At 5 p.m. on the last Wednesday in March, Michael Bolla, a New York real estate developer, stood inside Israel Wholesale & Retail Judaica on the Lower East Side, glancing over tables cluttered with Hebrew prayerbooks and Bibles, spice boxes and candlesticks. The store had thrived on this block of Essex Street, between Hester and Canal, for the better part of 60 years. Bolla, dressed in a plaid shirt and a dark down vest, energetically picked out old siddurim and mezzuzas to be paid for and picked up later. He was to be one of the shop’s last customers.
As the “STORE CLOSING” and “TALIS ON SALE” signs in the window attested, the last five years have been tough on its owner, Heidi Yousef, a widow with dark hair and an almost perpetually downturned mouth. Bolla, on the other hand, was determined not to allow her to call it quits. Indeed, he was positively horrified to learn that the store’s landlord expected Yousef to be out two days later, on a Friday night.
“I will call and say the last Judaica store on the Lower East Side can’t get kicked out erev Shabbat,” declared Bolla, an observant Jew.
Never mind that the owner of the Hebrew Religious Articles store, one block along Essex Street, might beg to differ with Bolla about this being the last Judaica store in the neighborhood. Bolla makes a formidable, if unlikely, Lower East Side preservationist.
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.”