The Jew And The Carrot

The Fight for a Kosher Lower East Side

By Michael Kaminer

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Last fall the kosher restaurant Noah’s Ark on Grand Street closed its doors without much fanfare. But the shutter marked the end of an era — it was the last kosher restaurant on the Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Once home to the legendary Ratner’s, Crown Delicatessen, Shmulke Bernstein’s, and The Garden Cafeteria the neighborhood that was America’s kosher capital is now left with only five kosher establishments — three bakeries, a shop and a juice bar.

Fearing a kosher-less future, neighborhood residents last week started a grassroots campaign to get another kosher establishment in the old Noah’s Ark space. An online petition for a kosher option at 399 Grand Street has attracted nearly 700 signatures — and sparked impassioned comments about the neighborhood’s shifting character.

The storefront belongs to the Seward Park Co-op, the quartet of 54-year-old apartment buildings with a progressive Jewish heritage — and a significant, though aging, Orthodox population.

With the co-op board set to make a decision next Tuesday, and applicants for the space trotting out kosher and non-kosher possibilities, organizers of the petition are aiming for 1,000 signatures by the end of the week, according to their iPetition page.

“As residents of Seward Park and the Lower East Side, we urge the Board of Directors to bring in a Kosher restaurant as a commercial tenant of the Seward Park Co-op,” the petition reads. “A Kosher meat restaurant is vitally important to observant Jewish communities such as this one since it serves as a place for community to gather and socialize around food, and also acts as a cultural center that needs our support to continue to thrive in a growing neighborhood.”

Further, says the online petition, “there are many elderly Seward Park residents who are unable to walk a long distance, having a kosher restaurant will enable them to have a fresh meal every day.”

The Lo-Down blog reported that the co-op is entertaining offers from several food-related businesses, including at least one proposal for a kosher-style restaurant.

Some commenters maintained a kosher option would help attract new blood to an area whose Jewish population has diminished. “It will not only benefit the current residents but will provide an incentive for more young Jews and couples to return to the vibrant neighborhood it once was,” wrote William Wiesen.

And Laurie Tobias Cohen, whose comment identifies her as “Executive Director of a nonprofit, Jewish heritage touring organization,” even stressed the potential tourism windfall.

“It is really important to the welfare of Jewish tourism in the LES to have a proper, kosher restaurant option,” she posted. “The groups who come to the LES from out of the area would often dine at Noah’s Ark out of deference to the few kosher folk among them — these groups also help the local economy, and having them dine on Grand Street keeps them in the neighborhood longer.”

But not everyone agrees with the grassroots campaign. “Let’s face it: the ever-dwindling kosher food-eating population down here just doesn’t go out for dinner much or orders food in very often. Many down here NEVER dine out,” wrote a commenter named Uzi Silber. “Are all of you willing to put your money where your (kosher) mouth is? If you’re not, be prepared to witness the slow death spiral of another culinary dud.”

Though the neighborhood’s Jewish character has largely receded, there’s been a new wave of younger Jewish families attracted by the neighborhood’s newfound hipness – and its still-strong base of schools, shuls, and cultural institutions.

Now, if they could only get a decent kosher restaurant.

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