Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Save the Deli- Tonight!


A tasty treat you won't want to miss-- join us tonight as David Sax reads from his fantastic new book, Save the Deli at 7 PM. Sax "is a deli fanatic, whose yearning for the salted, cured meats traces back to friday nights at Yitz’s in Toronto. Further back he can trace deli lineage to his father’s childhood in Montreal, and his grandfather’s childhood in Romania...Over the course of the past few years he’s toured the world, interviewing deli owners and famous deli lovers (like Ed Koch, Ruth Reichel and Mel Brooks), tried his hand cutting sandwiches at Katz’s, and voyaged to the heart of deli country, whether New York, LA, Montreal, Paris, London, or Poland." We'll be serving local pickles as we listen to Sax wax poetic about one of the mainstays of Jewish food on the Lower East Side and beyond. This free event is sure to hit the spot!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Intern Files: Sonny on Snuff

My name is Sonny, and I have been interning at The Museum at Eldridge Street for five months now. As the education intern at the museum, one of my jobs is researching new and interesting facts to include in our tours and school programs. I’ve always been fascinated by history, especially the unusual parts that people are less likely to discuss! One thing I love about the Museum at Eldridge Street are the clues that teach us about the ways that the first congregants balanced their cultural and religious identities with the new American way of life they were now living – many of which are built right into the synagogue itself. Something that sparked my interest when I first visited the museum in 2008 was the snuff box in the Bes Medrash – it seemed totally out of place, as well as perfectly natural, and in my opinion is one of the parts of the synagogue that gives it’s first congregants a more human face. Recently, Miriam Bader asked me to do some research on the history of snuff to share with our docents, and I was very intrigued by what I found out!

What is “Snuff?”
Smokeless tobacco has been manufactured and sold across the globe for centuries, but was most popular in the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The two main categories are dry and moist snuff. Dry snuff is pulverized tobacco, which a user would take a pinch of and sniff into their nose. Dry snuff was typically thought of as a European habit, hence it is also referred to as “European snuff.” In the United States the more typical form of smokeless tobacco has always been moist snuff. Commonly referred to as “dip,” moist snuff is a version of Snus, a Swedish smokeless tobacco which was brought to America by Swedish immigrants in the 19th century. Moist snuff is often confused with chewing tobacco, but their uses are slightly different: rather than chewing snuff, a person would take a pinch of the loose tobacco and place it between their lower lip and their gums. Sucking on the tobacco causes an excess of saliva to develop, making it necessary to spit into a container (or on the ground!), as swallowing can cause nausea or irritation to the esophagus. Long time users, however, can often swallow without any side effect, which is colloquially referred to as “gutting” it. It became popular because it was able to be used indoors, especially during long work days, when an employee might not get a cigarette break or might be required to use both hands to work.

At Eldridge Street
Since smoking was a common habit among Americans during the early days of the Eldridge Street Synagogue, it is not surprising that many of the male members of the congregation would use snuff during long services when they could not smoke cigarettes. Accordingly, the snuff box in the bimah in the Bes Medrash, which is one of the most unusual features of the architecture at Eldridge Street, does not seem so out of place when you consider the widespread nature of the habit at the time of the synagogue’s construction. During the synagogue’s hey-day, the congregation used a portion of their funds every year to purchase new spittoons, and had strict rules regarding spitting on the floor, as noted in the detailed minute books. These facts leave us with the assumption that many of the congregants used dip during services rather than European snuff, as dry snuff does not require the user to spit. Additionally, moist snuff was more popular in the U.S. at the time and therefore it was likely much easier to purchase. However, it is possible that the congregation might have provided dry snuff in the snuff box in the Bes Medrash. Either way, smokeless tobacco was a popular indulgence of the time that many of the congregants took part in, even during religious services.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The History Detective: Isser Reznik, Part II

In today's installment of The History Detective, we're continuing our investigation of an Eldridge Street legend, Isser Reznik [click for part I.] As I mentioned last time, I did a bit of quick research on Isser, but found only a few interesting items. I checked first on a favorite research site of mine,, which digitizes city directories, census records and all sorts of other historic documents. We actually worked with the people behind Footnote on a recent grant, and have found their resources and insights tremendously helpful. Plugging "Isser Reznik" into the search engine, I found the following:

Here, Isser Reznik acted as the witness for his neighbor Michel Susterman's petition for naturalization. Here, Isser's home address is listed as 86 Eldridge Street, which made his walk to work at 77 1/2 Eldridge Street almost ridiculously conveninent. Yes, I am slightly jealous.

Unfortunately it was all that Footnote had for our friend Isser. I then took a look on another excellent site geared specifically to genealogy enthusiasts, It too had only one search result:

Here we have an Isser Reznik living in Brooklyn, recorded on this 1920 census. He is married to Jenny, and has children Max. Blanche, Sarah, and Sam, who is married to Belle and father to Irving.  At first I was dismayed, thinking I had found a classic case of mistaken identity, the pitfall of many an amateur researcher. The original names I was given included Max, Jacob, Shmulkie, and a wife named Zeldah Rivkah! 
But as I looked at the original picture of the family, I realized I had forgotten to account for name changes! Many Jewish immigrants changed their names in America, or used one name within the Yiddish-speaking community and a more common American name for legal matters. Shmulkie could easily be Sam, and Max is listed on both the picture given by Isser's great-grandson and on this census record. It seemed too similar to be coincidence, and got me thinking: Could Isser have another name? Stay tuned for the next installment of The History Detective as I search for Isser's alter ego. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Cool Culture

We've always been cool and cultural, but now we've got a stamp of approval! Cool Culture is a New York institution that helps income-eligible families access and enjoy NYC's world-class cultural institutions for free, providing children with learning experiences that improve literacy and learning. Their programs harness the commitment of 90 cultural institutions and over 430 early education programs and schools, to help parents play an active role as their child's first teacher. The Museum at Eldridge Street recently joined their roster of impressive cultural organizations and sites.
Miriam Bader, the Museum's Director of Education, recently attended Cool Culture's annual fair. She shared a bit about her experience there with me:
Over 500 professionals gathered at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum for the annual Cool Culture fair. Surrounded by impressive aircrafts and exhibitory, early childhood educators and administrators, along with representatives from New York’s cultural institutions, mixed, mingled, and explored ways for children to connect with the arts. Since its founding 10 years ago, Cool Culture has provided hundreds of thousands of low-income parents with opportunities to give their young children educational experiences that instill a love of learning through the arts. The Museum at Eldridge Street is delighted to be one of 90 institutional partners working with Cool Culture to take families on culturally enriching adventures.
We've already welcomed dozens of Cool Culture families to the Museum. many of whom came to our fun-filled Winter Garden Festival on Sunday. Our Preservation Detectives family program picks back up this Sunday, and we hope to have even more Cool friends join us.