Jack Eichenbaum and a lesson on Jewish history - Queens Chronicle: Qboro: Arts, Culture & Living

Jack Eichenbaum and a lesson on Jewish history

by Anthony O’Reilly, qboro contributor | Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2019 10:30 am

“Home, where my thought’s escaping/Home, where my music’s playing.” The chorus of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” will be one of the first things attendees of the Queens Historical Society’s Sept. 8 lecture on the Jewish heritage of Queens will hear.

The use of the song is fitting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are perhaps two of the most famous Jews to call the World’s Borough their birthplace. It also describes the life story of the event’s lecturer, Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum.

“I left Queens when I was 20,” said Eichenbaum, “and I never thought I’d return. A few states and countries later, I’m back. So, I, too, was homeward bound at one point.”

And finally, thousands of Jews themselves were homeward bound when they settled in Queens in the early 20th century. Today, close to 200,000 people of Jewish descent call this borough home, and Eichenbaum’s lecture will focus on how the population began to grow here and what separates them from Jews who settled in Manhattan or the Bronx.

Not only that, it will also offer residents a chance to exchange stories of Jewish life in Queens with their fellow residents. “We find that a lot of people find someone who they have something in common with,” Eichenbaum said. “Someone you went to school with, or grew up near. There tends to be a lot of that at historical society events.”

Joseph Brostek, a QHS trustee, encouraged Jews and non-Jews to attend the event to learn more about Jewish heritage in Queens. “These are always such great events,” Brostek said. “A great thing is that we attract knowledgeable people who often share new information and ask interesting questions.”

According to Eichenbaum, who studied migration and urban geography at the University of Michigan, Jews first settled in New York City in what is now Manhattan’s Lower East Side. New subway lines and the Williamsburg Bridge brought them to parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn, where a majority still live today.

It was the addition of new trains and Long Island Rail Road lines, Eichenbaum said, that brought Jews to Queens. Immediately there was something different about them than those in Manhattan and the Bronx.

“They were able to comingle with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds,” he said of Queens Jews. “Whereas the Jewish communities in Brooklyn were mostly Jewish, the Jews in Queens were intermingled with people from other areas.” In other words, they were almost immediately exposed to the diversity that, to this day, separates Queens from the other boroughs.

Today, communities in Forest Hills, Rego Park and Kew Gardens Hills still remain largely Jewish, though many have undergone changes. And synagogues that once had bustling attendance, like the Bayside Jewish Center, have closed in recent years. Still, Jewish heritage is alive and well in Queens and Eichenbaum said he would like to see Jews young and old come out to the lecture.

“We don’t get as many young people out as we’d like to,” he said.

The lecture, he added, will close with another famous Queens resident, though fictional: Archie Bunker. Eichenbaum will show a scene in which Bunker interacts with a Jew — perhaps his famous scene with Sammy Davis Jr.?

You’ll have to be homeward bound on Sept. 8 to find out.

Jewish Heritage of Queens
When: Sun., Sept. 8, 2:30 p.m.
Where: Kingsland Homestand, 143-35 37 Ave., Flushing
Tickets: $5; $3 students, seniors.
(718) 939-0647,
queenshistoricalsociety.org