 Orchard St., located on street level just below the Lower East Side Dance Academy. A white-bearded, energetic Orthodox Jew with a black skullcap perched on top of his head, Gluck is connected to the past through the store, which he says his father, Isaac, first opened for business more than 50 years ago.

“He came from Romania in 1945 during the war,” Gluck recalled in his Yiddish-accented English. He came with $2 in his pocket. He lost all his family over there because the Nazis killed them, so he was alone.”

Gluck said his father’s first job in America was working in a factory that made ties.

“He made about 15 cents an hour and then started making a few dollars. Then he began to go out and buy ties and shirts, and he peddled them door to door. After doing this, he saved enough money to open a few small stores and then decided to open this one on Orchard St. because religious Jews worked here.”

Gluck remembered that as a kid working in the store, “every inch of Orchard St. was packed with people shopping. Everybody made money. Now it’s changed. First the artists came in, and then all the trendy shops.”

The businessman is not a fan of trendiness and laments that Orchard St. will never be like it was way back when.

“I really, really miss the old days with all the Jewish stores,” he said. “I’d like to have it back. I’m hoping it will come back, but it doesn’t really matter because I think that in four more years I’ll be out of here.”

One Jewish merchant who predicts that the last Jews of Orchard St. will soon be gone is Howard Markowitz, 65, a former stockbroker who, for 35 years, has owned Howard Sportswear, Inc., at 69 Orchard St., a retail and wholesale store that specializes in men’s and women’s hosiery, underwear and lingerie.

Although he grew up in Brooklyn, Markowitz remembered as a kid being “shlepped” down to Orchard St. every Sunday by his parents who loved to shop here. “It was mostly Jewish at that time and it was the place to be on Sunday. Come Sunday, you would go shopping on the Lower East Side.”

But, today, he added, “Most of the old-timers who ran these shops have died out or retired and went out of business. There aren’t a lot of Jews still doing what I’m doing.”

What saddens him the most is that many of the children who took over their parents’ shops have lost interest in the businesses.

“They don’t want this — even my children don’t want this. This is going to be the last of the business and, I think, it’s going to be the same for the others, too.”

Markowitz, dressed in jeans and sneakers, said that he, too, doesn’t approve of the new Orchard St.

“It’s becoming trendy and I like the old way much better.”

One of the last of Orchard St.’s fabric merchants is Sammy Ben Zaken, who along with his brother, Joseph, has operated Elegant Woolen and Silk at 174 Orchard St. for more than 20 years.

It’s a large-sized store filled with rows of fabrics — much of it from Italy and Great Britain — and which specializes in men’s suiting (there is even a tailor on the premises). Sammy, who was born in Egypt but grew up in Israel, said he got his first job in America at a no-longer existent fabric shop at 170 Orchard St. Nine years later, in 1984, he opened his present location.

“There used to be 11 fabric shops back then between Delancey and Houston Sts. that were mostly all owned by religious Jews,” he recalled. “Then some Koreans started coming in and the Jewish people helped them get into this business. Some of these Koreans are very well to do now.”

Ben Zaken is another merchant who does not look fondly on the new Orchard St., blaming real estate developers for trying to turn it into an extension of Greenwich Village and Chinatown.

“It used to be a wonderful street — a market that attracted people from everywhere and where you could find everything and haggle over the prices,” he said. “It was colorful and alive and now it’s all ruined. It’s depressing. I wish I had had the chance to see the real old Orchard St., but things never come back.”

Joseph Zarfati, 48, is one of the new breed of Orchard St.’s Jewish businessmen. But despite the hip, modern look of Cougar, 96 Orchard St., a store that specializes in men’s Italian dress fashions and exotic animal-skin shoes, Zarfati said he still has a nostalgia for the Orchard St. of bygone days.

“It’s too bad it’s all gone, but everything changes,” he said. “I remember that there were a lot of Jews — 27 stores on this tiny block between Broome and Delancey. I’m one of the few Jewish-owned stores left. Everything is hotels, and restaurants and even a museum.”

The Israeli-born shop owner with a perpetual smile on his face said his family opened the store here nearly 40 years ago because they liked the idea that all the shops closed on Saturdays for the Sabbath, something that no longer is the case.

He also believes that the remaining Jewish merchants will soon be gone.

“The time of the old Orchard St. is over,” he said. “People got rich and moved on. There used to be 10,000 people on this block — you couldn’t even walk — and now there’s nothing.”

While the last Jews of Orchard St. may eventually disappear, there is something that will not, and that is the memory of how things once were along this street of dreams — and other streets, as well — for Jewish and other immigrants to America, according to Kate Stober, a spokesperson for the Tenement Museum, at 108 Orchard St. This memory-keeping, she added, is one of the primary missions of the museum.

She said that more than 140,000 people visit the museum annually to imagine the same streets that their grandparents once walked and the apartments they lived in, or come simply to try and understand the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side at a time when nearby Katz’s Delicatessen served its first slice of kosher pickle in 1888.

“Interestingly enough, a lot of Orthodox Jewish families are moving back into the neighborhood,” Stober said. “I don’t know if they’re the great-great-grandchildren of immigrants or not, but I know it won’t be the same, because they’re of a different generation.”




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