The history of the Sutton Place Synagogue can be traced back to 1901. The Congregation Beth Hamidrash Hachhagadol Talmud Torah met in a loft above a blacksmith's on East 50th Street until 1906, when they upgraded to a space at the current address. The building was purchased from Congregation Orach Chayim, who had in turn bought it from a Methodist mission chapel. In 1975, the congregation moved into their current synagogue building and it was renamed "Sutton Place Synagogue -The Jewish Center for the United Nations."
From as early as 1965, when UN Secretary General U-Thant recognized the synagogue as the third religious center serving the United Nations, Sutton Place has prided itself on being an active member of the international, politically minded community in which it is located. From 1981 to 1994, the synagogue welcomed speakers including Elie Wiesel, Henry Kissinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer and a myriad of others as part of their "Jewish Town Hall Lecture Series." These lectures were often so well attended that the whole block would be closed off to traffic, and the talks broadcast to spectators standing outside the building.
The Jewish Town Hall lectures were largely the brainchild of Rabbi David Kahane, the congregation's leader from 1949 until 1993, when he became Rabbi Emeritus. Rabbi Kahane was also behind one of the synagogue's most distinctive traditions during this period: the High Holy Day Services for Singles. These services, according to their official history, were "the first of their kind in New York and in fact, in the United States." More importantly, as Harriet Janover, the former Executive Director and current Director of Programming and Member Services told us, the services resulted in "many marriages." And, though he himself was ordained in the Orthodox tradition, it was during Rabbi Kahane's time at Sutton Place Synagogue that the congregation joined the Conservative movement in the '50s.
Today, they have become increasingly family-oriented, dedicating a new religious school building in 2001 and becoming, in Harriet's words, "more of a relationship-type synagogue." Though, like many congregations, they have grown smaller in size, "we're becoming an intergenerational congregation," she told us. With the popularity of the nursery school and other education programs, "there are children here all day long." Following a push by the female members, the temple has become fully egalitarian in the past decade, the last Conservative synagogue in Manhattan to do so.
The building itself features an impressive, spacious sanctuary refurbished using Israeli craftsmen and materials. It features twinkling stained glass windows depicting Jewish imagery, including the Hebrew names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and various stories from the Torah. Upstairs, there is a rooftop playground and the Marilyn Joy Grosfeld Magical Garden, with quiet perches from which to look down on the waterfall of Greenacre Park below.
Engaging in conversation with Barbara Gerber-Krasner, the president of Or Olam, I learned that they have not always been on 55th Street. The synagogue, founded in 1906, started out in a storefront on Second Avenue. The congregation, known then as B'nei Leive, came to its current site in 1916. The building dates from the 1870s, and was originally a Baptist church. Barbara explained that, though the ceiling is now "acoustical, " if one were to remove it they would see "the normal structure of a church ceiling. " Originally an Orthodox congregation, in 1966 it became Conservative, followed by the hiring of long time Rabbi Reuven Siegel, who served for over forty years. Upon his arrival, he brought the stain glass windows - representing the twelve tribes of Israel and other Jewish symbols - from the Bronx synagogue where he had been. The congregation remains Conservative and was renamed to Or Olam (Everlasting Light) in 2012. Today, the synagogue's focus is on their older congregants, "empty-nesters" in their 50s or 60s, and suburban transplants. "They want to be able to listen to an adult sermon, " Barbara explained. Though Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits leads weekly study classes on Torah and Jewish law where "everyone is welcome to attend, " Or Olam does not offer a children's education program. Instead, they encourage families to enroll in the courses offered through the 92nd Street Y. Generally speaking, Barbara characterized Or Olam as "a very open congregation. " A number of members are married to non-Jewish spouses who attend services with them, and Or Olam is home to an active LGBT community. Barbara told me, in no uncertain terms, that at Or Olam, "we don't have cliques. " New members are welcomed with open arms, and are often given aliyot - the opportunity to read from a Torah scroll in front of the congregation - their first time in the synagogue. Or Olam also offers financial assistance to younger congregants through a program called The Legacy Campaign, another way in which they hope to not have to turn anyone away. "So far we've been managing, " Barbara said. "We hope we can continue. "
One of the oldest congregations (not only in the city, but the country as well), Central Synagogue has been operating out of the same building since 1872. The interior, constructed in the Moorish style by a Jewish architect, Henry Fernbach, appears to be straight out of Central Europe, dappled with colored light twinkling in from the stained glass windows. Right off of the heavily trafficked Lexington Avenue, the calm interior of the synagogue inspires something approaching awe. Many New Yorkers will remember the horrific fire that destroyed much of the building in 1998. Not only did New Yorkers offer support, but so did people from around the world, as they came together in an effort to aid members of this magnificent synagogue. The synagogue reopened its doors in 2001, and today there appears to be no sign of the previous ruination. The Manhattan Sideways team joins me in encouraging people to visit: Tours are given on Wednesdays at 12: 45pm, and it is additionally open to the public on Tuesdays from 12pm-2pm.
Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, which opened in the late summer of 2014, pairs ease with elegance as a welcome addition to 51st Street. “We live in a very fast-paced world. ” In midtown Manhattan, these words resonate. But spoken by Aldo Sohm, seated at a table in his eponymous wine bar, they seem incongruous. “The idea is basically that when you walk in here, you walk into my living room. To me, it’s always important that you be in a place where you feel comfortable. ”Sohm continues his role as wine director at Le Bernardin, the four-star restaurant located across the 6½ Avenue pedestrian plaza. At the wine bar, however, he and Le Bernardin’s co-owners, Maguy Le Coze and Eric Ripert, have created a setting distinct from the formal restaurants in Manhattan, in its simplicity and lack of pretense. To be clear, it shares the elegance and attention to quality of its neighbors. But upon entering, an open arrangement of sofas beckons patrons to sit down. Sohm has noticed guests who arrived separately conversing across tables - sometimes even discussing their choice in wine. And wine is the focus at Aldo Sohm. Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin’s acclaimed chef, oversees the food menu; so, whether wine accompanies lunch, dinner, or a snack, it promises to impress. Guests can order bites to complement a glass of wine, like a grilled foie gras “lollipop” or a warm skewer of baby beets. Shareables include a whole baked cauliflower and a plate of Murray’s cheese with a Maison Kayser baguette. Sohm emphasizes the flexibility of the experience. If not in the lounge area, there are tall square tables for seating. The thick oak “sommelier table” incorporated into the bar seats guests on both sides, ensuring that no one is excluded from conversation. Sohm chose these arrangements intentionally. The wine bar endeavors to be unpretentious, relaxing and fun. Evoking this sensation, the architectural firm Bentel & Bentel incorporated clean lines and bold color in designing the interior. Sohm and his co-owners deliberated considerably in choosing the art in their “living room. ” Ample shelves extend to the double height ceiling, featuring artifacts meaningful to Sohm. Having grown up in Austria, Sohm points out, “I like things very very clean, very European. I like colors on top of it. ” A stack of Interior Design magazines becomes a design object itself as a cube of rainbow spines. The curves of miniature Panton S-chairs, each a different color, mirror the charred wood molds of the delicately hand-blown Zalto glasses in which each wine is served. Sohm is the brand ambassador for Zalto, an Austrian-based glassware manufacturer. To learn more about the varied wine offerings, visitors can reserve the tasting room. Aerial photographs of wine growing regions flank the eight-person table, allowing the sommelier to incorporate a visual element and story of provenance to the tasting. Sohm - once designated the “Best World Sommelier” by the Worldwide Sommelier Association - maintains humility despite his accomplishments. He wants the wine bar to be just as down to earth; an antidote to a demanding day, it exudes precision and sophistication.
While the lineups at Radio City Music Hall have changed dramatically over the years, the "Showplace of the Nation" has long been at the center of the city's entertainment scene. Opened to the public in 1932, the Art Deco building, with almost six thousand seats, was initially intended to "house high-class variety entertainment. " However, the space was later converted to a movie hall, with films accompanied by stage shows. This lasted until 1979 when, for a variety of reasons, Radio City began transitioning into a concert hall. Besides consistently booking some of music's hottest stars, Radio City has also hosted numerous award shows, including The Grammys and The Tony Awards and is the home to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular featuring the Rockettes, a tradition that commenced in 1933.
Saar, which translates to “the essence of something, ” has a double meaning for Pastry Chef Surbhi Sahni. It represents the essence of Indian food, as well as the essence of her relationship with her husband, Chef Hemant Mathur. Although Surbhi has been in the industry with Hemant for years, the two have not worked together on a daily basis since their days at their Michelin-starred restaurants, Devi and Tulsi, both of which are now closed. Saar represents their fresh start while also staying true to their culture and roots. When Surbhi and Hemant met in 2000, Hemant was teaching Indian cooking classes at New York University as he was getting ready to open Tamarind on Park Avenue. Surbhi joined the opening team at Tamarind, designing the tearoom and promoting quick lunches. He went on to operate five different spaces, including Sahib, Haldi, Chote Nawab, Malai Marke, and Chola, while Surbhi helped manage events. During that time, she also launched Bittersweet NYC, a pastry business focusing on wedding cakes and Indian style desserts for larger corporate events. Surbhi’s relationship with cooking is unlike the typical love story of most chefs. Her experience in the kitchen started at the age of ten in New Delhi as more of a responsibility and chore when her mother’s health declined. She explained to members of the Manhattan Sideways team, “It was not something I could ever imagine myself doing for the rest of my life. I wanted to do art and write and paint or sing and dance - every other activity in the world but cook. ” Notwithstanding these sentiments, Surbhi was encouraged by her father to take a job in hotel management in New Delhi. She was part of the Sheraton Group’s revolutionary all-female kitchen and restaurant at a time when there were only approximately twenty female chefs in all of New Delhi. At age twenty-five, however, Surbhi chose to move to the United States to pursue her Masters in Anthropology and Food at New York University. Despite never getting to study writing and painting at university, these endeavors have always been an integral part of Surbhi’s life. Her father is an accomplished artist exhibiting in both India and the US. Today, she is proud of her own teenage daughter, Soumyaa. "She is the true artist of the family. " When entering the dining room on 51st Street, Surbhi’s artistic aptitude is obvious. The modern space is both clean and dramatic, with natural light and bright pops of color. Saar was a particularly exciting project for her, as she was given free rein in its design. In a mere five months, she turned what she described as a dingy, confused room into an open, tasteful dining space. Saar has also allowed Surbhi and Hemant to completely reinvent their menu. They focus on regional food, staying authentic to the specific flavors of each area. For example, Surbhi told us that the Turbuj Pachadi - a tomato and watermelon salad with a fennel and ginger dressing - is a Rajasthani staple, as watermelon is a fruit that is readily available there, and is usually consumed with freshly baked bread. She has also made an effort to challenge conventional conceptions of Indian cuisine. The Mango Coconut Soup is a light and sweet palate opener, proving that Indian food is not always too spicy or a combination of too many flavors. She believes that Indian food is actually very demarcated in the way flavors are put together. “Just how in Japanese food they have many different layers of flavors they add as they’re cooking, we do the same with Indian food. ” While cooking can serve as a creative outlet, Surbhi still tries to write and paint whenever she can. In ending our conversation, Surbhi emphasized the importance of food’s role in building a community - something she looks forward to creating on West 51st Street.