Chai Culture


At least once a season, I stumble upon an event that reminds me of why I continue to make my home in New York City, despite high costs and tight space. The encounter generally takes me by surprise, reminding me of the rich culture that waits around so many corners.

What follows are 18 experiences Jewish New Yorkers should attempt before their 18th birthday; experiences that can instill Jewish pride and joy. It isn’t a comprehensive list. It certainly isn’t an objective one. It doesn’t make mention of many fine institutions, including some of my favorite Jewish museums in New York. But it might just take your family off the beaten path.

1) Shul-Stoppers: While prayer is the main draw of synagogue life, a few sanctuaries in New York City are either so breathtakingly beautiful or so rich in history, that that are guaranteed to pique the interest and awe of children. Make sure to stop in at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side to enjoy its size and grandeur; at Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side to learn its history (the congregation dates back to 1654) and to view a Sephardic sanctuary; at Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side to learn about Jewish immigrant life and to view the elaborate stained glass windows.

2) Lickety Split: You need only be young at heart (and of arteries) to enjoy a cone of lox ice cream or a vanilla babka at Max & Mina’s kosher ice cream shop, on Main Street, Queens, opened by a pair of enterprising brothers in 1997. The latest scoop?: Max & Mina’s now sells more than 4,000 flavors, mainly wholesale, but offers 60 different options in the store at any time, with the latest creations centering on alcohol (beer, champagne, merlot) and cupcake ice creams (chocolate, strawberry, red velvet).

3) Marvels Of Main Street: While devouring that cone of lox, you might consider taking your troupe for a walk down the street, where you’ll find a series of kid-friendly stores: Makolet Amalia, a kosher grocery which carries a diverse selection of Israeli candy including the Kif-Kef bar (think Kit-Kat), and Israeli snacks such as bamba, the popular, peanut butter-flavored puffed corn. You might also stop at Sifrutake, where you’ll find Israeli books, music and games for all ages. Home-cooks of any age will enjoy Pereg Gourmet Spices, where on a lucky day you can sample treats such as couscous with spinach, pine nuts and raisins.

4) Brighton Beach Memoir: My friend Irina Sheynfeld, who grew up in Odessa, likes to bring her young children to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn at least once a summer. She reports that this community, with its high concentration of Russian-speaking Jews, offers ample opportunity for people watching. “Where else do you see a half naked man in gold chains and suspenders strolling down the boardwalk or high-heeled women in evening attire accompanied by gentlemen in sports outfits out for lunch?” she says. Her children also enjoy the beach, and a visit to Tatiana Restaurant on the boardwalk, “for some kasha-varnishkis and the best borsht outside Russia.”

5) Shababa Shabbat: More than one parent of toddlers wrote me about the magic of Karina Zilberman, whose Friday-morning sessions at the 92nd Street Y have spawned a Shababa movement of sorts. Zilberman, whose sweet voice on the Youtube video brought tears to this mother’s eyes, uses guitar, puppets and scarves to charm her young, shimmying students. She now also offers Saturday morning “Tot Shabbats” as well as challah classes and Havdalah Pajama events.

6) The Music Of Uncle Moishy: My friend Marna, who has six children ages 10 and under, has often spoken about this bearded gentleman whose signature “Mem” adorns a rotating wardrobe of hats. Uncle Moishy, who periodically performs in the New York City region (often along with a “kosher” male circus), may be most mesmerizing for children 5 and under. But even adults will laugh when he belts out his famous “Pizza song” where he clutches his face and sings “Oy yoy yoy” after a mishap with his lunch.

7) Best Bash in the Bronx: Let’s be honest: Simchat Torah just about anywhere can be a frolicking, rollicking good time for the young — and the not-so-young too. What child won’t be entranced by free candy, paper flags and joyful dance, particularly if the weather and security permit the festivities to take place outdoors? But the community of Riverdale, in the Bronx, seems to beat all with their celebration: Every year, after their own services, three congregations — one Conservative synagogue, one left-wing Orthodox, one centrist Orthodox — meet as a community on a blocked-off residential street for further dancing into the night. It teaches a lesson of tolerance. And Torah.

