Exploring NYC

The Statue of Liberty

BY JUDY KAPLAN, Special to the Light

The Harrisons, my maternal relatives, came by that name in an interesting way. Although the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society coached my grandfather, Morris (a.k.a. Papa) on the entry questions he was required to answer at Ellis Island, Papa became nervous and confused. Face-to-face with the immigration officer he thought he was asked, “Who is the current president?” With great confidence my grandfather announced, “Harrison,” who was president at the time.

Right answer. Wrong question.

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Actually, the officer was just asking Papa his name. Thus, the name Harrison became my maternal family’s patronymic name, following Papa as he traveled south to Kentucky, settling in Louisville (pronounced Lull-Vull for the accent-challenged).

What would Mama and Papa say now if they could see their great, great grandchildren, in flip flops and Nikes, run up the 186 steps to the pedestal of the colossal Statue of Liberty, the 305-foot monument (from ground to top of torch)? After all, the great Statue was their first glimpse of freedom when they arrived in America 110 years ago.

At least that’s what I was thinking as my husband and I toured Ellis Island with our grandchildren during a trip this summer. We went to New York with a fixed itinerary, which included wanting our grandkids to understand more about their Jewish roots. We figured seeing some of the same places their ancestors experienced when they first got to the United States would be a great way for them to learn.

“When I first saw the Statue I knew it was special to a lot of people because when the immigrants first saw it from their ships they knew they were finally free and could live a good life,” marveled my 13-year-old granddaughter, Jordan. “It makes you wonder how something so big and so complex is designed and then built.”

Grandson Matthew, age 12, was impressed with the verbiage of Lady Liberty’s enormous tablet (over 23 x 13 feet): “Seeing her tablet inscribed with ‘July 4th, 1776′ in Roman numerals, the day we became a nation, stands out in my mind,” he remarked.

Beginning July 4, 2009, visitors are once again allowed to climb the stairs to the top of the Statue of Liberty’s crown, which was closed after the 9/11 attacks for safety and security reasons. However, doing so requires planning because only a limited number of “crown tickets” are sold. Other tickets, to the pedestal for instance, are more available at wwww.statuecruises.com and www.statueofliberty.org.

Visitors who buy ferry and entry tickets online for the Statue of Liberty, can also purchase a combination ticket that includes Ellis Island (www.ellisisland.org). My recommendation: take an early ferry and tour Lady Liberty; reboard the ferry for Ellis Island and have lunch as soon as you arrive before the café gets crowded; then see the free movie. There will be time later to tour the facility and check your family’s arrival history on the computers.

“The movie at Ellis Island was especially interesting,” continued Matthew, “because it explained how hard it was and how important it was for our ancestors to leave their country, their homes and their jobs and come to America. It made me sad when I saw that the people left everything they owned in order to come here. And, it also made me sad to learn that some of the people were told they had to go back because they had an eye disease (trachoma) or heart disease.”

The return-ferry docks in The Battery is a short walk to Ground Zero. Having visited Ground Zero many times, the first being a month after the terrorist attacks, the deep despair continues as re-construction has progressed at glacier-like speed. On the other hand, it is still plain to see just how vast the devastated area covers. The children were surprised that the rebuilding of the Twin Towers had not been completed. How do you explain to youngsters that “politics” takes its toll validating Sir Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

We toured the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side at 108 Orchard Street. Of the five excursions offered at the museum, we chose “Piecing It Together,” a tour of two restored apartments that had been lived in by Eastern-European Jewish families when the neighborhood was the most densely populated place on earth, according to the museum’s statistics. We climbed the dark, narrow, wooden staircase of the ancient building, hearing the stairs squeak at every step, noticing the thick layers of paint and feeling the suffocating heat. Our docent explained how the Levine family operated a garment factory in their tiny, three-room apartment (500-square feet) while raising their children in the same space. It is estimated that this building at 97 Orchard Street was home to 7,000 people from more than 20 nations between 1863 and 1935.

“Even though I knew that the immigrants didn’t bring much to this country, I was so surprised to see how people lived. It must have been really hard, especially in summer with no air conditioning. All the people lived together in such a small space and the whole building had to share four bathrooms outside. They did all this so that their kids would have a better life. I’m sure happy they came,” Jordan commented.

“While the Statue of Liberty made me feel excited; and Ellis Island made me feel curious; the Tenement Museum made me feel appreciative of my life-that I can go with my grandparents and visit New York…that’s pretty lucky, you know? It was an awakening that puts things in a different perspective,” mused 15-year-old Jason.

Remember the restaurant scene in the movie “When Harry Met Sally?” It was filmed at Katz’s Deli. Do you recall the phrase, “send a salami to your boy in the Army?” It, too, was coined at Katz’s.

Located at 205 East Houston in the same Lower East Side neighborhood as the Tenement Museum, the restaurant is no longer owned by the Katz family, but the Kosher-style eatery still proudly offers offensive service-people at the counter, along with great food and its trademark method of smoking, pickling and curing meat that was first used when the store opened in 1888.

Whether you feast on the pastrami or turkey sandwiches, piled high with meat so hot and succulent it could melt the sands of the Sinai; or indulge in the three Ks-kasha, kishka and knishes; or even a hot dog, be sure to wash it all down with a New York egg cream. But, I admonish you not to ignore this well-known tradition: Tip the servers at the counter before they take your order-just to garner their attention.

Also, located in the Lower East Side on 12 Eldridge Street is the restored Eldridge St. Synagogue (www.eldridgestreet.org). Opened in 1887 just in time for the High Holidays, it was the first great house of worship built by East-European Jews in the United States. Between 1880 and 1924 two-and-a-half million Jews entered this country. Close to 85 percent came to New York City; 75 percent settled in the Lower East Side. A vital community sustained the synagogue for the first 40 years. But, by the 1950s the Jewish community declined and the remaining congregation could no longer afford the repairs needed, sending the building into a rapid decline. By the 1970s pigeons roosted in the balcony, dust blanketed the wood and grime coated the stained-glass windows. Finally, in 2007 after an amazing restoration project, the synagogue became the magnificent edifice it once was. Visitors can view the 50-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling; the restored stained-glass windows; the carved-walnut ark, still lined with its original crimson velvet. The synagogue today is one of the best preserved and last-remaining edifices built by the Eastern European immigrants.

This trip, while punctuated with shopping, restaurants, theater, museums and a Mets game, made a deep impression on Mama and Papa’s progeny who have a new appreciation for what it means to work hard, save your money, sacrifice for one’s children and want the next generation to have a better life.

Attraction discounts

New York City Pass: www.citypass.com

Explorer Pass: www.SmartDestinations.com/newyorkcity

Kid-friendly restaurants

Chez Josephine: 414 West 42nd Street-great for pre-or post-theater dinner.

Katz’s Deli: 205 East Houston Street, Kosher-style deli.

Centro de Vasco: 159 West 23rd Street, Spanish, seafood (dinner).

Le Paris Bistro Francais: 1312 Madison at 92nd Street (dinner) .

Dylan’s Candy: 1011 Third Ave at 60th Street (lunch or dinner).

Max Brenner Chocolate: 14th Street at Broadway, Union Square (lunch or dinner).

Isabella’s: across from the Natural History Museum, 359 Columbus Circle (lunch).