…and Notes on the Sleepy Hollow – Tarrytown Jewish Community
By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
From Beginnings in Old New York
It was an enriching experience to meet with Leonard Abraham in 2011. Our interview took place less than two months before his passing at the age of 100. Leonard died on Sunday, December 18, 2011, a little more than five and a half years ago. I found him to be warm and intelligent, possessing a great deal of zest for the life he led and a also a fondness for his memories of the past. The man I met with was a lovely, modest man with a fantastic memory and physical resources that belied his years. I saw him manage to walk down his steep driveway with careful but sure-footed steps. Like myself, Leonard was a man who never strayed far from his hometown. He was born on Main Street and died 100 years later on Neperan Road, two streets that are so close they are practically the same street. Like my own folks, Leonard’s parents had “migrated” northward to Tarrytown from New York City. Here the Abrahams put down new roots, and their family became a welcome addition to the life of this community.
Leonard’s parents left the surging Jewish population of Manhattan to become part of the more or less nascent Jewish community rising up along the eastern side of the Hudson River’s Tappan Zee. This community emerged to a large degree from behind the storefronts of Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, and Ossining. Jewish merchants had begun to arrive, seeking opportunities to earn a living and to peacefully raise families. They were not unlike the first Jewish families who arrived in New Amsterdam (the former name of New York City) in the mid-seventeenth century. Those new arrivals were hoping to start a new life.
In 1654, two Jewish traders arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland. A few weeks later, this community of two was increased by the arrival of twenty-three Jewish exiles from Brazil, ten adults and thirteen children. The refugees had been captured by Spanish pirates and “rescued” by an all-business French privateer captain, who absolutely insisted on being paid for the passage to New Amsterdam. Several of the Jews were held in prison pending the repayment of the debt. Almost upon the arrival of the exiles, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, sought to expel them and restrict all Jews from entering and living in the colony.
Yet the antagonistic and intolerant Peter Stuyvesant did not figure on the political connections of these travel-weary pilgrims. Governor Stuyvesant was brought to heel by his employer, the Dutch West India Company, which was financially dependent on the financial support of wealthy Jewish investors back in Holland. The Dutch managers in Holland explicitly instructed Stuyvesant to back off from his anti-Semitic stance. Asser Levy was one of the Jewish refugees who won the right to carve out a life in the New Netherlands. He became the first man of Jewish faith to own a house in North America. This began the rise of the Jewish community on the Island of Manhattan. The name Levy was to play a key part in the story that Leonard Abraham told me about the growth of the Jewish community in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown.
Like so many other historical developments in the Hudson Valley, the establishment of the Jewish community in Hudson River towns like Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, Ossining, Briarcliff, and Irvington, can be traced especially to Manhattan. In the case of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown, it is hard to state precisely which Jewish persons first settled here, but a local tradition credits Abraham Levy as the first Jewish “pioneer” to put down local roots. One wonders if there may have been a significant genealogical connection between Abraham Levy and Asser Levy of seventeenth century New Amsterdam.
The Centennial History of North Tarrytown, by Hutchinson and Hutchinson, suggests that the first Jews who settled in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown arrived during the 1850s. Whoever was first, more Jewish families followed, and it appears that the dry goods store of Abraham Levy’s son, Hyman Levy, became the first established religious meeting place. The congregation expanded to fifteen families by 1900, and larger quarters were needed. Money was raised among local Jewish families to construct a traditional house of worship. In 1905, the first community synagogue rose up at the corner of Valley Street and College Avenue. The family names of the earliest members of the synagogue included Alschul, Benjamin, Cartoon, Cohen, Goldman, Jacobs, Kadish, Levy, Rosenblatt, and Sadofsky. According to Ruth Biloon’s synagogue history written for Temple Beth Abraham, the “ temple had large stained glass windows, red carpeting, a central bima surrounded on three sides with pews….” and a carved ark positioned in the center. The ark is still housed in the current synagogue.
