10 min read
Little known facts about the setting for the new movie musical.
In the Heights, Lin Manuel Miranda’s joyous Broadway play and new film, focuses on Manhattan’s Washington Heights large Latino community. The neighborhood has also long been home to thousands of Jews. Here are six little-known Jewish facts about Washington Heights' vibrant Jewish history and community today.
The highest point on the island of Manhattan is in Washington Heights. During the American Revolutionary war, Continental Army troops constructed a sturdy fortification at its peak and named it Fort Washington after General George Washington. The site was a key base in defending Manhattan from British forces.
One of the key American patriots fighting in New York was a Jewish immigrant from Poland named Haym Salomon. Soon after arriving in America 1775, Salomon became an enthusiastic backer of American independence. He settled in New York and joined the Sons of Liberty, supporting himself by setting up a brokerage house. Much of his financial acumen went to finding ways to raise money to support the revolutionary cause.
When war broke out, the British arrested Salomon as a spy. Imprisoned for a year and a half, Salomon worked as a translator between the British and the German mercenaries who were fighting in the war during that time. Unbeknownst to his British captors, Salomon used his skills of persuasion to encourage British soldiers to desert and for German mercenaries to support the cause of American independence.
Released then arrested again, Salomon was sentenced to death but managed to escape the British jail. He and his family moved to Philadelphia where he started a new brokerage house. In addition to speaking German, Salomon knew French and he soon became a major point of contact between the Continental Army and French forces who fought the British with them. In 1781, George Washington named Salomon the Superintendent of Finance for the new United States of America.
Over the next four years, Salomon raised $650,000 for the country, a staggering sum in those days. During the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the Continental Army was completely broke and unable to pay American troops. Soldiers threatened to mutiny. Salomon raised the funds required to keep the army going, securing the loans himself. Unable to repay him, the new US Government defaulted on these loans, plunging Salomon into ruin. He died in 1786, at the age of 44, in a debtor’s prison. Meanwhile, the area around Fort Washington became a desirable place for New Yorkers looking for housing.
Washington Heights was gradually built up in the 1800s; many of the area’s residents built grand estates and homes. By the early 1900s, when the subway connected Washington Heights to the rest of Manhattan, the neighborhood began to feel more urban. Waves of impoverished European immigrants began pouring into the area, including Jews from Germany. The neighborhood’s Jewish community got a big boost in 1929, when Yeshiva College restructured and relocated to “The Heights” from the Lower East Side.
Today, Yeshiva University is one of the world’s major Jewish places of learning, educating approximately 7,000 students each year in its many undergraduate and graduate programs. It’s one of the central institutions in Washington Heights.
European Jewish immigrants arriving in New York in 1887 (Frank Leslie illustration)
The institution exemplifies the ideal of Torah Umadda, the study of sacred Jewish texts along with the secular wisdom of the world at large.
Chicago lawyer Ira Piltz, 48, first came to Washington Heights to attend Yeshiva University in the 1990s, and described his experiences in the neighborhood to Aish.com. “I remember walking through the neighborhood and how vibrant it was. There was a lot of life… There were people outside, in the parks, playing music.” Despite the neighborhood's busy character – and the high crime rates that plagued Washington Heights in the 1990s – Piltz recalls the many small mom and pop stores that dotted “the Heights”. “It was a fun neighborhood: vibrant, alive, and colorful.”
While Yeshiva University was turning Washington Heights into one of most significant Jewish locales, another move was on the way: thousands of German Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany started pouring into Washington Heights.
By 1934, the German Jewish community was so numerous that they began a newsletter that evolved into a newspaper called Aufbau. The paper published work by well-known German Jews including Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt. In its inaugural issue in 1934, buried among the many German-language articles is a stirring English language article about the story of Hanukkah, evoking parallels with the dangers in which German Jews found themselves at the time.
During World War II, Aufbu was one of the only newspapers in America to report on the Nazi crimes against Jews during the Holocaust.
After World War II, many Holocaust survivors joined the German-speaking Jewish community in Washington Heights, and for years Washington Heights was dubbed by some New Yorkers “Frankfurt on the Hudson”.
In the 1800s, the Jewish community in Frankfurt in Germany was one of the world’s most distinctive, shaped by longtime Jewish leader Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh (1808-1888). Under Rabbi Hirsh’s leadership, Frankfurt’s Jewish community was proud and self-sufficient, with its own schools and other Jewish communal institutions. Rabbi Hirsch called for Torah im Derech Eretz – rigorously following the path of Torah, while participating in the world.