8) The Tenement Museum: The word “museum” doesn’t fully convey the experience provided by this Lower East Side destination, where actors help transport visitors back to the world of poverty and dreams that existed in this neighborhood at the turn-of-the 20th century. Any child familiar with The All of a Kind Family series will be thrilled to “meet” inhabitants of this era, and view the artifacts, from the primitive toilets to the hand-made toys.

9) The Paley Center for Media: Visitors to this Midtown Manhattan facility can watch reruns of old television shows, including several featuring the Jewish comedian Sid Caesar. Jerry Raik, who runs the Havurah School in Manhattan and raised three children in New York City, says that Sid Caesar’s shows were “the breeding ground for such a huge amount of the comedy, all Jewish, of the second half of the 20th century. In my opinion no Jew should turn 18 without exposure to it,” says Raik.

10) Yonah Schimmel Knishes Bakery: The kosher Jewish delicatessen may be a relic of the past, but children can still sample the classic potato-stuffed turnovers, better known as knishes, at this famous Lower East Side knishery. Beware: in addition to the traditional flavors, Yonah Schimmel now sells pizza-flavored knishes and one stuffed with jalapeno & cheese.

11) The Jewish Children’s Museum: In its five years of operation, more 1 million visitors have passed through its doors in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, crafting shofars from real ram’s horns for Rosh HaShanah and rolling out the matzah dough for Passover. There are also permanent exhibits, including a favorite of my nephews, ages 3 and 6: a giant kosher supermarket, where everything is for sale, but nothing is to eat.

12) Kosher Curry Hill: Young eaters with sensitive palates may not appreciate the strip of vegetarian kosher Indian eateries that line a couple of blocks in Murray Hill (affectionately known as Curry Hill). But many teenagers and more adventurous diners will surely appreciate this only-in-New-York phenomenon, never mind the scrumptious samosas and coconut chutney.

13) Kids and Yiddish: Few opportunities remain to experience Yiddish as a living language. But every year for the past decade, young actors in the Kids and Yiddish productions have belted out songs and phrases in the mama loshen, and young audience members have clapped, giggled, hummed along — and even learned a smattering of phrases to impress their grandparents. The cast and talent of these musicals, run by the Folksbiene, vary from year to year, but every New York Jew should experience one (that’s eyns!).

14) Crowd Pleasers: If your children love being part of a scene, in the midst of the action, you might take them to the river, the Hudson that is, in Riverside Park, for tashlich, so they can throw their sins away on Rosh HaShanah along with hordes of others; you might also take them to purchase a lulav and etrog at the open-air market at the corner of Essex and Canal before Sukkot; and come spring, you might also think of traveling through Borough Park, Brooklyn, where my friend Naomi Mark says you’re “surrounded by the experience of Purim in a way you don’t find outside of Israel.”

15) Chanukah On Ice: In one spectacle of the holiday season that doesn’t involve an uprooted evergreen, Chabad-Lubavitch has engineered a feat at that is sure to brighten your child’s evening: For the last four years, Chabad hosts a party at Wollman rink in Central Park. A six-foot tall menorah is lit. It is carved of ice.

16) Teen Theater: My daughter’s friend Emily, age 7, couldn’t stop smiling when we watched a recent production of “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” staged by local teenage talent at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. After the show, Emily, who has thespian talent of her own, literally jumped for joy when she met the young actors. The JCC is just one Jewish institution among many that run popular teen theaters. Other notable ones include the Riverdale Y, and the Y of Washington Heights and Inwood, where Elizabeth Swados directed a show this spring that brought together Dominican and Jewish youth.

17) All Night Long At The JCC: For children who stay sane through the wee hours of the morning, my friend Shira Dicker recommends the Shavuot tikkun at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. “Where else can you do FREE Hebrew karaoke and Israeli dancing and see Israeli films in the middle of the night with hundreds of other Jewish people (while consuming all the cheesecake you can handle!!!)????”

18) Marching Madness: Sure, it can be fun to stand on the sidelines of The Israel Day Parade along with thousands of fellow Jews, waving to the floats, clapping in time to the music. But to march with your community, to be cheered for, street after street — what could be better? And unlike, say, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which permits only a few lucky turkeys to march, The Israel Day Parade welcomes anyone who registers in advance with a participating organization.

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