Judaica Store’s Savior Seeks to Rebuild LES Jewish Community

Israel Wholesale & Retail Judaica may have a new life as an Israeli handicrafts and kosher coffee shop. (Photo by By Paul Berger / The Jewish Daily Forward)

Amid the awnings of dumpling shops and tattoo parlors, hip bars and car service dispatch offices on Essex Street in the Lower East Side, one remnant of the area’s Jewish past remains, The Jewish Daily Forward reported last week. Israel Wholesale & Retail Judaica, a store that specializes in Jewish religious paraphernalia and artifacts, is one of the only stores of it’s kind left in the neighborhood, and business has been slow.

The street signage along Essex Street tells you everything you need to know about why Israel Judaica is struggling. Where once every other sign was in Hebrew or Yiddish, today most are in English or Chinese. Apart from the occasional tourist, the foot traffic consists mainly of Asians and blacks, hipsters and down-and-outs, who have little need for Haggadot, ketubot or kitschy bedside clocks decorated with a hamsa.

Sitting in a chair in the store, [owner Heidi] Youseff, who had too little energy to stand at the end of the day, said she decided to close her business two years ago, but something made her hold on. “I said, maybe it’s going to be better. Maybe it’s going to be better,” she explained. But business never did improve. Around her, on the floor, across tabletops and shelves, was the flotsam of years in the Judaica business: a box of yarmulkes here, a pile of machzorim there. A stack of ketubot, reduced to clearance price, at $30, leaned disconsolately against the wall, while a Torah cover, dedicated to Isidor Koppel, slumped by the open door. Yousef’s only solution to stay in business: “I sell it by Internet.”

But Yousef’s fortunes have changed in the last week or so, after the developer Michael Bolla — whose high-end condo development nearby, the Madison Jacson, is designed to attract observant Jews back to the area, with Kosher food and a pool with single-sex swimming times — stepped in to save her 60-year-old store.

Bolla told the Wall Street Journal that he has bought out the lease on the property and will spend $100,000 on renovations to re-open the store as Tante Esther’s, with Israeli-made crafts and perhaps a kosher coffee bar.

The Forward offered some background on Bolla:

Raised in Saddle River, N.J., the 43-year-old developer, a managing director at Prudential Douglas Elliman, is best known for converting faded Lower East Side institutions into sleek, Yuppie sanctuaries. Bolla was among the developers who turned the old Forward building, across Seward Park diagonally opposite Yousef’s store, into multimillion dollar condos. His latest project, the Madison Jackson building, is a former public school where 110 units will go on sale next month, at prices between $435,000 and more than $1 million.

Later, over an organic salad in Brown Cafe on Hester Street, Bolla described how he came across Yousef’s predicament. “I was literally walking by the store and I saw this woman standing [outside] with these old candlesticks,” Bolla explained, “and I said, ‘Darling, what are you doing?’ She said, ‘I have no customers.’ And I said, ‘You are not going to get them like this, darling.”

Reviving Yousef’s store is part of Bolla’s larger plans for the Lower East Side.

Bolla said he had a “visceral reaction” to Yousef’s plight. He has a nightmare vision of a Lower East Side in which all of the old Hebrew and Yiddish stores are gone. Saving stores like Yousef’s and bringing more Jews to the Lower East Side — the Madison Jackson building will serve kosher food 24 hours a day to those tenants who want it — are part of his ambitious dream. (In an April 3 telephone call, Bolla pledged to cover Yousef’s rent over the coming months, but he was vague about what the future would look like for Israel Judaica. Yousef’s stock would have to improve, he said: “We have to give her a concept. We’ve got to get her moving.”)

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