Though Ohav Sholom may not be as old as some of the surrounding synagogues that can trace their roots back to the nineteenth century, it has a rich history. German Jews founded the synagogue in 1940, in the very beginning stages of World War II, before the United States entered the fight. The founders of Ohav Sholom had managed to make an early escape, fleeing the Nazi regime and relocating to New York. The congregation grew out of a desire to celebrate the founders' pride in their Jewish identity. I spoke to Rabbi Aaron D. Mehlman, who has been Ohav Sholom's rabbi since 1995. He is a dynamic figure, quick to smile and quicker to crack a joke. He showed me around the synagogue, past the sounds of children playing in the preschool upstairs. The congregation moved to the current location in 1955 and the synagogue was renovated in the early 2000s, replacing fluorescent bulbs with warmer light sources, raising the front area, retiling the floor, and repainting the walls. Rabbi Mehlman informed me that the building used to be a one-family townhouse. He and his family now live in the Rabbi's quarters on the top floor, a space that used to be a children's nursery. He took me outside briefly to show me the windows of his home: they are noticeably smaller than the windows on the other floors, demonstrating an early version of child-proofing. Windows were designed with higher bottom sills so that children could not lift themselves up onto them. Rabbi Mehlman told me that he once had the pleasure of glancing at the original blueprints of the building, which were so old that they were written on velum. Whereas many synagogues are large and cavernous, Ohav Sholom is cozy and gives off a strong feeling of home. There are colorful stained glass windows along one side and a beautiful blue parokhet decorating the ark, behind a sliding panel. When I visited, Rabbi Mehlman was in talks with the board to renovate the screen that divides men from women during the orthodox service. Where there was a wire screen, Rabbi Mehlman was hoping to put a different material, such as an opaque or stained glass. Along with leading Ohav Sholom, Rabbi Mehlman has his own kosher certifying business called "Make it Kosher. " The business began thanks to one of his congregants, who had invested in a Dunkin Donuts and wanted to make sure that each step of the doughnut process was kosher. Rabbi Mehlman visited the Dunkin Donut mix plant in Boston, checked it out, gave out a certificate, and "the rest is history. " Along with many local eateries, Rabbi Mehlman continues his relationship with "tons" of Dunkin Donuts, his very first account. I asked Rabbi Mehlman about his congregation, and he mentioned that though many of the congregants are "very" local, some people come from as far as streets in the 50s and 60s, despite the fact that they walk to the synagogue on Shabbat and other holidays. The rabbi joked, "We try discouraging them, but they keep coming! " He then went on to say that he has a sixty to eighty percent turnover rate - "Every three-to-five years I have a new synagogue. " He explained that young people come to the area for school and then have to leave because of the price of rent. There are, however, members of the congregation who have been attending services for generations – "the original crew, " as the rabbi calls them. For example, the gabbai, who orchestrates the services, has been around for fifty years. There is also a ninety-eight year old Holocaust survivor who still tries to make most of the services, despite his age. Rabbi Mehlman then shared with me that this gentleman especially wanted to attend the upcoming service that was about Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people in the Bible. His reasoning for wanting to be there was that he "had seen Amalek, " firsthand, referring to Hitler and the Nazis. The man, currently living on the Upper West Side, survived five different labor and concentration camps. Rabbi Mehlman is extremely proud of his congregation and that there are "no fights here. " He has heard of many synagogues where there are issues with politics, back-stabbing and secessions, but insists that Ohav Sholom has never been plagued with those troubles. "No one's sought to overthrow me, yet, " he joked. Instead, Ohav Sholom is "an oasis of peace in Manhattan. " The rabbi informed me that "Ohav Sholom" means "lover of peace" in Hebrew: "It's like an inside joke. We really get along. "
Congregation Rodeph Sholom was preparing for its 175th birthday when I visited in 2016. The guard at the front desk was kind enough to allow me in and notified Barbara Zakin, the director, that I was interested in learning more about their magnificent temple. I was grateful that she immediately came downstairs to greet me and led me into the sanctuary. It was a breathtaking sight to behold. Seeing the expression on my face, Barbara simply stated, "They don't build buildings like this anymore. " She then went on to tell me that they are "one of the 'Big 5' largest Reform synagogues in the city" with 1800 members. Formed on the Lower East Side by eighty members from Bikkur Cholim, the congregation moved to several different locations before constructing their current building in 1930. Though the congregation started out orthodox, like most nineteenth century synagogues, it transitioned to Reform in 1901. After allowing me a few minutes to stand inside the grand sanctuary, Barbara was then eager to show off the rest of their space. As she described it, "There is a hub of activity going on throughout the building on any given day. " They have a book club, mahjong, theater productions, a Jewish Day School, a homeless shelter, and, she added proudly, "We have even had the same rabbi for twenty-five years. "A few weeks later, I returned with members of the Manhattan Sideways team. On this day, we met with Rachel Evans, the operations director, who gave us a more extensive tour, stopping in a wood panel room, known as the Leader Board Room. Rachel enjoyed telling us that the space had been scouted by various TV shows, including "30 Rock, " who filmed several scenes in the room. We then continued on to the Schafler Room, an event space used for a variety of purposes. The school children utilize the room for recess, and there is a stage where the synagogue puts on a performance each May. The musical series was in its eleventh season after being revived in the mid-2000s and the synagogue was looking forward to "Seussical the Musical" in the spring of 2016. Rachel informed us that the space is also very popular with nonprofit organizations. Galas, auctions, and dinners have all been hosted here, as well as private celebrations such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Continuing our walk, I admired a survival torah mounted on the wall, which Rachel said had been rescued by a Czechoslovakian family after World War II. At our final destination within Rodem Sholom, I found myself standing in the balcony of the sanctuary gazing down in awe, yet again. Turning to Rachel, I commented, "I do not believe that there is a bad seat in the house. " She agreed wholeheartedly.