“The need to strive for absolute human perfection, Kedusha (holiness), is addressed to each and every member of the (Jewish) nation,” Rabbi Hirsch wrote. “No station in life, no gender, no age, no state of personal fortune is excluded” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Parshas Kedoshim). He encouraged his congregants to live full lives as Jews.
A generation later, in 1939, Rabbi Hirsch’s grandson, Rabbi Joseph Breuer (1882-1980) found himself in grave danger from the Nazis. He managed to escape in 1939 and moved to Washington Heights, where he got a job as rabbi in a newly built synagogue there called K’hal Adath Jeshurun. He brought his grandfather’s vision of Jewish self-sufficiency with him.
K’hal Adath Jeshurun
In time, the synagogue would be known simply as “Breurer’s Shul” or just “Breuer’s.” Like his grandfather, Rabbi Breuer encouraged his congregants to build a vibrant community, establishing schools, a mikvah, a chevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) and other communal institutions, which endure to this day. He continued his grandfather’s philosophy of Torah im derech eretz – Torah in the World – insisting that Jewish learning and mitzvot influence daily life.
Alan Ettinger grew up in K’hal Adath Jeshurun synagogue and serves as its president. His parents managed to escape from Germany in the 1930s and eventually made their way to Washington Heights where they built a life together. He described what it was like growing up in the neighborhood to Aish.com.
“It was a bustling, thriving community.” Mr. Ettinger attended the local Jewish school and notes “there are still a number of boys – well now they’re men, older men – who still live in Washington Heights. It was a very cohesive community. I have classmates who I’m still very close with. My classmates’ children and my children were in class together also. There were a lot of Holocaust survivors, people who came right before the war or right after or who escaped the Holocaust.”
He notes that one of Washington Height Jewish community’s unique qualities is that “you can’t tell whose wealthy and who’s not. People here are simple, not ostentatious… It’s a very harmonious community.” There have been many changes in Washington Heights, but that quality of being low key and modest has remained a constant in the Jewish community.
In 1992, The New York Times reported that the Jewish community in Washington Heights was on its last legs. In an article titled “The Last of Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson; A Staunch, Aging Few Stay On as Their World Evaporates”, the paper painted a picture of a Jewish community in its death throes. “The Jewish people that live here now are the old ones and the poor ones,” a local charity worker said: “They are… dying out.”
Yet news of the demise of Washington Heights’ Jewish community proved to be premature. In the 1990s, the area became invigorated by an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Today, the Jewish community is bursting at the seams with younger Orthodox Jews. “The biggest recent change," notes Alan Ettinger of K’hal Adath Jeshurun synagogue, “is that a lot of Jewish singles now live in Washington Heights. It’s all part of the gentrification of New York City.”
As New York’s Orthodox Jewish population has flourished, increasing numbers of young religiously observant Jews have chosen to make their homes in Washington Heights, revitalizing the area. Being one of the most affordable places to live in Manhattan has helped draw younger residents. “Young couples and families are flooding into Washington Heights,” the New York Jewish Week reported over a decade ago, “drawn by affordable rents, convenient commutes and a vibrant Jewish community.”
“I never thought I’d stay this long,” chuckles Rabbi Yaakov Hoffman of Washington Heights Congregation. He first moved to Washington Heights from his native Maryland for college at Yeshiva University, and has called the neighborhood home ever since. “I’ll tell you what makes my shul special,” he noted in a recent conversation with Aish.com. “There’s a lack of emphasis on materialism. It makes it very pleasant to live here. There’s no keeping up with the Joneses.”
His synagogue contains a wide variety of congregants, from young children to people in their 90s. There’s also a very wide range of religious styles and levels of observance. “We respect the diversity.”
Lin Manuel Miranda wrote his stage musical In the Heights while he was in college. He later explained that he was unaware of Washington Heights’ Jewish history at the time, but soon learned. “(T)he summer after I wrote it, I got a job at the Manhattan Times. I started writing articles, and I learned a lot about the history of our neighborhood. I saw that even if there were no Latino people in Washington Heights, it would still be a classic immigrant community, given the large numbers of German and later Russian Jews,” he told The Jewish Week in 2008.
When In the Heights had its first stage run in 2008, Miranda described “older (Jewish) women who come up to me after the show and say ‘I lived on 173rd and Pinehurst in 1943, and it felt just like that.’ We all have immigrant parents and grandparents who did a difficult job that nobody wants to do, so that their kids could do better. And people are responding to the universal nature of that.”
The stage version of In the Heights did have one clue to the neighborhood’s Jewish past. In the last act, when a sign saying “Rosario’s Car and Limousine” is removed from a storefront, underneath can be seen the German word for bakery, Backerei. It’s a hint to the neighborhood’s German Jewish past. One that recently seemed on the brink of extinction, and continues to thrive today.