The humidity of that September Manhattan afternoon was unbearable in the subway. So thick was the air steeped with body odor and piss that I practically choked on every other breath. I had to get out of there. I needed fresh elements, but would settle for anything more palatable than what was billowing through those tunnels.
I scurried left and right, trying to weave around the slow-moving elders climbing the stairs in front of me, barriers between my lungs and the outside they desperately needed.
Finally I emerged from the 2nd Avenue station out of breath and wheezing. In that moment I felt small and discombobulated, like an ant having just left its underground labyrinth, humbled and hesitant by the enormity of the world of giants all around. I tried to get my bearings straight and within seconds my eyes adjusted to the light so I could take in my surroundings. So this is East Houston Street I thought to myself—this is the infamous “Lower East Side.”
Remnants of tenement apartment buildings sprinkled between shiny new office condominium towers with floor to ceiling windows wrapping street level retailers. The middle of the street was under construction. Some of the sidewalks looked new while others were speckled with gum turned black and cracks in the curb. The old and historic clashed with the new and sterile in an unexpected harmony that is the culmination of a calloused perseverance permeating the neighborhood. I could almost feel the millions of souls these few blocks have touched in my lifetime and before.
It was overcast. The rain unpredictable and indecisive like a tropical storm unsure of whether or not to stay at sea or come ashore. My hair was wet and my glasses streaked from the sporadic flurries, but there was no time to waste. Besides, why worry about my hair going flat when the growing sweat stains framing my armpits were the more pressing issue.
It was a weekday and I was working remotely. I had an hour between conference calls, and Jonathan didn’t think I’d be able to make it from the Upper West where we were staying to the Lower East and back again in time—or on my own for that matter—since he thinks I’m directionally challenged when it comes to Manhattan. I just had to get to Russ & Daughters, Katz’s Deli, and Yonah Schimmel’s Bakery for a knish and back in 60 minutes. Not because Jonathan didn’t think I could, though pride is usually my biggest motivator, but because I was determined to see the world that defined my family and eventually me. The places my parents, aunts and uncles had been alluding to in stories since as far back as I can remember. The “Lower East Side” is where I’m from. The Lower East Side is the blood, sweat, and tears of my grandparents. Generations of people I never knew and yet I’d been hearing about as a child growing up in the antithesis of New York—San Diego.
Our trips to NY were always packed with meetings, meals with friends, weddings, and events. But with an hour between calls and my heritage within reach, I wasn’t going to let another trip to the cultural birthplace of my parents’ parents pass without getting a little taste of it. This was my chance to fact check my imagination.
As I made my way down E Houston Street the stories of my great-great-grandparents materialized front and center. Abraham and Rose Lefcort (or Lefkowitz depending on the census you check) and their five children in an apartment on Essex Street near Stanton. They were immigrants from Russia or Poland. The boundaries seem to blur with each passing year, but we know it’s somewhere near Minsk the capital of Belarus.
Like so many other Jews on the Lower East Side, Abraham was in the schmata business. He bought and sold fabrics from a single pushcart he parked in front of the factories downtown. And when the women workers broke for lunch, they’d come outside and purchase materials they could sew into clothing for themselves and their families. As the legend goes he was a shrewd businessman and his one pushcart evolved into several before he started buying and selling men’s suits. Their nephew was Barney Pressman of Barney’s New York fame. Some stories start with my great-great-grandfather giving Barney one of his first loans when he first opened his suit shop downtown.
His business grew and he opened up his own factory and moved the family to Borough Park Brooklyn where they had one of the first homes on Long Island with indoor plumbing. This luxury was quite the novelty back then, and established them as upper class. There he and Rose raised five children (my great-grandmother Elsie was the eldest), grew very successful from selling suits, and became the president of their shul. They ended up leaving the men’s clothing business when the labor unions became a pain to deal with, and he started Affiliated Answering Service; what became one of the largest answering services in Manhattan. He and his sons Harry, Danny and Billy bought up brownstones all over the city, and filled them with female operators who answered the phones for doctors’ offices and professionals. Years later when technology made answering services obsolete, the family was left with some really amazing real estate they could liquidate for cash. I’m still waiting for my share ; )
My great grandmother Elsie was the eldest of her siblings. She met my great grandfather Philip Rothman (who I’m named after), a young handsome Russian immigrant who was also in the schmata business. They say appearances were everything to Elsie and Philip, who moved to a doorman apartment building on the Upper West (77th and West End Ave) where they had a seven bedroom apartment and Lilly, a Jamaican maid who came to work every day from 6:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night. Some of the recipes my mother still makes today came from Lilly god rest her soul.
