A few years ago I wrote an essay about the Lower East Side with the intention of submitting it to the City section of The New York Times, which, much to my shame, I didn't. Part of the reason for not sending the piece was that I didn't want to set myself up for disappointment and get rejected.

Looking back at that reasoning I realize how stupid I was. Now, The  New York Times has no City section and it's getting harder and harder for new writers to get  their work in the paper.

What did I learn from this? Getting rejected is a good thing. It means you're writing, submitting your work, and taking a chance.  That's what you do if you want to be a writer.

As for my essay, it's dated but here it is:

The House of Sages

A recent real estate section feature about the Lower East Side included a sidebar of buildings currently on the market. As I skimmed the listings, I saw the apartment building where I used to live – the asking price: $2.2 million.

For three years I lived at 279 East Broadway, a former tenement that had been gutted into four large, full-floor apartments, each measuring 1000 square feet. In a poor Jewish Orthodox neighborhood, it was one of the first buildings in the area that had been handsomely transformed. My first year there I sublet the third floor for a whopping $2,500 a month (paid in cash). During the second and third years, the rent was dropped to $1,800. My landlord, a colorful and well-known tattoo artist, told my partner and me that we were getting a deal because we were good tenants. The second floor apartment, he told us, went for $4,000 a month.

My building had two prestigious neighbors. On one side stood a Federalist-style townhouse, which housed the administrative offices of the Henry Street Settlement. Next door was an unattractive nondescript building that suffered from the ravages of harsh winters and summers, disrepairs, and a neglectful owner. On the scratched-up metal black door of that ugly tenement was a small grated window and beneath it was a plaque that stated: The House of Sages, Agudas Anshei Mamod Ubeis Vead Lachachomim, founded in 1922.

Every morning when I walked my two terriers, I always noticed a group of elderly bearded men in black hats and long black coats scurry into the mysterious entrance. A guidebook said it was an institution for prayer and study for retired rabbis. I assumed that this gathering was a Minyan, a prayer group of ten men. The door briefly opened and I tried to see what lay beyond, but it was always slammed making it clear that it was none of my business what went on behind closed doors.

When I greeted these solemn men during these morning strolls, my "Good morning" was never returned. Instead, I received a nervous glance directed at the dogs. Not uttering a word or even a nod of acknowledgement, they'd enter their exclusive and holy sanctum, and slam the door.  Not able to exchange a pleasantry, let alone engage them in a conversation, I made up stories about them, especially the eldest in the group, who appeared to be in his 80s and whose face looked as if it had been bashed in.

“Do you think he’s a survivor?” I asked my partner late one Saturday afternoon.

“Could be,” he said. “Looks like a rifle butt came down hard on his face.”

“Hmm. . . if he's a survivor it would make sense why he’s afraid of dogs,” I said.

“Could be or maybe he thinks they’re trayf because they whizz ten steps away from their door,” he said.

Or I wondered, perhaps I’m the one they considered trayf. I thought about this for sometime. After all, I was an outsider--a half-shiksa raised by a Catholic mother and  a Jewish father among the Wasps of Westchester County.

One afternoon returning from a walk, I saw the men in their tailored long black coats, all wearing fur hats. They were oblivious to the traffic, focused on their discussion. As I observed from across the street, photos from Roman Visniac’s A Lost World flashed to my mind. Sadly, I realized that one day their world would be gone too and the House of Sages would fall prey to a developer. The eyesore of a building would be renovated, its façade prettied up to fit the aesthetic standards of gentrification.

As I went toward my building’s Brazilian tiled entrance, I caught the eye of my survivor. Not expecting him to respond in any manner, I smiled in his direction. Perhaps he sensed my mood or maybe because I had become a fixture on the block, he finally nodded his head in greeting.

Three months after September 11th, my partner, the terriers and I moved upstate to a twelve room Victorian house on fourteen acres where our dogs freely roamed. I missed the morning walks past the old Daily Forward building, Sunday bagels at Kossar’s, trekking to Chinatown for dim sum, and making unexpected discoveries like stumbling across the long-forgotten Sheriff Street where Ethel Rosenberg had lived as a young girl.

After two years of living like landed gentry, acquiring a third dog, and fed up with the never-ending snow,  we yearned to move back to the Lower East Side. But our neighborhood had changed. Old Jewish mainstays like Ratner’s had closed. The old Daily Forward Building, now converted into a 39-unit apartment building, was up for sale for $20 million. Orchard Street, the place to go for affordable clothing and leather goods, was clogged with expensive boutiques like Skella, which sold $90 t-shirts and $4,500 evening dresses. Goulash and dumplings were replaced by American nouveau cuisine, and the ubiquitous Keith MacNally had, like my dogs before him, marked his spot with Schiller’s Liquor Bar.

