Museums and historic sites, the world's largest menorah and a trendy new Tribeca restaurant inspired by an old-school Catskills resort. They're all part of Jewish New York, with a heritage that stretches back 400 years and a vital contemporary community that's reinterpreting old traditions for the 21st century.
New York City has the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, according to the Jewish Databank, which put the city's Jewish population at 1.4 million in 2002. The stories of European Jews who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are relatively well-known and easy to find in places like the Lower East Side. But visitors with an interest in Jewish New York will also want to explore many other parts of the city.
An obvious place to start is Ellis Island, where the ancestors of so many American Jews first set foot on U.S. soil. Boats run from Battery Park -- schedules at www.statuecruises.com -- to the National Park site in New York Harbor. The Ellis Island museum offers a wealth of artifacts connected to Jewish immigrants.
From where the boat lets you off on your return to Manhattan, you can walk to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City. Through summer 2012, the museum is hosting a fascinating exhibit about Emma Lazarus. Lazarus' sonnet "The New Colossus" with its famous line "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddles masses," is engraved on a tablet in the Statue of Liberty's pedestal, and Lady Liberty can be seen from the museum.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage was created as a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. Admission, $12 (children 12 and under free); closed Saturdays; www.mjhnyc.org/.
A little farther uptown you'll find a newcomer restaurant with nostalgic ties to New York's Jewish past. Kutsher's Tribeca, which opened in November at 186 Franklin St., is the brainchild of Zach Kutsher, whose grandparents ran Kutsher's Country Club, a popular Catskills resort in its mid-20th century heyday. The menu reinvents and updates favorite Jewish comfort foods, offering savory brisket meatballs, chopped liver made from duck and yummy matzo ball soup with dill. (Kutsher's is not strictly kosher but it does not serve forbidden foods like pork or shellfish.)
Next, head to Chinatown, where Jewish history is hiding in plain sight. Near the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, just south of Chatham Square, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States, at 55 St. James Place. The graveyard was used from 1682 to 1828 by Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Today Shearith Israel's synagogue is uptown at 2 W. 70th St., but the congregation was founded in the 1650s by Sephardic Jews who settled in Lower Manhattan when it was New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony.
The St. James cemetery is one of three historic Shearith Israel graveyards located on lonely Manhattan sidestreets; the others are at 76 W. 11th St., used from 1805-1829, and on West 21st Street west of Sixth Avenue, used from 1829 to 1851.
"It is indeed remarkable seeing these old cemeteries amid all the buildings -- silent tributes to our ancestors and a New York of days gone by," said Rabbi Hayyim Angel of Shearith Israel.
Heading north, where Chinatown runs into the Lower East Side, you'll find the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 12 Eldridge St., www.eldridgestreet.org. It was founded in 1887 as the first great house of worship built by Eastern European Jews in the U.S. In 2007, after a 20-year, $18 million restoration, a museum opened onsite about the synagogue and local Jewish history.
Nearby is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 97 Orchard St., www.tenement.org. The building dates to 1863, but it was a time capsule when the museum acquired it in 1996: Its apartments had been sealed off since 1935. Museum tours ($22) now tell the stories of the people who lived there. The museum also offers "Foods of the Lower East Side," a walking tour ($45) with tastings at neighborhood eateries like Kossar's Bialys, 367 Grand St., and The Pickle Guys, 49 Essex St.
Other worthwhile stops in the area include the Bialystoker Synagogue, organized in 1865 and housed in an 1826 fieldstone Federal style building at 7-11 Willett St.; and the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy, which offers walking tours on New York Jewish history and operates a storefront visitor center at 400 Grand St. with interesting exhibits; www.lesjc.org.
During Hanukkah, the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish outreach organization sponsors the lighting of a massive menorah, 32 feet tall, on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street near Central Park, Tuesday through Dec. 27. Candles are lit at 5:30 p.m., except for the Sabbath, with a 3:30 p.m. lighting Friday and 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Jewish Children's Museum, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (792 Eastern Parkway, Kingston Avenue stop on the No. 3 train), offers hands-on interactive exhibits. Kids can crawl through a challah bread tunnel, go shopping in a kosher supermarket and walk through the creation story from the Old Testament. Museum admission, $10; kids under 2, free; closed Friday-Saturday; www.jcm.museum.
On Manhattan's Museum Mile, the Jewish Museum at 92nd Street and Fifth Avenue is hosting "The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats," a moving tribute to the beloved author of books like "Whistle for Willie." Keats was born Jacob Ezra Katz in Brooklyn in 1916 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The exhibit looks at how the poverty and anti-Semitism he experienced as a child influenced his work.
The Jewish Museum is also hosting an exhibit of 33 Hanukkah menorahs chosen from its permanent collection by another favorite children's author, Maurice Sendak, who wrote "Where the Wild Things Are." Sendak, also born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrant parents, lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust. The Keats and Sendak exhibits are on view through Jan. 29. Admission, $12; children under 12, free; closed Wednesdays; www.thejewishmuseum.org.