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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.”)
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, 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.”
Despite the imploring signs in the window and a table out front hawking candlesticks and menorahs, few shoppers ventured inside. A homeless woman with an Irish accent and a large gash above her eye — “I’m Irish Catholic,” she said repeatedly — stopped by to lament Yousef’s plight and then to beg for money.
Apart from Bolla, the only prospective customer that day was an elderly Romanian Jew wearing thick black glasses and holding a tefillin bag in shaky hands. He asked to see the tefillin boxes and began methodically testing each one to see whether it was big enough.
The man gave his name as Avraham Chaim, his age “over 65.” Chaim said he had lived in an apartment building across Seward Park since 1948. He remembered when Jewish religious life teemed on the Lower East Side, when shops like H&M Skullcap, on Hester Street, and the “sfarim” or Jewish holy book stores on Essex Street, served the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in the surrounding blocks.
“Like every neighborhood it has changed,” Chaim said, as another tefillin case proved to be too small. “Although I can’t complain, it’s a very nice element that came in.”