By Steve Tiszenkel
Walk up 108th Street in Forest Hills from Queens Boulevard to the LIE and you'll see a neighborhood change before your eyes. Starting from the exhaust-clogged hustle and bustle of the Boulevard of Death, you pass grand prewar apartment complexes with white-railed balconies and sprawling lawns, then lower-key brick residences that eschew ornamentation, before you get to “Bukharian Broadway,” the Central Asian shopping mecca where a lone Mexican takeout joint stands out for holding limited Uzbek appeal. Finally, as the shopping peters out, you get to some decreasingly grand apartment blocks capped off by the long-controversial Forest Hills Houses projects, before one of Queens' most-desired neighborhoods is cut off suddenly at the expressway overpass. On the other side of the divide is working-class, heavily Hispanic Corona, where many of the residents on the south side of the LIE dare not tread.
You'll see a lot of differences on that walk. But you'll also see one major similarity. From Queens Boulevard to the LIE more than a mile later, synagogue after synagogue after synagogue appears on the landscape. From old-school Ashkenazi to new-school Bukharian, Google Maps counts no fewer than five centers of Jewish worship along the relatively short stretch. That’s an average of one every 4.6 blocks, and that doesn’t even count the prominent Y—the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, that is, not the Village People kind.
108th Street may be Forest Hills’ Jewish axis, but it’s hardly the only place local Jews flocked this week to ask God to forgive their transgressions for another year. Throughout the neighborhood every imaginable subgroup of Jews is represented. There are houses of worship Conservative, Reform and Orthodox—that’s both regular Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, thank you very much—for the plain-vanilla Jews who have been here for the better part of a century and for Georgian Jews who poured in after the fall of the Soviet Union. All in all, there are better than a dozen synagogues in Forest Hills alone. Add in adjacent Rego Park, Kew Gardens and Kew Gardens Hills and, well, that’s a lot of minyans.
Forest Hills has been a Jewish population center for years. In the first half of the 20th century, European immigrants and their children made their way from the tenements of the Lower East Side to greener pastures, where the new subway line could whisk them away to their city jobs and back to their more-idyllic life in the Borough of Homes. Even as prestigious Forest Hills Gardens banned them, they settled just outside its limits, in the ranch houses and six-story apartment buildings that sprung up with the influx. They opened shops and supermarkets, restaurants and, of course, synagogues.
Their children grew up and, as children are won't to do, moved away—many to the suburbs north and east of Queens, where they found houses were bigger and better and their new-found wealth was more easily flaunted. This phenomenon wasn’t unique to Forest Hills, but another one was: over the years, Israelis, Iranians, Russians, Uzbeks and more flooded in to replace them. According to a 2007 article in The Jewish Week, more than 100,000 Jews from all over the world make their home in Forest Hills today. It isn’t a city, but if it were, it would be one of the biggest outside Israel.
This is the week that Jews everywhere celebrate a new year—it’s 5769, which by my count is at least a few thousand up on the secular world. They dip apples in honey in the hope that a sweet year is to come, and more of them will do it in Forest Hills than pretty much anywhere else. But truth be told, in Forest Hills, Jewish life is always pretty sweet.
The writer, Steve Tiszenkel is the host of the Website, Queens Central. Log on to queenscentral.com to read more about Forest Hills and surrounding neighborhoods.