Posted in Food, New York City, Photography, Travel

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery is a culinary staple of the Lower East Side. Like many other proletarian businesspeople of the era, Romanian immigrant Rabbi Yonah Schimmel used a pushcart to hawk his wares (made by his wife) when he started in 1890. He originally worked on Coney Island.

Locals loved his offerings, so much so Rabbi Schimmel and his cousin Joseph Berger were soon able to rent a little store on Houston St. (It’s pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the Texas city.) Rabbi Schimmel left to teach Hebrew two years later, but Mr. Berger kept the bakery’s name the same.

Copyright Nbarth

In 1910, the bakery moved to the south side of Houston, between First and Second Avenues. By this time, Mr. Berger’s wife Rose (also Rabbi Schimmel’s daughter; no comment!) co-ran the business. Back then, the bakery was on the ground level of a five-story tenement.

There were soon so many knisheries on the Lower East Side, a price war erupted in 1916. This was such a serious matter, state investigator William Groat held hearings regarding a knish cartel in 1928. One of the traditional knish fillings is kasha, buckwheat groats, so his surname was quite appropriate!

Copyright Urbankayaker

According to Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder’s 1968 “Underground Eats” column in New York Magazine, “No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face.” To this day, that declaration is taped above a counter.

Just to give a few examples, Theodore Roosevelt came for kasha knishes when he was the city’s police commissioner, and Eleanor Roosevelt made many campaign stops at Schimmel’s on her husband’s behalf.

In addition to offering delicious knishes, Schimmel’s has also been the subject of several artworks. Jewish–Irish artist Harry Kernoff painted it in 1939, and the Museum of the City of New York has a 1976 oil painting by Hedy Pagremanski on permanent display.

Over the last 110 years, the menu has largely remained the same, and the recipe is unchanged, though prices have naturally risen. Knishes aren’t the only thing on the menu either. Schimmel’s also offers matzah ball soup, kugel, latkes, bagels, borshcht, and egg creams.

Traditional knish fillings are kasha, onion and mashed potatoes, and cheese. Though they’re still the most popular, modern diners can also choose from jalapeño, blueberry, apple, chocolate, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, cherry, and mushroom.

Copyright Eric Hunt

Schimmel’s is still a family business, now run by Alex Wolfson and his daughter Ellen Anistratov. On his second day in America in 1979, Mr. Wolfson (Rabbi Schimmel’s great-nephew) began working as a busboy.

My characters Igor Konev and Violetta Likachëva go to Schimmel’s on some of their dates. It’s casual without being a hole in the wall, and conveniently located. Violetta lives in Greenwich Village, and Igor lives in the northern part of the Lower East Side (the area which later seceded and rebranded itself the so-called East Village).

More information:

http://www.timesofisrael.com/at-new-yorks-oldest-knishery-nosh-with-a-side-of-jewish-history/

http://www.knishery.com/

http://web.archive.org/web/20090910044131/http://www.mcny.org/museum-collections/painting-new-york/pttcat109.htm

http://www.villagevoice.com/2015/06/18/nosh-on-knishes-and-more-than-100-years-of-tradition-at-yonah-schimmel/

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/knish/

Posted in Food, Judaism, New York City, Photography, Travel

Katz’s Delicatessen

Copyright Beyond My Ken

In 1888, Katz’s Delicatessen began its life on Ludlow St. in the Lower East Side as Iceland Brothers. In 1903, Willy Katz joined the business, and it was renamed Iceland & Katz. In 1910, Willy’s cousin Ben came aboard and bought out the Icelands. Katz’s Delicatessen was officially born.

In April 1917, landlord Harry Tarowsky bought into the partnership. The deli was forced to relocate across the street due to subway construction, though its Ludlow entrance remained the same. Barrels of pickles and meat were stored at a vacant lot on Houston St. (The Manhattan street is pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the city in Texas.)

From 1946–49, that Houston St. vacant lot added the current façade, and the operation shifted from Ludlow St.

Copyright TaurusEmerald

The Lower East Side is famous as a huge immigrant hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, esp. in regards to its Jewish population. So many immigrants lived in the LES, it’s a popular misconception that that was the ONLY place immigrants lived.

Some people expressed great surprise to learn only one branch of my family tree lived in NYC after immigrating, and that they barely spent any time there. Based on their own family histories and the popular narrative, they believed all immigrants settled in the city.