Philip was as dapper as can be. He never left the house without his a three-piece suit, and spats on his shoes. He walked with a cane, but not because he needed it. Every morning after Lilly fixed them breakfast, Elsie insisted on driving her husband to his lofts and warehouses downtown. Buildings on Broadway he bought for $40,000 that would now sells for tens of millions. Behind the wheel of their Studebaker convertible I envisioned little Elsie with a scarf protecting her hair chauffeuring her husband to the empire he built as a jobber and converter. Philip Rothman & Son was the name of his business once my great uncle Paul was old enough to join. Together they managed mills in Cuba where they bought and sold bolts of fabric that were sold in bulk to retailers and manufacturers who could turn them into usable goods. They created a niche for themselves in “fire sales,” by going to insurance auctions to buy fabrics rescued from factory fires at cents on the dollar just to pull the outer layers off and sell the bolts underneath like new. Rumor is that they were sometimes involved in the fires and had the inside track with the insurance companies….but who knows if that’s true?
Some say Elsie wore the pants in the relationship. She came from money and with her father’s connections in the rag business she set Philip up for success. It’s been speculated her motive for driving Philip to work everyday was so she could keep an eye on him. He had a reputation of sleeping around, and she knew about it. So she stalked him from time to time. Once she even joined a friend for lunch at a restaurant where Philip was dining with one of his mistresses. She was a tough in-your-face kind of woman who refused to be a victim. So she marched up to his table and put him on the spot. “Hello Phil,” she said, “aren’t you going to introduce me?” She used to tell people that her husband had his flings with women, but that she would always be “Mrs. Philip Rothman.”
Russ & Daughters
After dropping him off at work, she’d do her grocery shopping, and back then that meant she’d stop at Russ & Daughters for the essentials. She and eventually my grandmother Anita, used to go to Russ & Daughters for their smoked fish. When they walked in, no matter how long the wait, someone would drop what they were doing so they could wait on them. “Hello Mrs. Rothman. Nice to see you again Mrs. Rothman. The usual Mrs. Rothman?”
With a wad of cash she kept in her bra and the big tips she left behind, she always got the best customer service everywhere she went. And she wasn’t an easy customer either. She was very particular about her cuts of meat and fish, and she only liked things a certain way. Nor was she afraid to tell you what that was.
I had the opposite experience at Russ & Daughters. I could barely get in the door it was so packed inside.
I grabbed a number and took an inventory of my surroundings. The pre-packaged foods in the fridge case looked classic, as if the same recipes they’ve been using since they opened in 1914. Bread pudding and rice puddings in disposable aluminum tins. Pickled herring in brine and pickled herring in sour cream. Sweet pickles, sour pickles and more pickles. There were foods you rarely see like tsimis, blintzes and gefilte fish in a plastic container and not a jar filled with jelly.
There’s a candy section to the right of the entrance when you first walk in. Everything looked good, but that’s definitely not the reason people come to Russ & Daughters.
It’s across from the candy counter that you want to focus your attention on and that’s the smoked fish case. It lines that entire east side of the shop.
There’s probably about twelve fish mongers in white coats each with their own space behind the nova and fish case. Each are busy helping a customer while the rest of us wait patiently for our turn.
I watched an older Jewish woman mumbling to her African American caregiver what she wanted and didn’t want from the case. If my grandmother were still alive today, I imagine she’d be there rain or shine with a younger version of Lilly to get her nova and schmear for the week. It was awesome to see a black woman ordering nova with authority, something I’d always associated with zaftig white people my entire life. She wanted it thin and center cut.
In the back I witnessed a woman pulling aside one of the managers who I think is one of the “daughters” in Russ & Daughters, to show her some words in German she had written on a crumpled piece of paper. Even though she was swamped with tons of catering and shipping orders, she took the time to pay attention to the patron, and within minutes they were laughing and crying about family and history, and how Russ & Daughters was at the center of so much of it.
