A Jewish Literary Map of New York City

Mapping Manhattan through its Jewish literary history makes both a great reading list and walking tour.

jewish literary map

There are infinite ways to create a diagrammatic representation of an area of land—whether it depicts physical features like mountains or roads, or is a cultural look back at history or landscapes of interest. In Katharine Harmon’s new book, You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City, the author, editor, and curator assembles over two hundred maps charting every inch and facet of the five boroughs, illustrating New Yorks of past and present, and even a city that never was.

While the book pinpoints three hundred sites, including the alleged location of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure; the Ghostbusters subway map and locations of New York’s smelliest blocks, we here at Read it Forward like thinking of New York City as defined by the authors who have called this city home.

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Our favorite map in You Are Here is the one seen below, A Jewish Literary History of New York City. This map, by Dani Crickman, was commissioned by the Jewish Book Council in 2015 and features quotations from books by twenty-five Jewish writers, and the corresponding cross-streets where these selections occur. By celebrating the rich history of New York City’s past, as told through its Jewish authors, we remember what a melting pot this city is, made possible by reflecting on all the many voices found here.

Click on the white dots below to expand the quotations, then click on each book jacket to learn more about these incredible reads that span one hundred years of Jewish history in New York City from 1916—2016.

Jewish Literary Map of New York

Visible City, Tova Mirvis

“In a city that never stops changing, a glass apartment tower is slowly being built among the brownstones and pre-wars, and the paths of three couples intersect in its shadow.”


Seize the Day, Saul Bellow

“Along Broadway in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, a great part of New York’s vast population of old men and women lives. Unless the weather is too cold or wet they fill the benches about the tiny railed parks along the subway gratings from Verdi Square to Columbia University, they crowd the shops and cafeterias, the dime stores, the tearooms, the bakeries, the beauty parlors, the reading rooms and club rooms.”


The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, Lucette Lagnado

“My jaunty gray Cicurel coat did little to shield from the arctic chill of Pier 90, where the Queen Mary berthed after arriving in New York. We stood on the ship’s bow, looking down toward the dock. The entire landscape was white, and we were mystified.”


The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol

“I just wanted to get out of there. I hated midtown, especially in summer, and though I was a tourist myself, I didn’t want to be surrounded by them, so I turned away from the theater and started up the block.”


Outwitting History, Aaron Lansky

“Standing on the street, (the dumpster) the size of a tractor-trailer, it was literally overflowing with Yiddish books. The volumes at the top were already wet. A few dozen lay splayed on the street, run over by passing cars.”


Russ & Daughters, Mark Russ Lederman

The story of the beloved smoked fish shop of the Lower East Side, whose website includes a list of Yiddishisms, to learn to “talk like you’re a Russ & Daughters regular.”


Bontsha the Silent, I. L. Peretz

“He lived like a small gray grain of sand on the beach, surrounded by millions like him. And when the wind lifted him and transported him across the ocean to the opposite shore, no one noticed.”

Motl the Cantor’s Son, Sholem Alecheim

“Whoever has not seen a New York street has missed a wonderful sight. What can you not find on the street? Men are doing all kinds of business. Women sit and chat. Children in look-alike carriages are napping. The babies suck milk from little bottles right on the street.”


Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

“That I happen, Mommy and Daddy, just happen to have recently been appointed by the Mayor to be Assistant Commissioner for The City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity apparently doesn’t mean shit to you in terms of accomplishment and stature—though this is not exactly the case, I know, for, to be truthful, whenever my name appears in a news story in the Times, they bombard every living relative with a copy of the clipping.”


The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

“When Ephraim was alive, when they were kids, her father liked to go bathing Sunday afternoons at Coney Island; and on Jewish holidays they would sometimes see a Yiddish play, or ride on the subway to the Bronx to call on landsleit.”


The Puttermesser Papers, Cynthia Ozick

“Ah, how this idea glowed for Puttermesser! . . . Mobs transmuted into troops of the blessed, citizens bursting into angelness, sidewalks of alabaster, buses filled with thrones. Old delicate Prague, swept and swept of sin, giving birth to the purified daylight, the lucent genius, of New York.”


