In 1918, when she was eighteen, my great aunt, Dorle Jarmel, who would later help launch Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein’s careers, published “Master Lovers of the World,” fantastical romances about Casanova, Henry the Eighth, and others. Taking up where she left off, my novel, Master Lovers and Others, uses five sets of love letters that I found hidden in her apartment after her death to reimagine her own dramatic affairs. The following excerpt explores her family’s less than savory history.
Not a particularly curious child, I knew my maternal grandparents came from Czechoslovakia, but I never questioned why they, as old people, would wake up at the crack of dawn in their small apartment and walk downstairs to work all day at their Cleveland bakery whereas my Grandmother Faie and great aunt Dorle, American-born Jews, had made a lot of money and retired. I didn’t realize how unusual it was for turn-of-the-last-century Orthodox women to travel around the world and have professional careers rather than tend to their families. I also didn’t question why “Grand,” their mother, got talked about in glowing terms while their father was never discussed. Growing up with secular Jewish/gentile parents in the very Christian Charlottesville of the seventies, I only really became interested in my Jewish family story when Angela, my Italian American girlfriend and future wife, grew fascinated by it. All I understood about the family surname was that Jarmel, Dorle and Faie’s maiden name, had somehow been derived from it. But one afternoon questions got unexpectedly answered, questions I hadn’t thought to ask.
Around 1994, Angela and I were walking down Canal Street in Chinatown when she noticed a tall neo-classical building. Inside was probably a sweatshop, but ornately displayed on its facade was a bank insignia, S. Jarmulowsky and Sons. Angela grasped before I did that it had once belonged to my family. Back home in Brooklyn, we looked it up in the American Institute of Architecture (AIA) guide to New York that we happened to have on our bookshelf and learned of a crucial episode in American Jewish history that Jewish historians had been seeking to exclude for generations. Because of a tendency towards what historian Tony Michel called “uncritical triumphalism,” they wanted to erase the shameful story of the Jarmulowsky bank failure.
Nearly a century before Dorle’s death, twenty-odd years before she met her many lovers on ships and at parties, a mob of poor angry Jews from the Lower East Side who had lost their savings at her family’s bank surrounded their upper Manhattan apartment building and rioted. When I learned the bare outline of an essential family story that neither my parents nor I knew anything about, I screwed up my courage and asked Dorle herself over drinks one Friday evening soon after Angela’s discovery. I didn’t want to traumatize her with bad memories, but I really wanted to know.
I took the subway in from Brooklyn. Upon my arrival at her midtown apartment, we went through our rituals. I rang the bell. She opened the door and I kissed her on both cheeks, inhaling the familiar odors of perfume, mothballs, and rotten teeth. I poured her drink, Bombay gin and tonic. I pulled a cigarette out of her latest pack of Benson and Hedges, handed it to her, and lit it with a match from one of the matchbooks she always took from restaurants. Then she turned to me expectantly. It was up to me to start our conversation. Rather than request a story from her glittery past, I hesitantly broached the topic of the bank, but, as I tended to mumble when nervous and she was quite deaf, she didn’t understand. Then I asked her again baldly, crassly, “Did your family have a bank? Did that bank go under?”
Had anyone mentioned the bank crash to her since the thirties, twenties, teens? Her sister, my grandmother, who had been through it with her, had died a few years before. Dorle’s eyes flipped away from me, out the window and back into the past. But when she started to speak, she sounded eager, almost child-like, as though the memory had brought back her adolescence. She relived the story in quick staccato tones. I saw young Dorle and even younger Faie, my grandmother—their ingenuous faces imprinted by worry—flinging on coats, pulling on boots, grabbing hold of the iron fire escape, and following my dour great-grandfather and teary-eyed great-grandmother upwards as they climbed from landing to landing. I didn’t ask for more details, but S. Jarmulowsky had been Dorle’s grandfather.
Dorle looked exhausted, spent, and we spoke of easier things. We asked about it just once more, or rather Angela did, a month or so later. Dorle told us how the collapse of the bank had changed everything. They no longer kept kosher. She and my grandmother were no longer expected to have their marriages arranged. Probably they were pariahs, other affluent Jewish families no longer considering them proper bride material. Black Tuesday had liberated Dorle and Faie from many of the expectations of their religion and their gender.
Using the proposal to landmark the Jarmulowsky Bank and the writings of historian Rebecca Kobrin, whom I also interviewed, I was able to piece together the family story that Dorle had just confirmed. What I learned about my great-great-grandfather’s history inspires me, but what happened once the family got involved in New York real estate is shameful, uncomfortable to think about even more than a century later.