Since I was on the go, I wasn’t going to order a pound of lox or white fish. Instead I took the recommendation of a friend and ordered one of the signature bagel sandwiches from the menu—the Super Heebster.
For $12 the Super Heebster is white fish and baked salmon salad with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi flying fish roe on a bagel or bialy. I had it on a bialy. The sweetness from the onions in the bialy meshed perfectly with the saltiness of the white fish salad and the brightness of the dill cream cheese. The horseradish isn’t overpowering at all either, but it still rings through at the back of your tongue for that little kick of heat elevating the entire thing. Yum!
The bagels at Russ & Daughters are also really good as was quoted in New York Magazine “The bagel: hand-rolled and water boiled.” Just like we like it.
After Russ & Daughters I strolled like Elsie would to the end of the block to pick up some corned beef and rye from Katz Deli. There Elsie would make sure not to get any end pieces, and of the cuts from the middle, she liked the ones with a certain ratio of fat to flesh.
I on the other hand stumbled in to a madhouse. The bouncers at the door only lets a certain number of people in once some have left. Once inside you scramble into what looks like a mosh pit of foodies and hope that where you’re standing is actually one of the lines leading up to the guys in white who take your order and carve the meat.
These men are artists, moving like ninjas with their meat forks and blades from the steamers to their cutting boards and back again.
My sister-in-law’s brother gave me a helpful hint, which is to make sure you put a couple bucks in the tip cup when you get to front and place your order. Make sure they see it too. Don’t hesitate. Just shove it in there, and tell them what you want. The tip ensures you get a sample of what you’ve ordered while you wait for them to assemble your sandwich or plate. It also gives them an excuse to give you a little extra if they feel so inclined. I can’t say what will happen if you don’t leave them a tip, but I don’t want to find out.
I ordered a pastrami reuben to go, which came with some pickles wrapped separately on the side so the juice doesn’t soggy up the bread.
And then I got out of there as fast as possible. Before you leave, you have to wait in one more line at the cash register near the door and then you’re out!
Yonah Shimmel Knish Bakery
I don’t have confirmation that my great-grandparents or even grandparents ate at Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery (which is spelled with a ‘Sch’ on their website though their awning is missing the C), but I know they ate knishes, and these are notoriously some of the best in Manhattan if not the US. My aunt definitely ate them when she lived in New York, so she insisted I check this place out, and some of the family lived a few blocks away so I’m sure a great uncle or aunt was a regular there at some point.
Yonah Schimmel’s is literally a hole in the wall. They serve a large variety of knishes and from the makeshift handwritten signs scotch-taped to the counter and walls, they might try some new things here and there, but you should only be ordering the knishes.
What’s a knish? Knishes are an Eastern European street food. They usually consist of a flaky pastry dough on the outside with a filling of potato and onion on the inside. Some places fold the pastry and filling together so you get a casserole of sorts. Others are more of a dumpling with a distinct inside and out.
The first thing you need to know about Yonah Schimmel knishes is that they’re huge. Imagine a grapefruit that’s been smashed into a large hockey puck with rounded edges….yeah, it’s a meal for one person. They also have some really interesting flavors, which is probably more for tourists who don’t know better, but I’m sure they’re good too.
I went with the classic potato onion and cheese. Then I added a spinach, a mushroom, and beet knish to fill out the order. I had them wrap them in a box tied with string and we brought them to our friends house for an appetizer later that evening.
My hour was long gone and I knew Jonathan would have a big grin and “I told you so” waiting for me when I got back. I ended up calling into my conference call from my cell while I standing under the overhang of a pickle shop across the street from Katz Deli. The occasional “screw you jerk” from a pedestrian to a cabbie in the background made for some interesting explanations to my colleagues on the other end.
I couldn’t wait to get off the phone. Electrified, my body was alive with adrenalin pumping through my veins from the experience. Partly because I’d just been served by the same iconic institutions that served my ancestors nearly a century ago, but mostly because I couldn’t wait to get back to the apartment so I could sink my teeth into each of those delicious foods—symbols I’d been savoring for a lifetime.