Until we return to our usual schedule Jan. 3, enjoy this daily series of longer pieces in which we unravel the mysteries and the histories of storied addresses.
An elderly woman stands at the window of her East Broadway apartment, practicing tai chi. A light snow is falling on the street below, where two young men in flannel shirts and skinny jeans enter a craft beer shop. The yellow lights of Happy Family Chinese restaurant blink gently in the distance.
At the corner of East Broadway and Grand stands an unusual building. White stones fan out around its windows, creating a contrast against the deep red brick. Its distinctive exterior reflects the boldness of its founders, eager to establish themselves in a new country and unafraid to be seen or heard. The letters ATH are carved above the main door, a nod to Arnold Toynbee, the British economic historian whose work inspired the settlement house movement, lovingly engraved by the hardworking New Yorkers who admired him.
A woman in a long skirt makes her way up the steps, where a plaque reads “ritualarium.” The door opens and another woman, her hair tucked into a velvet cap, smiles warmly and ushers her in from the wintry night.
A political past
The building that stands at 311 East Broadway today was commissioned by the Young Men’s Benevolent Association, a community organization established in the 1890s. After a sixteen-year fundraising effort, the Association hired the architectural firm Sass & Smallheiser to construct a five-story building for $35,000.
Alfred Pommer guides architectural walking tours on the Lower East Side. “The building is sort of a mixture of styles,” he says. “You could say it has some Georgian elements, some Queen Anne elements, some Beaux-Arts. American architects at the time would sort of take a little bit from here and a little bit from here and create their own concoction. Sort of a mixed breed, like us. This is a good example of that and when you look at it, it comes together rather nicely.”
The building’s use over the past century mirrors its “mixed breed” exterior. Its first 14 years were spent as a community center with a strong political spirit, its next 18 as a social settlement house for new immigrants facing the struggles of tenement living. And for more than 70 years, it has served as a Jewish ritual bath – the last remaining on the Lower East Side. Many believe it to be the oldest continuously operating mikvah in the United States.
By the time the clubhouse held its official opening in the spring of 1905, its members had raised $50,000 – no small feat considering that most were, in the words of the Times reporter who covered the opening, “in the humbler walks of life.”
David Blaustein, then president of the Educational Alliance, spoke at the celebration. “Your organization has sprung directly from the people of the Lower East Side,” he said, “…You, or your parents, have come from countries of oppression where there were no opportunities for our race. In this country, we can proclaim aloud and without fear that we are good Jews in order to be better citizens.” The new building held a library, reading room, bowling alley, gymnasium, billiard room, showers, and an auditorium that frequently hosted lectures.
311 East Broadway quickly became a center for political activity on the Lower East Side, often holding meetings for the Federation of Jewish Organizations of New York State. Association members fought against stricter immigration laws and resisted prejudice against Jews in naturalization. This was a matter of particular concern after 1903 and 1907, when the government added “Hebrew” as a new category to the racial classification system that tracked immigrants upon arrival. Hasia Diner, a professor of Hebrew, Judaic Studies, and History at NYU, has written extensively about the history of Jews on the Lower East Side. Of this government classification, she says, “That they were very ambivalent about because they didn’t want to be seen as a separate race. They knew that with race in America, if you’re defined as a racial group, you have no rights, you can’t become naturalized.”
The Association was especially active in protesting the Odessa pogrom which occurred in early November of 1905. On November 14 of that year, 311 East Broadway hosted a meeting of the Jewish Defense Association to raise funds for those affected. “New massacres are preparing,” the defense group warned. “Our people must be possessed of arms to defend themselves and their honor.”
The Young Men’s Benevolent Association also played a role in organizing a massive protest calling for a stop to the violence. The demonstration took place on December 5, 1905, beginning at several points on the Lower East Side, including 311 East Broadway. An estimated 125,000 people showed up, many dressed in mourning attire, carrying flags and banners. They eventually came to Union Square, where Joseph Barondess, the local labor leader, read a series of resolutions urging the United States to take action. “That we call upon the Government of the United States,” he read, “and upon all the Governments of enlightened lands to enter their protest against the criminal slaughter of innocent persons, against the brutal massacres which violate all laws of humanity and put all progress of nations to shame.”
These words might seem bold from a group of relatively new, middle-class immigrants. But, says Diner, “It was a neighborhood and a population that was very politically active. One of the things they absolutely loved about coming to America was that they were free to organize however they wanted and to be demonstrative publicly about issues that bothered them. When they saw something wrong here in New York or elsewhere, they felt completely empowered to act upon it.”
