It’s Friday morning and Ari Roth is in the mood for bialys.
The Mosaic Theater Company’s founding artistic director doesn’t have to walk far from his office in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE. Next door is Jeremiah Cohen’s pop-up business, Bullfrog Bagels, which shares space with Star and Shamrock, a Jewish-Irish hybrid bar co-owned by Jason Feldman.
From Jewish food to Jewish-themed productions, Washington-area Jews are helping to transform this edgy neighborhood east of Union Station, which was devastated in the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as it continues a long transition into a thriving commercial and residential corridor.
After we try the bialys, the bagel’s softer cousin whose pouch is filled with sautéed onions (they were mouth-wateringly good), Roth leads me on a brief tour of the neighborhood. He greets the construction workers directing traffic in front of one of the many condos being built beside the homes of long-time residents, many of them working-class and African-American.
At Maketto, a 6,000-square-foot communal marketplace, young (no one appeared over the age of 30) and hip H Streeters sipped coffee, sampled spicy Thai soup and stared into Apple laptops.
Outside in the summer sun, we wait for a still-being-tested streetcar rolling by before crossing at 14th and H. Roth points to a shattered window at the shuttered Ohio Restaurant, which he says was from a shooting. We then walk past the Logan Fringe Arts Space on Florida Avenue, home of the Capital Fringe Festival, and circle back around to the Atlas.
While Feldman recently celebrated five years on H Street, Roth and Cohen are newer to the scene. They are among the Jewish people contributing to the revitalization of the Atlas District, which runs along the H Street corridor in Northeast Washington.
Roth, 54, is reminded of his previous job every time he looks up at the Atlas marquee. Theater J is in residency this month at the Atlas for a month as it puts on The Call (Click here for review). Roth was fired as artistic director of Theater J last December and is preparing to launch the inaugural season of Mosaic.
“It’s kind of an awkward overlap in that Mosaic is here setting up shop,” he concedes.
Cohen, 48, made his own awkward arrival to H Street NE after being fired in 2013 by his mother, Fritzi Cohen, co-owner of the Tabard Inn, a historic hotel in Dupont Circle. For 18 years, Cohen had served as general manager of the hotel and restaurant housed in a trio of 19th century rowhouses.
Cohen opened Bullfrog Bagels last September. The business, which is so successful that Cohen is opening a stand-alone location on Seventh Street SE, is named after the Three Dog Night song “Joy to the World,” which features the opening lyrics “Jeremiah was a bullfrog.”
“I have a passion for really good food and building a business and building a brand. I was doing that at the Tabard Inn all those years, and I’m now doing it on H Street,” says Cohen.
They both see the humor in ending up as neighbors on H Street after abrupt career changes.
“We were joking that it’s where all the middle-aged Jewish boys who’ve misbehaved come to reboot their careers. He was fired. I was fired. He had a terrific thing going. I had a terrific thing going. He was dealing with a mother. I was dealing with a CEO,” says Roth. “We’re happy to be on our own now. We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives but we’re still young enough even though we’re middle aged and we’ve got our aches and pains. It’s a good thing that’s happened to us.”
But Roth and Cohen aren’t the first Jews to set up shop on H Street. Russian Jewish immigrants settled along the corridor in the early 20th century. According to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, “they established small, mom-and-pop shops, often living ‘above the store.’ They sold shoes, repaired bicycles, ran print shops, maintained laundries, were butchers, ran delicatessens, and had junkyards.”
There were more than 100 Jewish-owned shops along H Street in the first half of the 20th century. The community worshipped at Ezras Israel synagogue at 8th and I Streets, NE. The neighborhood also included Greek and Italian immigrants, African Americans and others, who are described as living and working in relative harmony at a time when much of the city was segregated.
Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington Executive Director Laura Cohen Apelbaum says that the organization is fundraising to develop a new walking tour of Jewish life on H Street.
They would have good reason to include Bullfrog Bagels and Star and Shamrock, not only because they are currently Jewish-owned businesses, but because of the previous owners.
Says Feldman: “I just found out the other day from a customer who came here that this building in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s and up to the riots here on H Street in the ‘60s was owned by a Jewish family named Feldman as well.
“Someone came in and had the Census report. He said, ‘Your name is Feldman right? Did you know that this building was owned by Feldmans beforehand?’”