However, many immigrants did live in the LES, and Katz’s became an important community meeting-place. During the heyday of Yiddish theatre, the deli was frequented by actors, comedians, and singers. On Fridays, everyone convened on Katz’s for franks and beans.

Copyright Shinya Suzuki

During WWII, in response to the owners’ sons serving in the Army, the company’s slogan became “Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army.” This slogan was coined by Rose Tarowsky, whose son Izzy was a bomber pilot in the South Pacific.

When Willy Katz passed away, his son Lenny took over. Then, in 1980, both Harry Tarowsky and Ben Katz passed, leaving the deli to Izzy Tarowsky and Artie Maxstein (Ben’s son-in-law). Because this second generation had no offspring of their own to bequeath Katz’s to, they let their good friend and restaurateur Martin Dell, his chef son Alan, and his son-in-law Fred Austin buy into the partnership in 1988, on the deli’s centenary.

In late 2009, Alan’s son Jake officially joined the team and is now the acting head.

Copyright Beleg Langbogen

In connection with Katz’s 125th anniversary in 2013, a pop-up art gallery opened next door, featuring artwork by locals. The art rotates on a monthly basis.

Continuing the tradition begun during WWII, Katz’s continues to send gift packages to troops overseas.

In 2017, Katz’s finally opened a second location in Downtown Brooklyn.

Copyright Urbankayaker

Patrons are handed a numbered, printed ticket upon entering. While they get food from the various stations throughout the deli, employees keep a running tab. If one loses a ticket, a $50 fine is added to the bill. Management wants to encourage patrons to go back through the store to try to find the ticket to prevent theft.

Sadly, Katz’s is no longer kosher. Some of the ingredients start out kosher, but aren’t used, prepared, or served according to the laws of Kashrut. Their biggest violation is serving meat and dairy together. Not all the meat is certified kosher anymore either. Though Katz’s never pretended to be strictly kosher, it wasn’t that bad!

Copyright Dizzledan

Copyright City Foodsters

My characters Igor Konev and Violetta Likachëva go to Katz’s for several dates. It’s conveniently located, since Violetta lives in Greenwich Village, and Igor lives with his great-aunt in the northern Lower East Side (the area which later seceded as the so-called East Village).

Posted in Judaism, New York City, Photography, Religion, Travel

Jewish Theological Seminary

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the flagship North American higher educational institute of the Conservative Movement, started its life in 1886 as an Orthodox school. Italian-born Rabbi Sabato Morais of Philadelphia was chosen as president on account of his bridge-building and moderation between the then-two major factions of Judaism.

At that point in history, Reform Judaism was nothing like it is today, with its increasing reclamation of traditional practices. They radically rejected almost everything in pursuit of “changing with the times,” blending into Gentile society, and seemingly being oppositional for the mere sake of being oppositional.

Rabbi Morais was once among Reform ranks, but took a hard, fast step backwards after the infamous 1885 Pittsburgh Platform which called for a rejection of traditional beliefs and practices. The equally-infamous 1883 Trefa Banquet in Cincinnati didn’t help matters either.

Judaism hasn’t survived and thrived so long because of warm, fuzzy feelings and nostalgia for matzah ball soup. It survived because people followed the Torah in all aspects of their lives. Evolving with the times shouldn’t come at the cost of becoming a secular lox and bageler who only goes to shul thrice a year.

When the Jewish Theological Seminary Association began, it was Orthodox. The faculty modelled the curriculum and philosophy after that of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau in Germany (now Wrocław, Poland). Zecharias Frankel, president of the German JTS, was the founder of Positive–Historical Judaism (now Conservative Judaism).

In 1894, the first graduate, Rabbi Joseph Hertz, was ordained. He served as Chief Rabbi of the U.K. from 1913–46.

Rabbi Hertz in 1913

After Rabbi Morais’s 1897 passing, the JTS fell into financial difficulties. Help arrived in October 1901, when the school was invited to join a new organisation called the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The incorporation took place 14 April 1902, and they received a $500,000 fund and a better building in the Bronx’s University Heights.

On 15 September 1902, the reorganised seminary opened. Presently, Rabbi Solomon Schechter became president. Because of his passionate advocacy for what soon became Conservative Judaism, many rabbis left. Rabbi Schechter fired others for lacking academic qualifications.

