On the job: Big Onion Walking Tours’ Seth Kamil
Get the scoop on Seth Kamil’s Christmas Day tours of the Lower East Side, a fascinating alternative to the usual way-too-cheerful Christmas overload
Mon Dec 23 2013
Photograph: Liz Clayman
Seth Kamil founded Big Onion Walking Tours in 1991 and began leading the Christmas Day Jewish Lower East Side jaunt, which explores the neighborhood’s rich history, that same year. Now, the walking tour has become a holiday tradition in its own right.
How did the Christmas tours get started?
I’m Eastern-European Jewish, and my colleague at the time was Irish Catholic; we had a joke that between the two of us, we could work every day of the year but Thanksgiving. We just decided, “Hey, let’s do a tour of the Lower East Side on Christmas Day,” and 15 people showed up.
Have you led the tour every year since then?
I’ve given it 23 times. We have people that come, I don’t want to say annually, but there are people that have been on it six or seven times in the last 20 years.
So it’s like a tradition for them—their movie-and-Chinese-food.
Exactly. What’s fascinating is that many of the people who are on the tour are not Jewish. Last year we had a Japanese family who were visiting New York and didn’t realize that it basically shuts down on Christmas. They walked up and said, “May we take this tour? We’re not Jewish.” And then one of the teenagers said, “What’s Jewish?” Well, hang out for two hours and we’ll tell you.
What’s the coolest part of giving these tours?
On the sort of high philosophical level, it’s just an incredible example of the diversity of New York. On the day where most of America shuts down, this neighborhood is active and vibrant and alive, and it’s just a great day to come explore the history of New York City.
What about the biggest challenge?
Other than potential weather? Because we don’t require reservations, we never know how many people are going to show up. We’ll do the tour if one person shows up or if 100 people show up. We’re going to have four or five guides there, just in case. One year, Christmas Day was, like, 62 degrees and sunny, and I want to say 500 people showed up. It’s a very low-crime day, so a couple police cars from the local precinct were helping us; they shut down an intersection so we could divide everybody up into groups. The biggest question that I get from people is “What’s the weather?” And my answer is, kind of tongue-in-cheek, that, you know, the day that I can accurately predict the weather is the day that I get to retire.
HIS HOLIDAY TIP: “Considering that I work just about every Christmas Day, my favorite thing to do is to adhere to the 11th Commandment: ‘Thou shalt eat Chinese food on Christmas Day,’” says Kamil. “In Brooklyn there’s Pacificana (813 55th St between Eighth and Ninth Aves, Sunset Park, Brooklyn; 718-871-2880). I eat anything but chicken feet.”
The 23rd Annual Christmas Day Jewish Lower East Side Tour meets at the southwest corner of Delancey and Essex Sts (bigonion.com). Wed 25 at 10:30am, 1pm; $15–$20.
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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)