B’nai Jeshurun is the second oldest congregation in New York City, after Shearith Israel. I spoke to the current rabbi, Jose Rolando “Roly” Matalon, who shared his knowledge of the origin of synagogues in Manhattan. In 1654, Shearith Israel (also known as the Spanish Portuguese synagogue) was formed by a contingency of European Jews, many from Amsterdam, who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. As more immigrants began arriving to Manhattan’s shores, a large group of Ashkenazi Jews - who were worshipping at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue - decided to create their own synagogue. They formed B’nai Jeshurun and began meeting on Pearl Street on the Lower East Side in 1825. Over the years, the congregation steadily moved north until they settled in their current location in 1918. Throughout the twentieth century, B’nai Jeshurun became known for its devotion to social justice and activism. A long line of famous names spoke at the synagogue, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King. The synagogue’s political activism, however, sprung into high gear around the turn of this century. Rabbi Roly spoke of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, his teacher and the orchestrator of a substantial turning point in the synagogue’s history. Meyer was an American rabbi who was a “defender of human rights in Argentina” for twenty-five years while he resided there. By the 1970s, B’nai Jeshurun was in a state of bankruptcy. The congregation reached out to Meyer to lead their revival in 1985. Rabbi Roly followed his teacher to New York shortly afterwards. As he describes it, under the tutelage of Meyer, the synagogue began to “address social issues very aggressively. ” They opened a center for the homeless and a food kitchen. B’nai Jeshurun was also one of the first synagogues to feature music during services. In Rabbi Roly’s words, “the synagogue was doing things that resonated with people, ” and so there was a large increase in membership in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the 1990s also brought a setback: in 1991, the ceiling of the sanctuary collapsed. B’nai Jeshurun was already in talks with the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew about how they could work on social justice programs together. The church offered their facilities to the congregation while the ceiling was rebuilt. “They were incredibly generous and kind, ” Rabbi Roly told me. The church and the synagogue still have a close friendship. In 2010, the synagogue requisitioned the back of the sanctuary’s building, which had been sold to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in 1984. The building has been used to accommodate the congregation of over 1600 families. Rabbi Roly is proud to lead “a community that is devoted and engaged. ” He describes the congregants as “people who step forward and embrace their spiritual journey readily. ” Throughout the synagogue's history, its occupants have “always been ready for the next challenge. ” And to those who are not yet part of the synagogue’s family, he says, “We are always open and ready to welcome and embrace people who want to join our journey and explore community with us. ”
When Susan Weber, an American historian, came across the six-story townhouse at 18 West 86th, she knew that she had to do something extraordinary with it. Though Susan received an art history degree from Barnard College, in 1993, she chose to establish the Bard Graduate Center, where advanced students can study humanity's past through the materials it leaves behind. The Center, which is affiliated with Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is one of only three schools where someone can receive an advanced degree in decorative arts. The degree also focuses on Design History and Material Culture. The program has an excellent reputation for students who wish to pursue a career in a museum. Hollis Barnhart, the Communications Manager for the Center and Gallery spoke to me about the Gallery as "a way of opening something to the public. " The gallery had its first exhibit in October of 1993, called Along the Royal Road: Berlin and Potsdam in KPM Porcelain and Painting, 1815-1848. Since then, the gallery has hosted countless exhibits that, in Hollis' words, "study the things that people have used from antiquity to now. " The exhibits have spanned a wide range of topics from Central European cast iron and English silver to Swedish glass and Indian jewelry. Hollis was proud that the gallery exhibitions can feature everything from “caveman spoons to gold pieces. ”The gallery does not have a permanent collection, and so items are often borrowed from museums and collections from around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Gallery displays have included many exhibits in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. One of the gallery’s most popular shows was a collection of hats curated by Stephen Jones, a famous British milliner. Since 1996, the gallery has worked with Yale University Press to print beautiful catalogues that accompany each exhibition. Though graduate students occasionally have a hand in designing the main exhibitions, they are very hands-on when it comes to the smaller exhibits, called "Focus Projects. " These are curated displays that mark the culmination of a workshop or seminar. They function both as final projects for students and additional learning opportunities for guests. When I visited the gallery, the graduate students were preparing a collection of materials that demonstrated how the indigenous people of Oceania in the Pacific displayed and adapted their identity in the face of colonial powers. The main exhibition fascinated me: it was an in-depth look at the history of wooden toys from Sweden. The toys dated back to the 1600s and included everything from little planes to detailed doll-houses. The show explored how the toys underscored Sweden's reliance on their expansive forests and how wooden toys are respected throughout the world. As Hollis explained, many of the exhibits tend to have "An international flavor. "