The Angel and the Settlement House
In 1918, 311 East Broadway found a second life as a social settlement house. At the heart of the operation was a woman named Rose Gruening. Gruening was born in 1876 to Rose Fridenberg and Emil Gruening, both German Jewish immigrants. The younger Rose’s mother died of typhoid fever during childbirth, and her father soon remarried her mother’s sister, Phebe, with whom he would have four children. In Robert David Johnson’s book on Rose’s brother, the author describes the Gruenings’ childhood as very privileged. Their father owned three houses on 23rd Street, one of which he used as his medical practice. The family was not religious, but Emil was involved with several benevolent associations and strongly encouraged his children to pursue public service. Rose attended the Ethical Culture School on the Upper West Side before going on to Vassar College.
After graduating, Rose volunteered as a social worker at Madison House (now the Hamilton-Madison house), the settlement associated with the Downtown Ethical Society. Seeing that Lower East Siders required more help than Madison House could provide, Gruening and some of her colleagues, including Samuel Null, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, went on to found another settlement house at 257 Division Street in 1916. They called it the Arnold Toynbee House after the British economic historian and social reformer whose work inspired the first ever university settlement house, located in London’s East End.
In 1918, the settlement moved from Division to 311 East Broadway. In 1925, it came to be known as the Grand Street Settlement. Rose became the settlement’s head worker, known to locals as “The Angel of Grand Street.”
Grand Street Settlement was not a residence, but it offered showers, medical and dental care, English classes, hot meals, and a kindergarten for children of working parents. Such basic services were key to helping new immigrants survive and live a better life in New York. Says Diner, “These weren’t people who necessarily knew about showers before, but certainly they wanted a higher standard of hygiene than those metal tubs that you’d fill up and use to take a bath in your kitchen. So it was a population who was poor, but it also had aspirations for higher standards, and certainly the settlement houses played a role in ratcheting up people’s aspirations and standards of what it meant to be a modern middle-class American.”
The settlement house was also home to a rooftop garden, a bowling alley, pool tables, and an auditorium that hosted concerts and dances. In a sense, the building continued to host activities not unlike those of the Young Men’s Benevolent Association – the primary difference being that once it became a settlement house, these things were available for free. The fact that, despite limited funds, the settlement made an effort to provide such activities indicates that Gruening and her colleagues recognized the importance of leisure.
“It gives you a reason to live!” says Alfred Pommer. “You need to be clean, you need to eat, but there are other things required for life. It performed an extraordinary service. That service wouldn’t have otherwise been available to the immigrants because they couldn’t pay for it, so here they were given it for nothing. I think that was a tremendous thing.”
311 East Broadway hosted performances of works like “Macbeth” and “Julius Caesar,” and clubs and classes dedicated to art and literature. Diner believes that such offerings spoke volumes: “If your only concern is going to work, stoking your body with enough calories so you can go to work the next day, you’re not going to take an art class. And what was really amazing was the number of people who took these classes – young working women who would take courses in literature and history and political theory.” Beginning in 1928, the building also housed a women’s college, the Hebrew Teachers Training School for Girls, later part of Yeshiva University.
In addition to cultural programs, the settlement offered classes in child-rearing and household management. This too, suggests Diner, reflects the hope for a better life. “They were saying, ‘I can be a better mom.’ Typically these immigrants were young people, so they didn’t have their mothers or grandmothers around; they were kind of doing it on their own. On the other hand, they may have been saying, ‘My mother used to do X. That’s so old-fashioned. And here’s my chance to do things right, scientifically and American – but who’s going to teach me?’ So it was both about the sense of inadequacy and also a sense of ‘I can learn!’ There was both a liberation and a sense of loss.”
While working with The Downtown Ethical Society at 300 Madison Street in 1907, Rose Gruening had established Camp Moodna, a summer colony for girls near Mountainville, New York. A New York Times article from 1907 explained the need for such a place: “Every year when the good old Summertime came around with its blazing sun and smoldering pavements,” it read, “the downtown ethicists would long for the cool joys of pastures green. But the purses of the Madison Street set are usually slim. The problem was how to reduce the cost of a Summer outing to a practical east side basis.” Although Gruening had helped establish an inexpensive tent camp for boys, she struggled to come up with an affordable option for young women. “But how were the girls to be provided for?” the Times article read. “Tent life wouldn’t do; for a tent has no guardian doors that the girls could lock at night, and all manner of crawly things could creep under the canvas and bring on attacks of the fidgets.”
While reading a magazine story about a poor couple who spent a pleasant vacation in an abandoned horse car, Gruening came up with an idea. She convinced a transit company about to replace its horse cars to donate twenty of them to the camp. Volunteers painted the cars leaf-green and set about tearing out seats, installing beds, and hanging curtains. In addition to the bedroom cars, there were cars for dining and indoor recreation. One car became a dressing room. “When the rising bell sounds,” read the Times, “twenty-four kimono-clad figures will appear from twelve ‘late’ horse cars and flit across the early morning landscape. An allotted time for washing, hair-combing, and general prinking, and the kimono brigade will once more flit.”
