You Are Where You Live: Jews, Religion, and the New York Boardinghouse

By Shari Rabin


Where do you live? What’s your place like? New Yorkers love talking about real estate. In a city where land is at a premium, recent articles about tiny houses, shared housing, poor doors, public housing, and the social consequences of housing all point to the everyday ramifications and moral valences of housing in New York and elsewhere. To talk about housing — in New York City especially — is to have a conversation about religion, not only as a site of ultimate meaning, but of ritual practice and identity formation. This intensity about where and how to live is not new to our generation of New Yorkers, however. One largely forgotten form of housing offered a popular — if controversial — solution for New Yorkers throughout the nineteenth century: the boardinghouse.

Boardinghouses offered urban residents — especially young newcomers — a private room and a daily communal meal prepared by the proprietor for a weekly rent.[1] Like other forms of housing, they were racially segregated and they operated as a middle ground between hotels, which featured optional dining rooms, and rooming houses, which offered no food. In 1842 New Yorker Walt Whitman announced Americans to be a “boarding people,” and according to one estimate, some 70 percent of the nation’s residents during the nineteenth century entered a boarding relationship at some point in their lives.[2]

Not everyone was thrilled, though. From his perch at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, Henry Ward Beecher, the celebrity preacher, castigated boardinghouses as secularizing spaces in which anonymous young people were left to run amok. “Abhor Sodom and Gomorrah — or boarding-houses!,” he exclaimed in an 1868 Thanksgiving sermon, “[M]en learn self-indulgence there. Men learn there not to be householders.”[3] As historian Wendy Gamber has documented, urban boardinghouses were widely seen as dangerous and immoral, selling in the market a poor facsimile of the pious Christian home. The Young Men’s Christian’s Association and other paternalistic charitable “homes” were one institutional outcome of such fears.

Jews also lived in general boardinghouses, though, and they too found that it encouraged the violation of Jewish norms, albeit not because of the threat to virtue, morality, or piety that Protestant leaders feared. For Jews, boardinghouses’ widely reported opportunities for sexual encounter were less a problem for lost virtue than for interreligious dalliances. Similarly, while all boarders worried that the food was not reliable, for Jews there were distinct concerns. According to Gamber, “‘Domestic parsimony' meant that boarders could never be quite sure what they were eating."[4] Few Jews strictly observed kosher food laws, and yet residual concern — especially continued avoidance of pork — made the prospect of boardinghouse fare particularly troubling. Some Jews, however, used general boardinghouses to fulfill religious obligations of sociability and Sabbath observance. In the early 1850s Henry Cohn and other Jewish friends who were peddling outside of the city “decided to meet every second week on Friday or Saturday in New York and we all stayed in Mrs. Heins's boarding house.”[5]


For Jews and others, then, boardinghouses intersected in various ways with existing religious expectations, but they were also important sites of identity formation. Although many New Yorkers chose housing on the basis of price alone, others chose niche boardinghouses. Thomas Butler Gunn’s tongue-in-cheek account of The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses, published in 1857, documented this diversity, describing “The Theatrical Boarding-House,” “The Vegetarian Boarding-House,” “The Boarding-House frequented by Bostonians” and “The Chinese Boarding-House,” as well as “The Boarding-House wherein Spiritualism becomes predominant.” In the anonymous city, boardinghouses were not only dens of secularity and sin, but were often make-shift communities organized around shared origins, values, or interests.

In the diverse housing market, entrepreneurial Jews, including a significant number of women, established kosher boardinghouses, which facilitated religious practice and identity. One historian dates New York’s first Jewish boardinghouse to 1774, although they reached their apex in number and importance in the decades before the Civil War, as waves of Jewish migrants arrived in the city, largely from German-speaking lands.[6] In Jewish newspapers, ads appeared like one in December 1858 announcing “Mrs. Weill’s Private Boarding House.” It invited "the friends of a delicious and kosher table to her new house, 57 Warren Street, where she offers to the travelling community, as well as to down town businessmen, one of the best tables of New-York."

Whether or not anyone within them got along, kosher boardinghouses seemed to provide a more reliable source of food and companionship than other available options. Ads for kosher boardinghouses often listed well-known rabbis as references, likely to confirm that the food was indeed kosher, and, indeed, unlike Protestant divines, Jewish leaders were far more likely to praise boardinghouses than to discourage them.[9] In the Jewish Messenger in 1847 Rabbi S.M. Isaacs endorsed Charles Levi’s New York boardinghouse as “A respectable establishment, where families and single gentlemen can be accommodated and enjoy the comforts of a home.[10] For Jews the boardinghouse was not inherently secular in its form, but actually provided a very convenient means of fostering religious practice and identity.

