J. Levine Books and Judaica: Jewish History in Motion
The company was founded in Lithuania in 1890 by Rabbi Hirsch Landy and brought to the New York’s Lower East Side when he immigrated there in 1905. Landy was a scribe who started to sell the scrolls he produced. In 1920, his son-in-law, Joseph Levine expanded the business. A small Judaica shop was opened at 73 Norfolk street where it was located until 1963. This is the first of many instances of the next generation of Levines expanding the business to fit that time’s cultural and economic climate.
The block with the original store was torn down in 1963 and the store moved to 58 Eldridge Street, a narrow, tenement lined street in the heart of the neighborhood’s Jewish immigrant community. J. Levine’s wasn’t the only Jewish store in the area, not even the only bookstore. At that time, the Lower East Side was the world’s largest Yiddish-speaking community, with a Jewish population reaching more than half a million by 1910. At this time, Landy’s son-in-law, Joseph Levine, went on to expanded the business to become the largest manufacturer of synagogue vestments.
At the same time as Joseph Levine bringing new ideas to the business, an article about Jewish bookstores appeared in The Outlook. In it, the reporter amazes at the sheer number of bookstores in the Lower East Side, despite it essentially being a poor Jewish neighborhood. But what he says later makes sense when you look at the specific example of J. Levine Books and Judaica. The reporter paints a picture of Jewish bookstores that in many ways is stereotypical, but he is on to something when he speaks of the bookstore being a place where members of the community can gather. He says, “there are usually from six to a dozen men…standing about in groups discussing with every appearance great excitement”. This excitement has certainly carried over to today’s iteration of the store. The store’s Facebook page is not only full of posts, those posts themselves are often commented on or shared by the store’s loyal customers. This is today’s version of standing around in a bookshop talking to each other. The Outlook article also mentions a trait of these Jewish bookstores that is still around today. From the outside, “they look like shops for the sale of ritualistic accessories”. The windows, “are filled with prayer shawls…brass candlesticks” and many other non-book items. When looking at J. Levine Books and Judaica, this model of design can probably be accredited to Joesph’s sons.
After Joseph’s success his three sons, Harold, Seymour and Melvin, further developed the business into more of a department store of Jewish books and Judaica, similar to what it is today. Seymour handled the business and public relations side of the business. He traveled to conferences and Jewish gatherings around the country to exhibit wares. This gave the store a presence nationally as well as locally. After the brothers retired, J. Levine Books and Judaica moved to the heart of midtown Manhattan under the leadership of Danny Levine, Landy’s great-grandson. This 1986 move was a part of the “Jewish exodus from the Lower East Side”. This mass move away from the Lower East Side was largely a result of the post-World War Two economic boom. With economic prosperity came mobility, and those sons and grandsons of Jewish immigrants moved to the Bonx, Queens, Long Island, and New Jersey. As the Jewish people left, so to did thier businesses, and they were quickly replaced by the next wave of immigrants, these ones from China. By the 70’s, many Jewish owned stores began to wither and die from lack of Jewish patronage. By the time of J. Levine’s move, the Lower East Side was becoming more and more Chinatown, a shift that though paralleling the Lower East Side’s Jewish immigration past, pushed those same lingering Jewish immigrants families away to greener pastures.
Fishkoff, Sue. “From Bagels to Dim Sum.” Jerusalem Post (1993): n. pag.ProQuest.
“Jewish Bookstores of the Old East Side.” The Book Peddler 17 (1992): 20-23. Print.
Robin, Joshua. “Sounds of New Year, The Shofar, Traditionally Used during Rosh Hashanah, Can Be a Ram’s Horn or That of Other Animal.”Newsday [Long Island] 3 Oct. 2005: n. pag. ProQuest.
All Images from J. Levine Books and Judaica’s Facebook page.