In 1925, Camp Moodna became the summer extension of the Grand Street Settlement and served the children whose families made use of its services. Gruening made frequent appeals for funding and organized events at 311 East Broadway in support of the camp. In 1926, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Times:
Rose Gruening passed away at Camp Moodna on July 31, 1934. One of her many obituaries read, “No truer, kindlier spirit ever lived. Her life and work were an inspiration to all who knew her. Her loss is irreparable.”
In 1936, the Grand Street Settlement moved to a larger space at 283 Rivington Street; the building had become “inadequate” and been condemned by the Fire Department. Now located at 80 Pitt Street, it continues to serve more than 10,000 people each year.
A Traditional Present
The building today holds its most traditional role yet: it is home to the last remaining mikvah on the Lower East Side. The Agudath Taharath Mishpachah (Association of Family Purity) bought the building and turned it into Jewish ritual baths in 1941.
The building is now labeled “ritualarium,” an English approximation for “mikvah.” The mikvah’s purpose is purification, and while it is most commonly used by women after menstruation, it is also used by men and women for conversion to Judaism, before certain holidays, before marriage, as a way to celebrate, heal from trauma, or mark a life transition. A woman typically visits the mikvah in the evening, washing and grooming herself very thoroughly upon arrival. Once she is clean, the woman proceeds to the mikvah pool itself, and descends into the water, immersing herself completely three times.
In her book New York’s Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years, Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor of History and Judaic Studies at George Washington University, describes a series of “mikvah manuals” written for women in the 1920s and 30s, urging them not to abandon the tradition. The primary purpose of these manuals, Joselit explains, was to convince women that the mikvah still held a valuable place in their lives by appealing to contemporary concerns about mental and physical health, beauty, and marital happiness.
But resistance to the mikvah was not purely ideological; many mikvahs in the city had fallen into such a state of disrepair that the Board of Health labeled them a menace to those who used them. This led to the establishment of a Mikveh Owners Association which pushed for specific standards of higher sanitation: mikvah waters needed to be changed regularly and disinfected with chlorine, bathers needed to clean themselves well before entry, towels needed to be sterilized. Beginning in the late 1930s, a series of “model mikvahs” began to go up around the city; not only were they built to conform to city health and sanitation codes, but they were attractive and modern, with private pools, tiled floors, and dressing rooms with hairdryers and toiletries. The mikvah on East Broadway was one of the first in this tradition.
The Hebrew word “mikvah” means “collection of water,” and according to the Talmud, mikvahs must contain “living water,” water from a natural source. When the Lower East Side mikvah was established, its proximity just a hop and a skip from the East River made that the logical water source. But hopping and skipping isn’t so easy with enormous quantities of water, so the mikvah transported chunks of ice from the river by wagon. The mikvah shifted from river to rainwater about sixty years ago, collected on the same rooftop where children played during the building’s settlement days. Under the supervision of mikvah President Dr. Aaron From, the building underwent a major renovation in 1996.
Today, the building has an interior of homey pink tile. Its plastic-covered chairs and vase of silk flowers give it the unpretentious feel of a great-aunt’s living room. It’s not as fancy as some of the newer mikvahs uptown; that, says Dr. From, was part of the idea. “We want the mikvah to be accessible to everyone in the community,” he says. “We wouldn’t want cost to prohibit someone from coming.” While many modern mikvahs charge up to $40 per visit, the one on East Broadway requests a suggested donation of $10. In order to maintain the mikvah, the building rents out commercial space to several tenants, among them the offices of the popular art digest e-flux.On the Lower East Side today, it may be easier to find teriyaki seitan than kosher pastrami, easier to buy a pair of vintage cowboy boots than a kippa. Nevertheless, “you’ve still got a core group of observant Jewish community members,” says Laurie Tobias Cohen, Executive Director of the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy. And, says Tobias Cohen, the mikvah is a central part of the community: “In no way do I have any sense that it’s in less need or in less use. Being in a community where you can walk to the mikvah any Saturday night, any holiday night, where you know the mikvah attendant, she’s a neighbor; this is a great asset. And I think the community here recognizes that and appreciates it and is very proud.”
As David Rosenberg, a Research Coordinator at the Center for Jewish History, points out, “The fact that it still exists is significant.” Without community use and support, the mikvah would likely have gone the way of the neighborhood’s kosher restaurants and yarmulke shops — shuttered, or at the very least Brooklyn-bound.
“The neighborhood has been transformed,” says Rosenberg, “and even though people are reinventing themselves and saying things like, ‘Well, I’m no longer a shtetl Jew, I work on Wall Street,’ they still think it’s important for them to use the mikvah or to have one in the community. Even the ones who don’t themselves go may be donating to the upkeep or making sure it doesn’t get broken into or turned into co-ops, and that says something really important about the Lower East Side today.”