Boardinghouses, like SROs and residential hotels, largely died out in the twentieth century, as progressive reformers insisted on the superiority of private housing. And yet, in some ways, they live on. The young and the economically precarious continue to live together, most commonly in shared, often cramped apartments throughout the city. And in recent years the city’s rising rents have led to more deliberate experiments in shared housing, like the so-called “Millennial Commune.” The lesson of the kosher boardinghouse is that while policy makers and religious leaders will always fret about certain forms of housing — legitimately so in cases of safety and equity — there is more than one way to make a good home, a project that is inseparable from forming the religious self, even in the big bad city.

Shari Rabin is Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

[1] On the history of housing, see:Gwendolyn Wright, Building The Dream (New York: Random House, 1981); Bernard L. Herman, Town House: Architecture and Material Life in the Early American City, 1780-1830 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books, 2005);Wendy Gamber, The Boardinghouse in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007); Richard R.W. Brooks and Carol M. Rose, Saving the Neighborhood: Racially Restrictive Covenants, Law, and Social Norms (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[2] Sutherland, Expansion of Everyday Life (Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2000), 48. Thomas Gunn, The Physiology of New York Boarding-Houses (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 22-23, fn; Paul Groth, Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), 92 fn 4.

[3] The Sermons of Henry Ward Beecher: In Plymouth Church, Brooklyn (London: Richard D. Dickinson, 1871), 140;The Plymouth Pulpit. Sermons Preached in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn(Brooklyn, NY, 1875), 375-7.

[4] Gamber, 86.

[5] “Memories from Yesteryear,” 1914, 25, Henry Cohn papers, BANC MSS 2010/675, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[6] In the 1840s and 1850s Jewish boardinghouses were run in the city by Mrs. Seixas, Mrs. B. Levy, and E.M. Michaelis. Hyman Bogomolny Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860, 27 (Chatham, MI: Porcupine Press, 1976), 300.

[7] Jewish Messenger, December 13, 1861, 95.

[8] "Louis Stix: Honesty is the Best Policy" in Memoirs of American Jews, 1775-1865, edited by Jacob Rader Marcus Volume 1, (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1974),338-9

[9] "Occident Advertiser for June. Extra," Occident 5, 1847, 109.

Jewish Messenger, December 13, 1861, 95.

Jewish Messenger, December 13, 1861, 95.

Israelite, May 11, 1860

Israelite, May 11, 1860

In one issue of New York’s Jewish Messenger in December of 1861, six different kosher boardinghouses in the city were advertised, mostly west of Broadway in the 20s. One proprietor was a Jewish minister and four were women. The sixth proprietor, George Berlyn, announced the not only was his food was kosher, but “no vituals [were] cooked on [the Sabbath],” ensuring it was fully in keeping with Jewish legal restrictions.

These ads hint at some of the further distinctions that were drawn among kosher boardinghouses, which allowed young Jews to select their particular form of domestic — though also commercial — Judaism. Other advertisements trumpeted physical features or social dynamics. One could choose whether to prioritize “a large furnished room to let with board… [and] all the modern improvements,” or a boardinghouse operated “on the principle of a family home.” [7] The documents are sparse, but it is clear that in kosher boarding-
houses diverse Jews gathered around a shared identity, breaking bread once per day with strangers who were also coreligionists. This might lead to friendships, business partnerships, marriages, and prayer quorums, but it could also have less harmonious outcomes.

For instance, when Louis Stix’s brother was living at Mrs. Weill’s Private Boarding House in New York, tensions flared. Stix got into a disagreement about slavery around the dinner table with a “coreligionist and brother merchant living in the South.” Stix made, as he later admitted, “a very uncalled-for remark not at all flattering to our race who were living in the South,” and he found himself with a pistol in his face. The situation was diffused when a Cincinnatian drew his pistol and offered to duel, leading the southerner to run off.[8] Removed from the eyes of parents and ministers, young boarders did not overthrow religion altogether, even in such moments of conflict, but formed their own connections, behaviors and identities. These were a result of living in spaces that were commercial but not quite public, religious but not quite private.