City Swiggers, which opened in 2011, is where casual and professional overlap. The atmosphere of the beer shop / tasting room is neighborly and homey, but each staff member is an encyclopedia of beer information and each bottle has been chosen with the utmost care. The eclectic space, which contains both bar stools and tables, can seat a few dozen people, while the shop experiences the majority of its business from clients grabbing beer to-go. We heard an all too familiar story from owner, Alan Rice, who left the world of finance in order to further explore his passion for beer. Alan said simply, "I loved beer" and then corrected himself: "I still love beer. A little too much, maybe. " The shop, which carries over 900 beers, always has samples of new varieties. Regulars often come in and try the new brews with the staff. Alan believes that he may have the largest selection in the city. The taps are constantly being swapped out, to the point where after two weeks, the beers provided at City Swiggers have completely changed over. In addition to selling bottles, cans, flights, and pints, Alan mentioned that City Swiggers will fill any growler, even those that are not their own. Alan's wife, Pam, has a lot to do with the cozy atmosphere at City Swiggers. She has created most of the artwork - often made from recycled items - that adorns the store. When Manhattan Sideways visited during the winter, we noticed the snowflakes made from six-pack plastic on the front doors, as well as the beer can mobile in the back. Though there is a set of prints on one wall that Pam designed, the larger paintings lining the walls were created by a friend. Pam is also the inspiration behind the small bites offered at the bar. She is the leader of the Veggie Pride Parade and the head of a Vegan newsletter, so City Swiggers offers vegan empanadas from V-Spot. In addition, there are soft pretzels from Schaller and Weber, a German cafe. And for those of us who are not fond of drinking beer, City Swiggers offers wine by the glass and a large array of ciders. Samantha, the extremely knowledgeable bartender who began working at City Swiggers in 2014, was discovered by Alan while she was working at a nearby cafe. He was impressed with all the facts that she was able to rattle off about beer. He invited her to join him and she started that week. Samantha began educating us as she explained that to "tap" a beer is to attach a hose to a keg, but to "pour" a beer is to fill a glass from the tap. She went on to say that one of the most important things to think about in choosing a beer is the freshness of the hops, and that the definition of "cider" differs not only from country to country but from region to region. She also informed us that she had just taken her test to become a cicerone, which is essentially a sommelier for beer. The first master cicerone, we learned, was a woman from the UK. Whereas Samantha admitted that she liked sour beers and super fresh IPAs, Alan stated that he has "always liked variety, " which explains why his store contains such a diverse array. Samantha poured a flight for us so that the team could see just how varied the stock could be. They tried a light melon Gose (a German beer that was cooling and fruity), a tart Wild Ale with red-currents, a red double IPA that was especially hoppy, and an imperial stout with a chocolaty finish. The Manhattan Sideways Team left City Swiggers with their bellies warmed, their thirst quenched, and their heads bursting with beer knowledge.
When I sat down in the minister's office at West Park Presbyterian Church, the first thing I asked was his name. He responded, "I am going to give you the whole thing, and you decide how much you would like to include. " It is a name to be proud of - Reverend Doctor Robert Brashear. Though originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert has been at the church since 1995. He first came to New York for an internship from 1982-83, and enjoyed his time in the city so much that he leapt at the opportunity to return when it was presented to him years later. The church has a fascinating history. It was originally formed under the name "North Presbyterian Church" on Bleecker Street in 1829 in response to the growing population of people moving north to escape the Yellow Fever. The congregation soon split and one group became the West Presbyterian Church, moving to a building on Carmine Street. In the meantime, the Park Presbyterian Church was formed on 84th Street thanks to the efforts of A. Phelps Atterbury in 1887. In 1890, Park Presbyterian moved into the red sandstone structure on 86th Street and the two congregations, West and Park, merged in 1911. The church received landmark status in 2000. West Park Presbyterian has always been at the forefront of a lot of political and social issues. In 1978, the church was one of the first to jump into the LGBT movement - the Reverend believes that the shift towards the religious embrace of homosexuality actually started in this church. He explained that the church was the first to perform gay marriages and "acknowledge them as just that. " In terms of other social movements, the Reverend also declared that Senior Housing had its birth on 86th Street. Additionally, during Occupy Wall Street when the people were pushed out of Zuccotti Park, activists were invited to take up housing in the church. Some remained for close to a year. Robert is proud that although the church's membership only consists of a few dozen families, they are continuously written up and receive excellent reviews for the cultural events that they hold. According to the Reverend, the tightly knit community at West Park Presbyterian will always be on the "cutting edge" - where things happen.
