WRITTEN BY RABBI STEWART WEISS
I make no bones about it: I’m a foodie. I look forward to my meals and my snacks, from the time I get up in the morning until I finally get to bed at night. I love to cook and to experiment in the kitchen with different foods, both local and exotic. I spend a long time browsing the aisles at food specialty stores, and I’d just as soon read a cookbook as I would a great novel. I especially like “Jewish” food which, quite peculiarly, starts more often than not with a K: Kugel, knish, kichel, kuchen, knaidlach, and my personal favorite – kreplach.
I imagine I get this all from my Bubbie. I was privileged to grow up in the same house as Zaydie and Bubbie, and she was an amazing cook – with golden hands – well into her late ‘80’s. Even when arthritis twisted her fingers sideways and she gave out a woeful krechtz (there’s another K!) as she massaged the dough and peeled the vegetables, she insisted on doing everything by hand. “Hand-made means love, Rachel,” she used to say, “and love is my secret ingredient!”
Bubbie always called me Rachel, even though my parents and my friends call me Kelly. While mom and dad agreed to name me for my great-grandmother Rachel, I think that they cooked up my nickname so I wouldn’t sound “too” Jewish. Somewhere along the way – it never has a specific date; it happens slowly, imperceptibly rather than all at once – our family drifted down the tradition trail, and reminiscing about Judaism replaced the real thing. But my taste for Jewish tastes never faltered.
Which is why my eyes lit up and my taste buds tingled the moment I saw the rather obscure little notice on Facebook: “Friday night dinner – just like Bubbie used to make. 7 pm, 121 Essex St.” OMG! I just had to go there, no matter what a shlep it was to Manhattan from the 5 Towns. But strangely, there was no name in the ad, no phone number or email address. How could I make a reservation? What if it’s sold out? And, curiously, the date was a Thursday, not a Friday night!
But that address! Close to where the one and only Schmulka Bernstein’s – may it rest in peace – used to be. Schmulk’s – the greatest Jewish restaurant in the history of the world! I remembered it from when I was a little girl, and Zaydie used to take me there for my birthday. He always got the deli – “best on both sides of the Hudson!” he used to say – while I, of course, got the Chinese. The little twisty crackers in sweet and sour sauce, the old waiters in funny, funky Chinese caps nudging people to finish their meal and free up their table, and the most amazing smell! “Heaven in a hurry” was how Zaydie described it.
And off I went. I drove down to the Lower East Side, once the heartbeat of Jewish New York that bustled with all things kosher, now a part degenerate, part re-gentrified neighborhood, where the hip and the hapless strangely mixed together. I parked the car & excitedly walked down Essex Street, noting how many storefronts and apartment buildings still had mezuzot – or faint traces of them – on the doorposts, though the Jews were long gone. I came to 119 Essex, and found 123, but there was no 121. Just a rundown, neglected bare brick wall between two buildings. I double-checked the notice and looked for some sign of a café, a restaurant, a food store – but there was nothing remotely like that.
So I decided to wait and see what happened. A couple people walked by, looked at the empty wall and then shrugged their shoulders and left. I guess they, too, had seen the ad, but, like most New Yorkers, they didn’t have the time or patience to just hang around. But my curiosity and hope overruled my impatience. While I was waiting, I went around the corner to explore the building. Spotting a small window that had a Magen David etched in it, I rubbed off the dust and looked inside. There was a room with some wooden rows and benches, a large table in front and books of all types lining the walls. It looked like the place hadn’t been entered in years.
And then, twenty minutes after 7, I saw him. A somewhat elderly man wearing an overcoat and a beaten-down fedora, rambling down the street and pushing an oversized shopping cart. I watched in amazement as he pulled
a folding chair and a huge roll of canvas out of the cart. He lifted the canvas to the top of the wall and motioned to me, “Don’t just stand there, little lady, help me out!” So I held the canvas as he taped it securely to the wall, top, bottom and sides. And then I stepped back and saw it: it was a huge photograph of a kitchen, complete with a stove, a sink, pots, pans and a sign that said, “Bubbie’s.”
“Welcome to my restaurant,” smiled the man, “my name’s Eli and you’ve come to the right place.”
“This isn’t what I had in mind,” I started to protest, but he put his finger to his lips and silenced me. “Don’t kvetch,” (yes, another K); just enjoy!” He took a small fold-up table from the cart and invited me to sit down. And the meal of a lifetime began. One by one, the foil pans emerged from that seemingly bottomless cart. First came the gefilte fish – with chrain, of course – then the chopped liver, with a generous helping of gribenes. I winced, but he pushed the plate closer. “We’re all going to die sometime, so better to make it worthwhile!” He handed me a pletzel – a round, soft bread topped with fried onions and poppy seeds – and said, “Eat, eat!” His face lit up with each glorious bite I took.
Then the chicken soup – don’t ask me how he kept it warm – just the way I like it: lots of carrots and parsley, a bit of rice and the grand prize – two golden kreplach, which made me ooh and aah. With every mouthful, I felt like I was being transported to another time, when trust and optimism and hope were taken for granted and love permeated the air. After the soup, I begged Eli to take a break; I was stuffed. So he sat down next to me and told me his story.
“I grew up near here,” he said softly; “this place was once my shul and it was the centerpiece of the neighborhood. You came here to pray, to learn, to meet friends and socialize, to argue, to learn who you are – and to eat. The kiddushes were legendary; it was well worth waiting out the Chazan to enjoy the great food that came next.”
“But little by little, things changed. The younger generation got rich and moved out; the old folks started to come only in dribs and drabs, when their health would let them. We couldn’t afford a rabbi or a real chazan anymore, and soon it was impossible to even get a minyan together. But I stayed, because I believe that as long as someone holds on to the tradition, it will never die. It starts in the stomach – where you get your first taste of it – and if you’re lucky, it spreads to your head, your heart and your soul. That’s why I reckon you’re here, Rachel Kelly, because you, too, don’t want to let go. In a way, life is like the kreplach you love so much; what’s inside is hidden and you’ll never know what you have until you actually take a bite.”
There was no room in my tummy for a main course, so we shared a bit of wine and finished the meal with some delicious apple strudel. Then, reluctantly, I helped Eli pack up all his things and put them back in the shopping cart. I stared for a long time at the canvas on the wall and cried to think that soon the lifeless bricks would return, and the “kitchen” would vanish. But Eli cheered me up. “You know,” he said, “tomorrow is Friday night, Shabbat. That’s the extra ingredient we didn’t have tonight. So why don’t you invite some friends over, light a couple candles and make a few of your favorite dishes? You may find that your walls suddenly take on a life of their own. And a few invisible guests may even decide to join you for the evening!”
I never went back to the kitchen on Essex. But I took Eli’s advice and I transported it to my own home; next week, I think I’ll put out a notice on Facebook.