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

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.

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. (The Villager)

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