We came from Grajewo, a Lithuanian town in the Pale of Settlement, the segment of the Russian Empire in which Jews were allowed to live. Alexander (“Sender”) Jarmulowsky, Dorle’s grandfather, was born impoverished and orphaned in 1841, and I have no information about his birthparents. After he was adopted by a rabbinical scholar as an infant, the story takes on a mythic feel, a Jewish Horatio Alger. Sender quickly became so prodigious a student of the Talmud that he was ordained as a rabbi at an early age. Then he was married to Rebecca Markels, the daughter of a rich businessman.
Allowed to leave the Pale of Settlement in 1868, he and Rebecca moved to Hamburg. Once there, he devoted himself to a more lucrative field than the Talmud: providing transport to Jews leaving Eastern Europe for the United States. He brokered the steerage class boat tickets to New York so essential to the growth of the Lower East Side, which would become the largest community of Jews in the world. Sender would buy cheaper passages during winter with fake passenger names then sell them for much more when the prices rose in the summer because the shipping lines were willing to change the names on tickets. Despite his lucrative trade, Sender’s application for permanent residency in Hamburg was (like most Eastern European Jews who applied, according to Kobrin) denied. That denial brought my great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather Louis, then just a boy, and the rest of their family to New York in 1873. The United States of that era was kinder, at least to moneyed Jews. I found Sender’s American naturalization papers from 1884 among Dorle’s documents.
Sender set up an office at the corner of Orchard and Canal Streets and enlarged his business by allowing Jews already in the Lower East Side to pay installments on steerage tickets to bring other family members from Europe. Sender quickly broadened the business still further to include taking deposits, giving out loans, and buying and selling foreign currency. His business had morphed into one of the largest of the immigrant banks popular at that time that were free agents within their (Jewish, Italian, Slovenian. . .) communities. Not forced to adhere to federal banking regulations, they generally relied on personal relationships between bankers and their depositors. Sender became known throughout both New York and the Pale of Settlement. According to Kobrin, nearly half the population of the Jewish Lower East Side came from Europe using tickets purchased by him.
Sender substantiated the Yiddish newspaper Morgan Zhurnal’s contention that he was “living proof that in America one can be a rich businessman but also a pious Jew” by overseeing and partially funding the construction of the Eldridge Synagogue in 1887. Built in the Moorish revival style typical of some American synagogues of that era, it has an imposing 70-foot vaulted ceiling and church-like stained-glass windows. Which were not the German gentile builders going rogue, speculated Brad Shaw, the manager of the Eldridge Street Museum, but typical of synagogue architecture as the architects were copying the Christian trappings of American houses of worship. The Central Synagogue in midtown built a few decades earlier has similar windows.
After Coolidge limited Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe in the twenties and many worshipers left for Brooklyn and other greener pastures, the congregation dwindled and the building fell into disrepair. The few remaining congregants worshiped in the bottom level while the temple upstairs soon grew ankle-deep in pigeon excrement. In the last twenty years, it has been immaculately preserved up to the enormous, stunning rose window, an original design by Kiki Smith.
But before the completion of the synagogue, The North Atlantic Passenger Conference’s decision to fix shipping fares spelled trouble for the Jarmulowsky business. And so they supplemented their income by getting involved in real estate. Sender had already acquired buildings after clients defaulted on loans. But it was really his son Meyer, Sender’s likely successor, who became the most successful “realestatenik.” Rather than the crowded Lower East Side, Meyer concentrated on Harlem. By 1912, he owned more than twenty buildings there. As an influential community member, he became involve in districting parts of Harlem in which African Americans lived as zones where home-owners could not receive loans, an early example of “redlining.” Like some terrible Jewish character too broad and obvious for an early Spike Lee Joint , Meyer spoke at St. Philip’s, an important black church at that time, about “The Housing Problem from the Owner’s Point of View,” claiming that black people were denied loans because they failed to keep up their property rather than being racially and economically profiled. He suggested that black people learn from the Jews and purchase buildings, even though he was actively trying to prevent that from happening, not to mention ignoring economic disparity and racism: a Trumpian cocktail of real estate, lies, racism, and New York.
The Jarmulowskys’s next claim to infamy were the precedents set by lawsuits lost against them. Sender paid contractors to fix faulty fire escapes in his buildings, but one fell and crippled a toddler. The ensuing suit lost against him established the dangerous precedent that lasted until the middle of the twentieth century that property owners were not liable for personal injury in their buildings unless it could be proven that they had prior knowledge of the problems that caused the injury.