Everybody at Maz Mezcal, whether they work at the restaurant or dine there as a customer, is considered to be a member of the family. It is difficult not to break into a smile after entering the space and being greeted not only by the warm, bright colors of the decor, but also by the friendly staff, led by their matriarch Mary - or most commonly and affectionately, "Mama. "Mama's story seems to be right out of a fairytale. She is possibly the only non-Mexican member of the restaurant staff, having grown up in Indiana. She met the now-owner of Maz Mezcal, Eduardo Silva, when she was sixteen-years-old and he was eighteen. Eduardo, whose family is from Mazatlan, Sinaloa in Mexico, was stationed in Indiana with the army. One day, his car ran out of gas and along came young "Maria" to his rescue. She helped him out by purchasing the necessary gas. Eduardo left for Vietnam, but the two teenagers wrote to each other throughout his time overseas. When he returned, the couple moved to New York, where Eduardo's father already had a few restaurants on the Upper East Side, and joined the culinary world. Mary, who had never even eaten in a restaurant and had never heard Spanish spoken before meeting Eduardo, was thrown into a totally new world that she embraced from the beginning. She told me that when the couple was living with Eduardo's parents, Eduardo's mother refused to speak to her in English, even though the older woman knew how. As a consequence, in part, Mary is now fluent in Spanish. Maz Mezcal originally opened up a few doors down from its current location in 1972. Though she has since handed over the full responsibility of cooking to the chefs, Maria prepared most of the meals for many years after they opened. Eduardo was, and has always been, the primary decorator. Mama got a bemused look on her face when she spoke about the eclectic items that Eduardo brings back with him every time he visits Mexico. The restaurant is filled with the beautiful and quirky calacas (the skeletons commonly used for Day of the Dead decorations) that Eduardo collects during his travels. And they are particularly popular when the restaurant hosts a set of Halloween parties each year - "one for kids and one for adults. "In 1987, Maz Mezcal moved to its current location. Just as Mary and Eduardo were starting to settle into their new location, and one month before their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, their daughter Gabi came along. "She was a huge surprise, " Maria said, giving her daughter a hug. It was clear even from my limited interaction with the mother and daughter that not only is Gabi a wonderfully friendly, polite, and jubilant member of the team, but she is also an enormous help. She knows the restaurant like the back of her hand, having essentially grown up in it. Gabi happily told us that she has been walking across the street to Maz Mezcal from their apartment almost every day since she was four years old and she has been taking on the duties of a hostess since she was eight. Her best friends growing up were the children of Maz Mezcal's employees, who have now similarly grown up to join their parents at the restaurant. "It takes a village, " Gabi said, to which her mother gave a proud smile. This particular village includes the customers. Mama is proud of the strong following that Maz Mezcal has accrued and loves when diners say things like, "How old is Gabi now? So old! " Today, decades later, people whom Mama remembers as teenagers are now dining here with their grandchildren. The whole circle of life is contained under Maz Mezcal's roof. Always one to appreciate a walk through the kitchen, I stopped to take a look at the lineup of ingredients that tended towards bright red, green, and purple colors. There were bowls of multi-colored chips and vats of freshly made guacamole and salsa - at three different levels of spiciness. I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the other "family" members. Jose, who has been with the restaurant since the early 1980s, was there, along with Antonio, a fifty-one year old man who started working with Mama when he was fifteen. I learned further examples of how everyone at the restaurant is part of the same network: Gabi's nanny when she was a baby was Antonio's godmother, and Juan's aunt is grandmother to Johnny, another one of Gabi's co-workers and former playmates. While sampling some of the amazing dishes and sipping on a variety of margaritas, Joe, a regular, came and seated himself at the bar - but not before giving Mama a hug. He then turned to no one in particular and declared, "This is one of the last authentic places on the Upper East Side. " We understood perfectly: Even though we were sitting in a beautifully decorated restaurant, we felt as if we were being treated to a home-cooked meal surrounded by family. Gabi nodded when we said this and added, "Everything is made with so much love and attention because we want people to be at home here. It's great that after a long day, this is where people want to come. "