Walking Tours Uncover Signs of Old Jewish Life in Harlem

By Elizabeth Barber on May 7, 2013 8:04am 

HARLEM — The list could be a rough sketch of Jerusalem: a Star of David etched into a terracotta façade. A cornerstone identifying a building as built in the Jewish year 5668. The Ten Commandments, written in Hebrew, etched into what was once a synagogue.

But this is an itinerary for a walking tour of Harlem, once the third largest Jewish settlement in the world after Warsaw and the Lower East Side.

Squeezed for space, Jews began to move uptown from the Lower East Side around 1900. They were not in Harlem long — just 20 years — and today their influence in the neighborhood is almost invisible, faded into nearly a century of demographic change and cultural revision.

But Marty Shore, a tour guide at Manhattan Walks, still sees those tributes to Jewish life. This month, through the 92nd Street Y, he will give a guided tour of the neighborhood that makes those often unnoticed vestiges of an earlier time visible to the public.

“Very little is visible,” said Shore of the neighborhood’s small Jewish monuments.

Harlem now only has one active synagogue, and most have been converted to churches, keeping pace with demographic change. Still, some of the new churches bear subtle suggestions of their previous lives as centers of Jewish life.

There’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church, between West 120th Street and Lenox Avenue, with the Star of David etched into its old terracotta columns. And there’s Mt. Neboh Baptist Church, at West 114th Street and Seventh Avenue, where the Hebrew-language Ten Commandments are inscribed on intricate floral stonework just above the door.

Much of Shore’s tour is spent at the old brownstones of famous Jewish residents of Harlem, like composer Richard Rodgers, describing what can only be imagined: how life used to be lived in what used to be a hub of Jewish culture.

“Neighborhoods change in New York City,” Shore said. “But I hope people remember.”

Shore will give the second of two tours through 92Y on May 19 at 11 a.m. For tickets and information visit http://www.92y.org. Shore also runs tours through the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. 

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