The Orthodox Union maintained ties with JTS for many decades, and many of their rabbis taught there. During this era, there were few meaningful differences between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Schechter

On 23 February 1913, the United Synagogue of America, now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), was founded as an organisation of synagogues who follow that denomination.

In the early 20th century, JTS boasted many venerable professors in fields like Talmud, history, rabbinic literature, the Bible, and Hebrew. Though the rabbinic school had excellent academic standards, there wasn’t much time devoted to practical rabbinical training.

In 1909, a teaching school was added. Most students were women, since teaching was one of the few so-called “respectable” professions open to women in the era, and because the Teachers Institute was one of the only schools offering women an advanced education in Jewish studies.

Both bachelor’s and master’s degrees were offered, in schools which respectively became the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies and the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.

In 1930, under the presidency of Cyrus Adler, a new building was commissioned at 122nd St. and Broadway, in neo-Colonial style and with a corner tower. The next year, the Seminary College of Jewish Studies was created for students who wanted college-level courses but not teaching careers.

Louis Finkelstein became chancellor in 1940 and made significant strides towards bringing modern Judaism to the U.S. public, including:

The Eternal Light, which began on NBC radio in 1944 and later moved to TV, running till 1989. It won many awards and had many famous guests, both Jewish and Gentile.

Camp Ramah, which began in Conover, Wisconsin in 1947. It now has ten sleepaway camps and five daycamps.

A satellite campus in Yerushalayim.

A cantorial school.

The Leadership Training Fellowship for students interested in Jewish public service.

The Universal Brotherhood program, later expanded into the Institute for Religious Studies and the Herbert H. Lehman Institute of Ethics.

The Institute for Religious and Social Studies, which fostered interfaith dialogues. In 1986, it was renamed in Finkelstein’s honor.

The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, now the Graduate School of JTS.

Appointing many top-notch professors, the most famous being Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Sadly, Finkelstein’s tenure also included a fire on 16 April 1966, which destroyed 70,000 books and damaged many others. Thankfully, the rare books and manuscripts weren’t stored in the library, and thus were spared. The 35,000 books which were saved are now being catalogued and restored.

JTS began ordaining women as rabbis and cantors in 1983, under the chancellorship of Gerson D. Cohen. Under the leadership of Ismar Schorsch (1986–2006), the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education was created, and many new advanced programs were added in the master’s programs.

Over its 134 years, JTS has produced countless rabbis, cantors, teachers, and scholars. Starting in the 1980s, some of my Atlantic City characters attend its rabbinical and cantorial schools.

Posted in Judaism, Religion

Writing about Birkat HaChamah

Birkat HaChamah by the Kotel (Western Wall), 8 April 2009, Copyright Lipaphotography

Birkat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun, is a special mitzvah that only happens once every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. The average person might get to perform it 3-4 times in a lifetime.

The next time it’ll happen is 2037, and then 2065, 2093, and 2121. If I’m blessed enough to live to 2093, I’ll be 113. I’d like to make it to 2100, if only to say I lived in three centuries.

Birkat HaChamah falls out when the Sun completes its cycle, always on a Tuesday at sundown. However, it’s postponed till Wednesday morning, when the Sun is visible.

According to traditional Jewish theology, this is when the Sun returns to the position it was in on the non-literal fourth day of creation. Many scholars and rabbis, Orthodox as well as progressive, have interpreted the Torah’s concept of creation days as lasting more than 24 hours.

Sunrise over Yerushalayim on Birkat HaChamah 2009, Copyright Bcohn

One looks at the Sun on the horizon while reciting the blessing ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית, “Blessèd are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Maker of the works of Creation.”

Some people modify the Hebrew to use female language (e.g., Malka [Queen] vs. Melech [King]). Hashem has both male and female attributes, invoked at different times. When I say the famous Avinu Malkeynu (Our Father, Our King) prayer on the High Holy Days, I alternate the first lines as “Our Father, Our King” and “Our Mother, Our Queen.”

It’s a very brief service, with the first six lines of Psalm 148 before the Sun blessing, followed by Psalms 19, 121, and 150, a Talmud passage about Birkat HaChamah, Psalm 167, the Aleynu prayer, and Mourner’s Kaddish.

Preparing for Birkat HaChamah in 2009 in Yerushalayim, Copyright Chadica

Since this is such a rare mitzvah, everyone is urged to participate in it, even small children. This isn’t something like missing Shabbos or holiday services, where there’s another chance next week or year.