Returning to East Broadway in 2006, I parked the car near my former apartment building. I was greeted by a huge blue Corcoran sign posted on the side of our old home. The building was up for sale. What ungodly price would it command? I wondered what happened to the House of Sages. When I turned the corner and got to the ugly building with its small grated window, I saw that it was the same with the exception of the door; it had been freshly painted black. Perhaps that was the Sages’ nod to gentrification.



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  • I found your article by googling “House of Sages” because I send them charity money the few times they solicit by mail. Not hearing from them in a while, I wondered about this. Your essay is dated 2006 but was posted in 2009, fairly recently. Are you in a position to verify that they are still at that location,283 E. Bwy? I’d appreciate an update if this is not any trouble.

    By the way, only 10 men are need for a prayer minyan, not 12.

    I enjoyed your article for its other info as well.


    Paul Ilie

  • the house of the sages is still
    There and still holds to a regular
    Schedule of prayer.
    I went to pray there recently
    For the first time
    And felt like I was in
    Jerusalem not on EBway off Grand

  • Hi

    I also happened upon your article by googling agudath anshei mamod, who send me a jewish calendar yearly just before Rosh Hashana . In turn i send them a modest donation as an act of charity, which is normally done sometime before Yom Kippur , as a replacement for the ritual sacrifices that were done in the ancient days of the Temple in Jerusalem.
    They are an organization that is dedicated to the study of Torah and the Holy Scriptures, [much like was done in eastern europe when they had shtetls and great institutions of jewish learning throughout Lithunania ,Poland and Russia. The organization specializes in performing mourning prayers for families and individuals, and sending yearly reminders for people to remember to light Yahrzeit candles in memory of their departed loved ones.
    Why they were [less than friendly], is not meant as an insult. They are ultra orthodox Jews, and they have some old world rules about personal contact with people from outside of their group. I experienced this myself when i visited Lee Ave in Brooklyn where the Satmar Chassidim live.
    There are exceptions like the Chabad Chasidim, who actively make contact with the public through the “mitzvah tanks” , that you might have seen.
    Anyway to get to your main subject, i envy you, i never had the experience of living in the city, coming from the rockaways is like a world away from the lower east side. Yea i miss Ratners and the Bersteins on Essex Street Deli. But im glad that your neighborhood took a turn for the better , gradually all the surrounding area will probably turn upscale, being in manhattan the land is too valuable to let it become a slum .

    All the best


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  • I enjoyed your essay very much.  Several years ago I lived in New York and discovered the House of Sages.  Here is a poem I wrote about it.  It became the title of my first collection of poems.  –Philip Terman

    The House of Sages
    I paused before The House of Sages,
    beside the boarded-up synagogue,
    on my walk down East Broadway
    toward the river for relief
    from the heat’s tidal wave.
    in 1922, the slab stone says,
    the year of my father’s birth.
    The white sign above the caged
    door announces in Hebrew
    the Polish shtetl of
    its origin.
    Near the bolt lock and intercom
    a spray of white paint:
    swirls and loops like lopsided
    hearts and question marks
    and the street’s fevered talk.
    Through the cracked window
    men in black were poring
    dusty faces over pages spread
    open like stilled wings,
    quivering bodies revealed
    in this late afternoon glare shafting
    the Lower East Side. I wanted
    to enter there, to assume
    the white robe and crown, to bow
    down low before the open Ark
    and touch the book
    with my scarf and place my fingers
    to my lips and kiss there.
    I wanted all of this, to arrive
    and hear my name called,
    son of my father, in the first
    language and all the silence after.
    I stood in the sidewalk’s fire.
    The gate opened.A
    bearded shadow
    appeared and I stole inside
    before it closed like a cloud behind me.
    I peeked into the sanctuary
    of the sacred and a sage
    was reading a newspaper
    the way my father or I
    relaxed at table, long legs
    stretched out on the dark oak,
    feet crossed.Another
    was solving a crossword puzzle,
    inquiries in the holy tongue.
    What questions down?
    What questions across?
    Were the answers printed
    in the next life?A few
    were bending their torsos
    down and up, down and up,
    as if lettering with their bodies
    some unfathomable word
    or testing out a new law of physics:
    if you rub flesh with air, a spark.
    Soon, first one then another
    turned toward my direction,
    all staring, eyes fixed, curious
    at my intrusion.Should they touch
    their foreheads to the eastern wall
    or call the police?Briefly all the noise
    of New York became one word
    which filled the room, our only world.

  • philipterman613 Thanks so much for the compliment and for stopping by! I loved your poem. 
    I was in NYC about a year ago, and the House of Sages was still there. Didn’t see anyone going in or out, but I wondered who of my “old friends” were still around and going to morning prayers.

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