In 1912, Sender contracted a building that Kobrin calls another “kind of temple for the Lower East Side,” so Jews “could worship their new American God, Capitalism.” The clock in the carved panel above the corner entrance to the Jarmulowsky Bank is gone, but the helmeted figure of Hermes, the God of trade and travel, remains. Apparently, a fancy hotel is due to open in the building, but as of spring 2021, the building remains covered in scaffolding. In any case, Hermes still heralds Sender’s dual role as banker and a seller of steerage tickets to Jews seeking to reach the New World.
The family bank building that Angela had spotted was designed by Rouse and Goldstone, a popular architecture firm of the time. At twelve stories, the “Jewish Temple of Finance,” as it was known, loomed over the Lower East Side. Sender died just before his bank building opened in 1912, and the estate of a man assumed to be a multi-millionaire turned out to be worth only $500,000. Most of the money had been spent buying 37 buildings in East Harlem. The death of Archduke Ferdinand two years later signaled the beginning of the end for the Jarmulowskys’s power and reputation and a disaster for thousands of Lower East Side Jews. Worried about the possibility of war in Europe, many depositors withdrew money from the Jarmulowsky bank to send to relatives overseas.
“Black Tuesday” was described by Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers: “The outbreak of the war [. . .] led many Jewish investors to withdraw their money, partly out of the general sense of alarm, and partly because they wanted to send help to relatives trapped in Europe.” According to Kobrin, the bank had only 654,000 available dollars and owed more than 1.73 million, so the money quickly ran out.
The bank disaster was comically foretold ten years before it happened in David Warfield’s 1904 semi-fictional portrait of Lower East Side life, Ghetto Silhouettes. A revered institution of the East Side, the bank “started in prehistoric times, that is to say before the beginning of the great Russian emigration.” A sleazy trio, “Weinberg, the sweatshop man, Einstein, the dealer in buttons and tailor’s trimmings, and Weinhole, the petticoat maker” conspire to profit from a false run on the “Jobbleousky” (a fictionalized Jarmulowsky) bank, which ends up working out entirely in the noble Jobbleousky’s favor. “You saved me $20,000 in interest, which is, of course, clear profit, and made about $5,000 yourselves,” Jobbleousky announces after foiling their attempts to sabotage the bank. “But if you will kindly bring in your passbooks, I shall close your accounts for good. Tomorrow morning, I have the honor to inform all three of you, you will be arrested on a charge of malicious conspiracy, for which you were indicted yesterday.”
While Jobbelousky had been righteous and heroic, the reputation of his namesake, Jarmulowsky, was surely injured by the bank collapse that happened a couple of years after his death. The depositors began to riot. They encircled the bank.
“Let us go over to the Jarmulowskys and make those thieves tell us when they will give us our money,” The New York Times had quoted a “soap box orator” at a demonstration in front of the bank. They surrounded Meyer’s house. They surrounded my great-grandfather, Louis’s building, where Dorle and the rest of her family escaped to the roof. Meyer held a meeting with the depositors and agreed to pay 15 pennies on every dollar, then ten more pennies for the following six years. But the depositors were far from satisfied. The New York Tribune describes what happened. An angry man, “fury blazing from his eyes,” broke his way through the crowd and approached Meyer. Then “made a prodigious leap, snatched a weapon from his pocket. Before the startled banker could raise an arm to guard his life, a keen blade was on his throat.” Fortunately, Sulzer, the family lawyer, somehow stopped him. Otherwise, Uncle Meyer’s “life blood would have spotted the carpet.”
The Jarmulowsky failure led to the creation of banking laws for private banks that ushered out the era of the immigrant bank. Though the Jarmulowskys were rumored to be worth two million dollars in 1918, the sale of their properties garnered less than $400,000, all of which was owed the depositors. Meyer Jarmulowsky changed his named to Jarmuth and became an architect. “By 1961,” Kobrin concludes her discussion of my family, “almost all of the remaining descendants had changed their names, perhaps to escape the stain of their family’s failure.” Which was true, of course, of Dorle Jarmel, though Kobrin had not heard of her. The family bank scandal did not strip Dorle, Faie and their mother of all of their wealth, but the Orthodox traditions that would have limited them were more or less abandoned.
Dorle had no children, and neither of Faie’s two children, my father and Jill, nor their children, myself included, ever really looked back. I may never have learned my family story if the bank building hadn’t stared Angela in the face. If it were not for the bank and its ignominious collapse, there may well have been “Master Lovers,” the romances she published about Casanova, Gauguin, and others in her teens—as nothing could restrain Dorle’s imagination—but probably no actual lovers, as she would in all likelihood have been married off young and procreated appropriately.
A few years after the bank went under, Dorle, Grand, Faie, and Mrs. Gershwin, Ira and George’s mother, took off for a long European sojourn. A new life had been launched, one that would bring Dorle into the orbit of Toscanini, Maria Callas, and her husband, my Uncle Dario.