Harlem's Good Ol' Days

Music Exhibit Recalls Another Time For Jews and Blacks

By Seth Berkman

Published January 18, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page
Video: Nate Lavey


Just south of the bustle of Harlem’s famed 125th Street corridor, a mix of brownstones and churches in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park neighborhood prospers today as home to a large working-class black population. But walk down these streets with John T. Reddick, and he will show you the remnants, still-visible, of the vibrant Jewish life of the early 20th century, which forged a rich era of musical collaboration between blacks and Jews.

There, etched high atop the facade of apartment buildings on 119th Street, are Stars of David, created when Jewish residents began moving uptown from the tenements of the Lower East Side. A few buildings down on 119th Street stands Emanuel A.M.E. Church, originally Temple Mount Zion, where future comedian Milton Berle was bar mitzvahed. On 120th Street, composer Richard Rodgers lived next to Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, a popular composer, known as “The Jewish Caruso,” who led prayers at Congregation Ohab Zedek, then located at 116th Street. The cantor’s building bordered the house of lyricist Lorenz Hart, Rodgers’ songwriting partner, to the north. Hart, often annoyed by Rosenblatt’s constant singing from his backyard, would throw water out his window and onto the cantor’s head.

Harlem Renaissance Man: Architect and historian John T. Reddick highlights Harlem’s black and Jewish legacy in his exhibit “Harlem’s Black and Jewish Music Culture: 1880-1930.”
Nate Lavey
Harlem Renaissance Man: Architect and historian John T. Reddick highlights Harlem’s black and Jewish legacy in his exhibit “Harlem’s Black and Jewish Music Culture: 1880-1930.”

”People think it was Jewish and became black, but it was a shared community,” said Reddick, an African-American architect and historian who has lived in Harlem since 1980.

These days, Reddick is reviving this forgotten history through an exhibition of sheet music and photos from the era. “Jews worked with black performers behind the scenes, and I want to get across the richness of the engagement and the proximity in which they lived,” he said.

The restaurant Settepani on 120th Street and Lenox Avenue is hosting Reddick’s exhibit, “Harlem’s Black and Jewish Music Culture 1890–1930,” through the end of February. The restaurant’s walls are adorned with about 50 sheet music covers featuring artists and performers like actress and singer Sophie Tucker, Tin Pan Alley composer Abe Holzmann and Sigmund Romberg, whose popular operettas were performed by such singers as Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Music companies often hired artists with similar illustration styles to create these sheet music covers. One such artist was Harlem resident Al Hirschfeld, who drew caricatures for The New York Times. The images provide a glimpse into the musical and social atmospheres of the era. There are images with performers in blackface, as well as ones that endorse racial equality.

“Holzmann really looked at us in a different way, and his images are really diverse, upscale,” Reddick said. “It was blacks in a middle-class imagery, and that’s what blacks were trying to promote.”

Holzmann lived on West 122nd Street in Harlem and attended the National Conservatory of Music under Antonin Dvorak, who, particularly in his symphony, “From the New World,” was strongly influenced by black composers and Harlem residents Will Marion Cook and Harry T. Burleigh,

Another performer who collaborated with black artists was Tucker. She appeared onstage at the Lenox Casino on 116th Street, which is now a mosque where Malcolm X once gave speeches. Tucker began her career often performing in blackface, but she evolved into one of the era’s best-known performers of blues, ragtime and Yiddish music.

Jonathan Karp, director of the American Jewish Historical Society, said Jewish immigrants from Europe had experience as brokers and intermediaries, which also enabled them to act as mediators of black culture in Harlem. By the 1920s, Jews were heavily involved in publishing, booking agencies and eventually independent record labels specializing in black music.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.