Isaac Bashevis Singer

Bashevis Singer lived most of his life in the Belnord Building on West 86th St. The boulevard is now named for the famed Yiddish writer.

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

“I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I had to bet, I’d bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese takeout. I order in four nights out of seven. Whenever he comes, I make a big production of finding my wallet. He stands at the door holding the greasy bag while I wonder if this is the night I’ll finish off my spring roll, climb into bed, and have a heart attack in my sleep.”


The World to Come, Dara Horn

The story takes off when a famous painting is stolen from a museum during a single’s cocktail hour.


The Pawnbroker, Edward Lewis Wallant

“His feet crunched on the hard-packed sand. On his left was the Harlem River, across the street to the right was the Community Center, and beyond was the vast, packed, city. At seven thirty in the morning it was quiet for New York. In that relative silence, his footsteps made ponderous, dragging sounds that were louder and more immediate in his own ears than the chugging of the various river boats or the wakening noise of traffic a few blocks away on 125th Street.”


The Glass Family, J. D. Salinger

The Glass Family, featured in a variety of J. D. Salinger’s stories, lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The most well-known members of the Glass family are Franny, Zooey, and Seymour, who are all highlighted in various Salinger compilations.


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

“A great feat of engineering is an object of perpetual interest to people bent on self-destruction. Since its completion, the Empire State Building, a gigantic shard of the Hoosier State torn from the mild limestone bosom of the Midwest and upended, on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria, in the midst of the heaviest traffic in the world, had been a magnet for dislocated souls hoping to ensure the finality of their impact, or to mock the bold productions of human vanity.”


Enemies: A Love Story, Isaac Bashevis Singer

Almost before he knows it, Holocaust survivor Herman Broder has three wives. His office is located midway between his wives in Brooklyn and the Bronx, his only refuge in a Yiddish New York overtaken by a sense of perpetually impending doom.


Call it Sleep, Henry Roth

“There were four rooms in the flat they lived in. There were eight windows. Some faced 9th Street. Some faced Avenue D.”


The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

“In Brooklyn, everyone turned up everywhere. Though the parts of Brooklyn congenial to people in their demographic had expanded dramatically in a widening web of faux-dives and mysteriously hip restaurants, to Nate the place seemed never to have been smaller, so dense was it with people he knew.”


The Chosen, Chaim Potok

“There were many synagogues in Williamsburg. Each Hasidic sect had its own house of worship—shtibblach, they were called—most of them badly lighted, musty rooms, with benches or chairs crowded together and with windows that seemed always to be closed.”


All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor

“The East Side was not pretty. There was no grass. Grass couldn’t very well grow on slate sidewalks or in cobble-stoned gutters. There were no flowers except those one saw in the shops of the few florists. There were no tall trees lining the streets. There were tall gas lampposts instead. There was no running brook in which children might splash on hot summer days. But there was the East River. Its waters stretched out wide and darkly green, and it smelt of fish, ships, and garbage.”


Bread Givers, Anzia Yezierska

This masterwork of American immigrant literature is set in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and tells the story of Sara Smolinsky, the youngest daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, who rebels against her father’s rigid conception of Jewish womanhood. Sara’s struggle towards independence and self-fulfillment resonates with a passion all can share.


The Jewish Daily Forward/The Garden Cafeteria

The Garden Cafeteria, located next-door to the old Jewish Daily Forward building, was the main hot spot for Yiddish writers, who gathered there together each day. Liana Finck’s new book A Bintel Brief is a graphic novel based on an advice column of the same name that used to run in the Forward.


Jews Without Money, Mike Gold

“Always these faces at the tenement windows. The street never failed them. It was an immense excitement. It never slept. It roared like a sea. It exploded like fireworks.”


Reprinted from You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City © 2016 by Katharine Harmon. Published by Princeton Architectural Press. Map by Dani Crickman.

Featured image: Klari Reis

KATHARINE HARMON is an author, editor, curator, and frequent speaker on the topic of maps in art (and art in maps). She lives in Seattle, Washington.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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