The Mamboniks

A repository for articles and artifacts regarding the intriguing history of Jews in Latin music.

THE MAMBONIKS began in 2001 as research for a book that remains unpublished. I hope that sharing my interviews and materials will help broaden the understanding of this unique moment in Jewish cultural history.

All material copyright Mark Schwartz, 2006


Jewish Harlem Pt. 2

The Jewish presence in Harlem dates back to the years after the Civil War, when the future Barrio was a semi-rural village both geographically and psychically distant from New York City. Its eastern reaches were crisscrossed by streams originating from the Harlem River, and rocky promontories, lowland marshes and wide-open fields contributed to the remove. Wooden shanties pockmarked the area, as seen in this ca. 1890 photograph of Fifth Ave between 116th and 117th Streets. In time, a commercial strip developed along Third Avenue north to 125th Street, populated with single-story shops and homes. A group of German Jews began to set up small stores. Twelve members held the first Sabbath services in Harlem in 1873.

The Harlem pioneers were cut off from the more substantial community on the (lower) East Side. They formed their own synagogues, Jewish schools (cheders), and social groups, including the Harlem YMHA and B’nai B’rith, but it was the railroad that insured the survival of Harlem’s Jews. The Second and Third Avenue elevated trains were completed by 1880, making the arduous trek to Delancey Street a 45 minute commute. Real estate speculators launched an unparalleled construction boom that filled over half of East Harlem with private homes, tenements, and brownstone apartments. Established German Jews moved to Fifth Avenue and its environs, while more utilitarian buildings to the east and south gave shelter to the Irish and Italian rail workers.

Waiting to fill the rest of newly developed Twelfth Ward was the first wave of the largest migration of Eastern European Jews In history. Many were fleeing the Russian pogroms in 1903 and the growing chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Their sheer numbers – nearly 800,000 in 1910, or 41% of all new immigrants -- changed the character of New York City. The storied Lower East Side, with its peddlers, piecework, and vibrant Yiddish press, became a cradle of Eastern European Jewry. Its narrow tenements were filled to bursting with strivers from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and nearly every other nook and cranny around the world that Jews once called home.

Russian peddlers and tailors joined American-born Jewish merchants, small businessmen, successful bankers, and other white-collar professionals. German Jews, clean-shaven and reform-minded, shared the sidewalk with bearded, shawl-draped immigrants seemingly plucked from the Middle Ages. By 1910, East Harlem was home to over 90,000 Jews and dozens of synagogues of varied denominations, from small shuls of former shtetl neighbors to the grandiose Ohab Zedek, one of the largest synagogues in turn-of-the-century New York, home to the famous cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.

Harlem’s success would be its undoing. The neighborhood that had been a pressure valve for the teeming Lower East Side began to swell itself. The land speculation led to overcrowding and neglect; conditions only worsened as the nation plunged into World War I. All non-essential construction ceased. Rents climbed skyward and buildings fell into disrepair. Mention of “East Harlem” began to take on the desultory tone that it bears to this day. Jews with any savings began to eye the wider spaces of the Bronx and Brownsville, Brooklyn.

Within a generation, the community that had risen to sophisticated heights was a ghost of its former self. The Jewish population of Harlem spiraled downward, losing nearly 100,000 members in 1923 alone. The Federal Immigration Acts passed a year later shut off New York to Eastern European Jews entirely, and the community simply dried up. The poorly-maintained apartments were swallowed up, abusive rents and all, by African-American migrants from the south, whose neighborhood choices were far more circumscribed than that of the Jews. Along with them came another hardscrabble American minority, the Puerto Ricans.

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Blogger vinylphreek said...

Hey Mark-

Aaron Levinson here. I love the blog!
Great work mein freunde. We need to talk soon. Send me an e-mail ok?

April 17, 2008 at 9:56 PM  

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