The Abraham Family Arrives
Leonard Abraham clearly remembered the small synagogue’s design; he was born just six years after it was built. “It was a simple building,” he recalls, “the men met on the main floor and the women in the balcony—only about 100 seats. It stood on property loaned to the congregation by the Hyman Levy family.” Hyman Levy was an early synagogue president. His wife, former Nyack resident Hannah T. Hoffman Levy, played an active part in organizing and leading the Hebrew Ladies Auxiliary. The Levys were prosperous landowners, and the large home they owned and occupied still stands on Broadway in Sleepy Hollow, opposite Sleepy Hollow High School. The fathers of the early Jewish families worked primarily as shopkeepers in the local business district, which included Orchard Street in Tarrytown as well as Valley Street and Cortlandt Street in Sleepy Hollow.
Another source relating to the local early Jewish experience states that the “Tarrytown Hebrew Congregation” was founded in 1890, first meeting on Valley Street in Sleepy Hollow. In the History of the Tarrytowns, by Canning and Buxton, we read that a clothing merchant named Harry Benjamin, a German Jew who immigrated to New York City in 1873, was influential in getting things started. This source also agrees with Leonard Abraham’s recollection that the first spiritual leader of the congregation was Rabbi Samuel Gordon. Leonard added that Rabbi Gordon played an additional community role as the kosher butcher of chickens—a shochet in Hebrew. He worked in this capacity at Guttman’s kosher butcher shop on Cortlandt Street. The business would also bring kosher meats up from the city. In the early days Rabbi Gordon lived above Cartoon’s furniture store on Orchard Street, and later he bought a home on Cottage Place. The rabbi served the synagogue and its congregation until his death in 1932. He was succeeded by Rabbi Coen.
I believe that whenever the original synagogue was referred to in the conversation between Leonard and myself, it was generally as the “old temple” or the “old synagogue”… or occasionally the “temple on Valley Street,” and in one other account the “old shul on Valley Street.” To my recollection no proper name was ever discussed, and I do not recall seeing any documentation alluding to a specific name for the structure. However, a 1931 map of Sleepy Hollow shows the place clearly marked as “Synagogue of Abraham.” That is the only source for the name that I have seen to date. It was always my impression that the name “Temple Beth Abraham,” the current name for the congregation located in Tarrytown, was an entirely new name, but that appears not to be the case.
Leonard Abraham was born on June 15, 1911, at 46 Main Street, in what he describe as a walk-through apartment. In those days, he said, the regular doctor’s fee for delivering a baby was two dollars, but he was delivered by a midwife. The house in which he was born stood on the site of the present firehouse at the corner of Main and Washington streets. His parents, Benjamin David Abraham and Dora Weiss Abraham, moved from New York City in 1905, where Leonard’s father owned a tailoring business on Park Avenue. Mrs. Abraham heard from her second cousin (who already operated a store on Main Street in Tarrytown) that an apartment was available locally, on the opposite side of Main Street above a vacant store. That apparently clinched the Abrahams’ decision to move to Tarrytown.
Leonard had two older sisters, and he was the first of two boys; his younger brother was born in 1914. The second-floor apartment of the Main Street house had no bathroom, but it did have access to an outhouse standing in the backyard. Mr. Abraham’s shop occupied the first floor of the building. Before long, Benjamin Abraham’s two brothers joined him in the business, and together they added a clothing store next to the tailor shop, calling the new enterprise, “Abraham Brothers.” The new store stood right on the southwest corner of Main and Washington next to the tailor shop. In time, Leonard’s family moved across the hall to a larger apartment at number 48 Main Street. There they enjoyed the luxury of their own inside bathroom. The stores and the apartments occupied the same two-story building. Decades later, in 1961, the structure was condemned and torn down to make way for the current firehouse.