If the Sun is completely blocked, minority opinions allow the blessing to be recited regardless. We should always encourage people to do a mitzvah, esp. considering this one only comes once every 28 years, and tomorrow is never guaranteed.

I wrote a short story called “Birkat HaChamah,” set 7.5 billion years in the future, in the days leading up to the final Birkat HaChamah ever. It ends as the subgiant, red giant, maximum radius Sun swallows the Moon and Earth, shortly after a super-elder, at least 10,000 years old, pronounces the blessing from the final rocket to evacuate.

Red giant Sun and carbonized Earth, Copyright Fsgregs

Posted in Judaism, Religion

Being a full-time student is not a job!

This was originally posted on my old Angelfire site in late 2008. It’s edited down from a rambling 2,807 words.

We ran a longer version of this article in the local newspaper I work for, and the sentiment of these ultra-Orthodox rabbis responsible for this “day of prayer” really pisses me off. There’d be no need for this organised effort to pray wealthy philanthropists donate money if these guys studying 24/7 had actual jobs. And prayer doesn’t always get answered the way we want it to.

David Ben-Gurion granted a draft deferment because there weren’t that many Hareidim at the time, and he felt sentimentality towards them for how they represented old-world Judaism, and believed that in another generation or so, they’d largely die out. Instead they kept getting more and more populous, though the vast majority of Israelis aren’t religious.

Total nonsense to seriously claim secular Jews feel embarrassed by the Orthodox. How can a small, albeit vocal, minority make a huge majority feel embarrassed or ashamed?

We have an entire generation of men who won’t work and have to depend upon the government (whom they ordinarily despise and do everything to weasel out of having to deal with) to give them a stipend so they can support their gigantic families.

Oh, what a crisis, Rabbis Elyashiv and Shteinman. These poor kollel men have such troubles at home when they can’t bring in enough money, and it leads to strained marriages and relationships with their children. If they worked real jobs, they’d earn enough money to support a wife and kids.

Nothing’s stopping them from devoting an hour or so every day to studying. They just won’t be able to do that all day, every day. They’ll have more important priorities, like going to work. A lot of ultra-Orthodox women often have to bring in the bacon (so to speak), because their husbands won’t hear of working in the secular world.

Studying all day and producing an army of children doesn’t constitute a real job. Why the hell should they get any stipend? They’re letting their families starve and live in poverty because they feel nonstop studying is the only way to go.

A Midrash on the ten spies who brought back a bad report says that their sin wasn’t so much bringing back a bad report of Eretz Yisrael, but rather giving this bad report on purpose so the people would stay in the desert, closer to God, living a highly spiritual life, studying Torah and doing mitzvot all day.

But that wasn’t what God wanted. They were supposed to engage in the real world when they crossed over into Israel, not sit meditating and praying all day long. Because of this sin, of that entire generation, only Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter Israel and not die in the desert, and the people were condemned to stay in the desert for 38 more years. These modern-day kollel men are committing the same exact sin!

It’s not bad to become a rabbi or full-time scholar, but not everyone’s cut out for those roles. In the past, most men didn’t study 24/7, since community leaders recognised most guys didn’t have what it took to be brilliant scholars. Quality, not quantity.

Maybe Hashem was trying to tell Rabbis Shteinman and Elyashiv something. Foreign philanthropists haven’t contributed enough money because Hashem disapproves of the entire system. If this isn’t the will of God, that “day of prayer for philanthropists” didn’t have the desired effect of “storming the gates of heaven.” Maybe the entire yeshiva/kollel system will be dismantled and these guys will be forced to get real jobs and live in the outside world. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is “no.”

How childish can they be, seriously believing this day of prayer would help them out so much? Hashem wants us to be proactive in our own destiny, not just sit back praying, pleading, begging, and waiting for him/her to do it for us.

These rabbis’ view of God is like that of a child, praying to a Superman or candyman up in the sky, someone who’ll give us whatever we want because we asked for it, dammit, and really want it!

Nothing will cure these ultras of their smug arrogant triumphalism. Only they practise Judaism properly. Things weren’t like this even 50 years ago. People worked real jobs and didn’t just study all day long.

They can claim these guys are great scholars all they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re glorified unemployed, unskilled, uneducated, unproductive members of society.