Travel: Welcome to the big bagel
From the legendary rudeness of the deli waiters to the moving simplicity of the Heritage Museum, New York City is the most Jewish town on the planet, says Peter Moss
Sunday 16 May 1999
Small surprise Woody is so reluctant to make movies outside his beloved Manhattan. The place positively throbs with life. There is nothing you cannot do, see, buy, visit, encounter, embrace, fondle or eat at any time, day or night, in New York. And it's big, seriously big, and about as understated as a Gwyneth Paltrow acceptance speech.
Megalopolis. That's what Allen Ginsberg called Manhattan, and that's what it is. A truly mega metropolis where everything is larger than life. But more than that - and here's the rub - it's so Jewish, the most Jewish town on the planet. Statistics don't lie, and with two-and-a-half million Jews, that's 20 per cent of world Jewry living in the one city. I was born in Hendon, moved to Jerusalem, and reside now in Edgware, so I know Jewish when I see it.
I guess it's because we Jews are so much larger-than-life that New York's excesses don't seem to faze us. Except perhaps the climate. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter. Back in July I found myself performing what looked like an elaborate Riverdance routine down Fifth Avenue. In fact, I was dancing in and out of every available shop doorway, just to get a hit from the air-conditioning units. The humidity really is that bad.
In December, I took one step outside the Hilton at Rockefeller Plaza - nice hotel if Grand Central Station with a Jacuzzi is your thing - before stepping back in and getting fleeced by the hotel store. The wind-chill factor really is that bad. As the subway poster says: "You have to be crazy to live in New York. Crazy about shows, crazy about restaurants, crazy about museums ..."
New York majors in museums. The obvious ones you know. The Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim - respectively massive, quirky, always closed. One museum you may not know - and it's worth a visit if only to catch the classic view to Ellis Island and The Statue of Liberty from its water's edge site on Battery Park - is the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
Liberally bank-rolled by, among others, one S Spielberg of Hollywood, the museum offers a splendid trawl through Jewish life, with particular emphasis on the 20th century. The Holocaust exhibit is a model of economy and understatement and, while telling an all too familiar story, hits harder than even Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
The video of Who's Who Who's Jewish in entertainment, on the other hand, threw up one or two things I sure as heck never knew. Woody Guthrie was Jewish? The man from Okemah, Oklahoma, the folk movement's working class hero of the Depression years, author of Pastures of Plenty and Dust Bowl Refugees had a bris, a bar mitzvah, and a fistful of blintzes? Go figure. And Harrison Ford? Come on guys, who are you kidding. No self-respecting Jew calls himself Indiana, not even for $10m a movie.
Altogether more downbeat is the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. This gem of a find is, in fact, little more than a six-storey tenement house, preserved in original layout and condition, which at one time was occupied - you're just going to have to take my word for it - by 150 mittel- European immigrants. Six apartments, 150 inhabitants. Work it out for yourself. All my years playing at the Edinburgh Festival, I'd have been thrilled to perform to such numbers.
Strange, really. At home I don't see the inside of a synagogue from one Yom Kippur to the next. In New York I positively overdose on Yiddishkeit, and before long I was on a ferry to Ellis Island to visit the Museum of Immigration which, at eight years and $156m (pounds 96m), was the longest and most expensive restoration of any building in the US. It was worth every cent, not least for the walk down the "staircase of separation" which traces the steps of immigrants who were directed to Manhattan-bound ferries, California-bound trains, or detention rooms on the island.
You don't have to be Jewish to sample some of New York's many synagogues. In fact, at the gorgeously baroque Liberal Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue being Jewish is virtually no advantage. This is the synagogue, New York's largest, where men uncover their heads on the way in, and the Torah scrolls remain firmly in the Ark, the sanctum sanctorum, throughout the service. A synagogue service without Hebrew, I should explain, is tantamount to Catholicism without confession.
Synagogues come no more liberal than Temple Emanuel. Give the caretaker $10 and he'll valet park your car for you. Twenty dollars and the rabbi does it. At the post-service kiddush (feast) I decided to test the rabbi. "Just why is it," I asked, "that we Jews are not allowed to eat pork?" To which the good cleric replied: "We're not?" Now that's what I call liberal.
New York really is one big crazy delicatessen where everyone, regardless of race or religion, talks Jewish (liberal rabbis excepted). You know the old story. A Jewish guy is served in Kaplan's deli by a Yiddish-speaking Chinese waiter. The guy pays the bill and congratulates the manager on the waiter's faultless Yiddish. "Not so loud," says the manager. "He thinks he's learning English."
The highlight of any trip to New York is to be insulted in a kosher restaurant, and at the Second Avenue Deli the rudeness of the men and women in starched white linen is the stuff of legends, as I discovered on a recent visit. My whitefish (America-speak for gefilte fish) looked decidedly knackered. I'd say it was thrush, possibly gastroenteritis. Whatever, it was putrid. I called the waitress over. "I don't like the look of my whitefish," I said. "If it's looks you wanted," she replied, her chewing gum about to drop into my sauerkraut, "you shoulda ordered gold." Lesson learned. When you open your mouth in a New York deli, don't talk, eat.
It would be easy to surmise from all this that Jewish New York is all about eating. There's a reason for this. It is, pretty much. At the last count New York had 128 nosheries with the word bagel in the name.
But if the heartbeat of Jewish New York lies anywhere, it is on the streets. I was standing on the corner of 48th and Park Ave last winter, admiring the Chanukah candles in the window of the Chase Manhattan Bank, while warming my hands on the steam from one of the city's ubiquitous street- corner food stalls. I fancied something hot and sweet, so I ordered some lockshen pudding with raisins. Among the raisins I found an insect. "Hey," I said, "there's a fly in my pudding." The proprietor came back quick as a flash. "What do you expect?" he said. "I used to be a tailor." That's Jewish New York.
Return flights to New York with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) cost from pounds 259 plus pounds 52 tax.
Short breaks with Virgin Holidays (tel: 01293 617181) cost from pounds 399 including return flights, transfers and accommodation in a hotel.
New York Convention & Visitors' Bureau (tel: 0171-437 8300).
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