Living on Main Street and School Days
The very year that the Abraham family moved up from Manhattan, the Jewish Community consecrated its early synagogue. The Valley Street synagogue was said to have been built in the style of those in the city of Kovno, Lithuania. Many local Jewish families traced their heritage from this place. Those who immigrated from there made a timely arrival in the United States, for the Jews of Kovno (also known as Kaunas) were to become the tragic victims of one of the most wanton and disgraceful atrocities of the modern era. The genocide of Kovno occurred under the Nazi occupation of the early 1940s. But earlier, in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Sleepy Hollow synagogue on Valley Street was erected to reflect the memories which many of the congregation had retained of Kovno, their home city, and its vibrant Jewish culture. The cornerstone of the synagogue was laid in 1904, and the first service was observed in 1905.
Leonard Abraham recalled meeting all the local Jewish families from the time that he started to attend Orthodox synagogue services about the age of six. He described himself as a boy who was very active in the life of the synagogue. Leonard celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1924, the year that his family bought a house of their own at 37 South Washington Street in Tarrytown, next to the Asbury Methodist Church. Their new home had been previously occupied by a Dr. Scribner, the first health officer of Tarrytown and, according to Leonard, a member of the Scribner family famous in the publishing trade. The South Washington Street house remained in Leonard’s family until the death of his mother, who died at a very advanced age. The families of Benjamin David Abraham’s brothers also moved to Washington Street. Leonard remembers a large extended family with plenty of cousins.
He had, years earlier, begun to attend the Tarrytown public schools, which meant going to kindergarten in the parish hall of Christ’s Church, and, later, first grade in the parish hall of the Second Reformed Church. That was because Pierson School (then called Washington Irving School) was bursting at the seams. “The schools were a little crowded when I started,” he recalled. His second grade teacher during his first year at the regular public school building, was Mrs. Hall.
Upon graduating from grade school at the old Washington Irving School, Leonard moved on to the newly constructed Washington Irving High School on South Broadway near Franklin Street. He graduated in the first four-year class produced by the new high school, the class of 1928. Leonard would later become the father of two sons, both of whom attended Washington Irving High School and played football for their father’s alma mater. All this time Leonard was developing the keen perspective of one who was to become an active and committed adult resident of his community.
During Leonard’s childhood days he was often left to his own devices, hanging out in a “gang” of local kids on Main Street. He spent a great deal of time with the four Edelson boys—the youngest of whom was killed in World War II. Another of the boys, Jack Edelson, was Leonard’s particularly good friend. There was not much supervision for children in those days, with their parents focused on making a living. A movie theatre stood across Main Street from the Abrahams’ apartment, in the building that, until recently, housed the VFW post. When money was short, the kids found a way to sneak into movies through the side door. In that day, most of the businesses in Tarrytown were located on lower Main Street or on Orchard Street. The buildings further up Main Street generally housed offices and residences. The Music Hall was in that section further up the street, and it was Leonard’s main movie theater. Leonard remembered that one of his sisters appeared in the annual flower show there. The flower shows were usually sponsored by the big estates in town. Leonard’s younger brother worked for a time at Tappan’s Livery Service on Baylis Court, where he exercised the horses.
College, Work and Marriage
At the synagogue, the girls formed a Young Women’s Hebrew Association (1918) and the boys (including Leonard) participated in a Jewish Boy Scout Troop. In 1933, a new Jewish Center was built at 114 North Washington Street in Tarrytown. Leonard described the interior of the building as “one big room.” The creation of the center was the project of the Hebrew Lady’s Auxiliary, and Sunday school classes were held there. There was another building in front of the main building, and that too was used as a Sunday school.
For two or three years, the center was a place for Conservative services to be held while Orthodox services continued at the Valley Street synagogue. Part of the reason for this was the feeling among congregation members that more English should be used in the services. In the new North Washington Street building there was a provision for Torah scrolls to be placed within the walls. Later on, in the 1950s, the old synagogue on Valley Street was replaced by the present synagogue on Leroy Avenue in Tarrytown. The old structure was demolished, and the property on which the old structure stood reverted to the Levy family. An apartment building named Margotta Courts was built on the site.
