A Tour of Jewish History in the Garment District

In Daniel Levinson Wilk’s course New York City and the Invention of America, which examines capitalism in the city through the 19th and 20th centuries, students lead tours that delve into a slice of the past. Levinson Wilk, associate professor of American History, believes that developing a walking tour is a model for writing essays: “A good walking tour should have a thesis, and every stop is a paragraph.”
One tour last fall looked at the history of Jews in the Garment Center. Its thesis was that a change in Jewish identity, away from traditional customs, contributed to the industry’s decline

Emily Miraglia, Photography ’19, kicked off the tour.

STATUE OF JEWISH GARMENT WORKER • 555 Seventh Avenue

Because Jewish law forbids the mixing of wool and linen in garments, Jews opened factories to make their own clothes—and bolstered profits by making others’ clothes as well. In the 1890s, most of the Garment Center was located below 14th Street, and 90 percent of the businesses were owned by Jews. Michelle Porrazzo, Fashion Design ’18, quoted Gabriel Goldstein of Yeshiva University Museum: “Every bar mitzvah became a garment industry convention. The calendar was marked by the high holidays and Fashion Week.”

The Millinery Center Synagogue is still open most days for services.

MILLINERY CENTER SYNAGOGUE • 1025 Avenue of the Americas

In the past half-century, the children of Jewish garment workers chose white-collar careers over factory jobs. Synagogues, which were not only places of worship but also community centers, became a casualty of declining Jewish representation in the industry.
Opened in 1948, the Millinery Center Synagogue is the last one left in the area. In recent years, it too has fallen on hard times: Cantor Tuvia Yamnik was selling sheets and towels on the sidewalk to keep the lights on.

The class congregated in front of the shuttered fabric store.

PARON FABRIC (closed) • 257 West 39th Street

One of the most famous fabric stores in the Garment District, open for 75 years, closed mere weeks before the tour. The students blamed globalization, corporatization, and rising rents for the changing character of the neighborhood. “Soon there’s going to be no Garment District,” said Zeina Suki, Fashion Business Management ’17. “It’s really sad—it’s a dying industry.”