In 1932, Leonard was to graduate from New York University with a degree in engineering. He studied at the University Heights campus. Yet, it was the early 1930s, and he adhered to the adage, “don’t let a degree stand in the way of a job.” Leonard took a clerical position at the Sleepy Hollow GM plant when it was offered. The manager of the plant was a customer of his father’s tailor shop, and Mr. Abraham put in a good word for Leonard. These were the times of the Great Depression, and—to put it lightly—it was tough getting a job. He remained at GM for twelve years, until the plant switched to airplane production during World War II, which involved making parts for Eastern Aircraft. He then joined a growing Westchester manufacturer in New Rochelle named Poloron Products, eventually becoming an officer in the company. From there he went to another company named Polychrome, based in Yonkers.
As a young man, Leonard would go to parties and social gatherings with friends to meet young women. Among the places they would travel to were Ossining, Mount Kisco, and White Plains. He met his future wife at one such gathering where he and his friend Morrie Slifkin were invited. Leonard married Sylvia Helen Projanski of White Plains. Their wedding, a simple ceremony, took place on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. The marriage service was led by a particular rabbi who had been recommended to the couple.
Sylvia’s sister, Rosalind, married Leonard’s college friend, Morrie Slifkin, a well-respected lawyer and, for twenty-five years, a village judge, who practiced law in Tarrytown. Slifkin’s law firm kept offices in the Lyceum Building on Central Avenue and practiced under the name of Duell and Slifkin. Morrie Slifkin later served as county family court judge, and then as a New York State Supreme Court justice for the 9th District.
After their marriage Leonard and Sylvia remained a part of Tarrytown village life, residing for two years above a storefront at 12 Hamilton Place. He remembered that Bennett Funeral Home was right next door at the corner of Broadway. The couple then moved to Miller Avenue in Tarrytown. Following that, in 1935, they bought a house on Leroy Avenue in Loh Park. Leonard and Sylvia lived there until 1967 when they moved to 169 Neperan Road. The house located at Neperan Road and Warren Avenue was to be their home for the rest of their lives.
Leonard, Sylvia, and the New Synagogue
Leonard and his wife took an active part in the life of the synagogue and saw a new synagogue building completed in 1955, right across Leroy Avenue from their own home. The land on which the new synagogue was constructed was purchased in 1949. Leonard mentioned that many of the WWII servicemen in the congregation wanted a change, and the board of trustees and the officers voted by the margin of a single vote to become a Reform congregation. It was Leonard himself who tallied the vote. At that time there was also an agreement made that a separate chamber would be provided within the building for those who wished to attend Conservative services. When the temple was completed that additional meeting room was included. The first service at the new temple took place in 1955, and the synagogue, Temple Beth Abraham, was named in January 1956. Later, during the 1970s, Leonard would become the president of the congregation. But with the passage of time came changes; by the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer of the congregation resided in the immediate Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown area, and more members were based in Greenburgh and Irvington.
Leonard and Sylvia’s family grew as their children started families of their own. In the closing years of their life together they traveled extensively to Israel, China, and Japan amongst other places. Leonard said they touched at every continent except South America. Sylvia passed on eleven years before my interview with Leonard. She was a member of the temple’s Ladies Auxiliary, and the plants growing around their house were reflections of her “green thumb.” Leonard told me that one of his regular chores was to water the plants his wife had planted. Sylvia had demonstrated a personal creative bent through the decoration of their home.
When we finished our interview Leonard insisted that I accept an invitation to come to the JCC and speak at one of the regular Men’s Club meetings about local history. It did not occur to me at the time that, when I did go to the Men’s Club to speak, Leonard would have passed on and I would be speaking about him.
Leonard was 100 years old when he died at his home. There were three birthday parties thrown for him on his last birthday, including one at the temple and one at the JCC Men’s Club. He said that longevity appeared to run in his family. His mother Dora lived to the age of 102. Leonard was survived by two sons, five grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. His funeral service was held on Tuesday, December 20, 2011, at Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown.
[© 2011- 2017 Henry John Steiner]