By Keith Bloomfield
Though she could speak halting English, Mrs. Levy was always more comfortable conversing in Yiddish. What little Hebrew she knew was for shul and the Seder table. It was for the brachot over Shabbos candles on the dinner table. It was for the brachot over the Hanukiah that shone as a beacon through the living room window. From the street, it was another link in an unbroken chain of light that zigged and zagged through and around the neighborhood proclaiming that here lives a community of Jews. Today, she would probably be called “linguistically challenged,” but her situation was no different than immigrants who had come to America before her or since. With Mr. Eisenhower in the White House, Jews were comfortable in their newfound homes and especially in their adopted neighborhoods.
Growing up in a tiny Polish shetl, Mrs. Levy had found it much easier to be Jewish, because everyone around her was Jewish as well. When her mother began teaching her the basics of keeping a proper home, everything was couched in “Jewishness.” Any question of why something was done was met with a "Because that's the way it is" from her mother. As for kashrut, the explanation was crystal clear - "Because the toirah says you shouldn't boil a lamb in its mother's milk. That’s why." Even as a child, Mrs. Levy knew there had to be more to it.
Then her family immigrated to America and moved in with her uncle, Lev, who had started to call himself Lou since coming to the new world. Suddenly, being and remaining Jewish became more difficult. There was more competition for her time and attention. Remaining Jewish was now a conscious effort. The rituals of her childhood were challenged as she grew into adolescence and then into a young woman. The simple daily acts that were second nature to her, became special, because they kept her focused on who and what she was.
Saying the blessing HaMotzi before each meal and benching afterwards, pausing at the supermarket amidst a world of choice while she designed a menu that was either fleshik (meat) or milchik (dairy), but certainly not both and scheduling her week around Shabbat. Each simple act of choice made her realize how well her mother had taught her and raised even her most trivial actions to something almost kadosh – holy. How could she forget who she was when there was a constant reminder always around the next corner?
Her daughters were Americans, born and raised. The Yiddish they had learned was a matter of survival. Mr. and Mrs. Levy launched into the mamaloshen – the mother tongue, anytime the conversation was not meant for the children’s ears. So the girls learned Yiddish to understand what they were not meant to hear.
While she had little use for the language, Mrs. Levy insisted that her daughters’ children attend religious school so that they could learn Hebrew. Sometimes she asked her eldest grandson, Larry, to read to her something written in Hebrew. Not from a prayer book or the Torah, but something more commonplace.
On walks along Tremont Avenue, Mrs. Levy would see a sign in the window and stop abruptly. “Lesn!” she would command the youngster, who had quickly leaned the Yiddish word for “read” and he would begin translating the text of her desire into Hebrew. Then, she would take a deep breath, sigh and kvell that she did so well by her grandson.
One day, during a walk, Larry suddenly stopped and stood transfixed in front of the neighborhood butcher’s window. A big black bicycle with thick tires was parked in front of the shop window. Its kickstand was long gone and it leaned gingerly against the glass. A huge metal basket was clamped to the handlebars and further supported by long metal struts bolted to the front wheel. Greenberg’s delivery boy, Max, would fill the basket to overflowing with orders to be delivered and just as he was ready to leave, Greenberg would rush out of the shop with more deliveries that he would clutch in one arm while he steered with the other. “It’s a wonder that there was never an accident,” pondered the neighbors.
There were other neon signs along the street. The Chinese restaurant’s bold green “Chow Mein” assaulted passersby. “Delicatessen” flickered in blue neon in Mr. Goodman’s window. “Same Day Cleaning” announced the sign in Cooperman’s shop. It was the sign in the butcher’s that caught Larry’s eye this particular day.
“Nanna, the sign says bosher bosher, not kosher bosher.” She looked at the child quizzically. “It says ‘meat meat,’ not kosher meat. You see, both words start with kaf, not a kaf and a bet.”
He pointed to the tiny ledge trailing behind the first letter of each word. The words, rendered in bright yellow neon tubing were exactly the same. The nuisance of written language was lost on her, but if the two words were supposed to be different, why were they spelled the same way?
When she married and started her own home, she quickly learned that her mother’s teaching on kashrut was not complete. The Torah had much more to say about what animals were fit to eat and which were traif. It would never have crossed her mind that Greenberg the Butcher had been selling traif for who knows how many years. A breach of faith like that had never occurred in the neighborhood.
When you went to the kosher butcher you trusted that anything you bought there came from a healthy animal that was ritually slaughtered by a shochet who had followed halakah and done the deed according to tradition. Then you could leave it up to the butcher to salt your purchases to draw out the lifeblood of the animal or you could do it yourself. You knew you could trust the butcher because of the neon sign in the window and the letter from a rabbi in the window testifying that the butcher met the highest standards of kashrut. The rabbi and the butcher were pillars of the community.
A breech of trust, “Not in my neighborhood,” thought Mrs. Levy. If Greenberg the butcher was selling traif, she had to be sure and if it were so: people would have to know, steps would have to be taken. She would enter the store and confront him.
“Oy, that would never work. I have to make him admit he’s selling traif. I have to trick him into it, somehow,” she reasoned. “Larry, we’re going to visit Mr. Greenberg, but don’t say a word about the sign. Understand?” she queried, wagging her index finger in his face. The boy nodded sheepishly. She took him by the hand and they entered the shop to the tinkling of the bells on the back of the door.
Mr. Greenberg and Max were the only people in the shop. The walls of the shop were gleaming white, except for a calendar over the cash register and orders to be filled jotted on slips of paper and taped to the wall in no obvious system. The tall glass fronted counter ran nearly the entire length of the shop. Various kinds of meats and poultry were displayed behind the glass, sitting on a carpet of brown paper. Jars of pickles and sauerkraut flanked chops and roasts. Long coiled chains of frankfurters and specials, knockwurst as Mrs. Klinger called them, ready to boil until they split down the center signaling that they were done, sat on large glass plates supported by jars of schmaltz (chicken fat).
Behind where Greenberg and Max labored sat a shiny chrome two door cooler. A big “DO NOT OPEN” sign was scrawled with a marking pen on brown paper and attached with butcher’s tape to one of the doors. The heavy metal door of the meat locker punctuated the back wall and everywhere else; the walls were covered in white enameled metal, crisscrossed with chrome; like the gas stove or the Frigidaire in someone’s kitchen. Mr. Greenberg carefully trimmed the fat from someone’s order of lamb chops as Max wrapped each one of them in brown paper and then sealed the packages with tape.
Greenberg glanced up from his work to greet his customers. “Mrs. Levy, you’re early this week. I haven’t even started on your order for Shabbat,” he cooed, tipping his hat slightly. Though Max wasn’t Jewish, both men always wore hats in the shop. Mr. Greenberg sported a battered gray fedora with a black hat stained from use and years on the job. Max’s baseball cap had a New York Yankees insignia embroidered on its crown. What more would you expect? It was the Bronx in the late 1950’s and the Bombers were royalty in almost any of the five boroughs – except perhaps in Brooklyn. The brim of Max’s cap was starting to fray, a consequence of constant tipping when his customers handed him a few coins for delivering their orders directly to their doors.
“No Mr. Greenberg, we didn’t come in to pick up the pot roast. My Larry and me were just taking a walk.” Greenberg wiped his hands on the long white coat he wore to protect his street clothes from the juices of his profession. He waved at the boy, who huddled close to his grandmother and shaded his eyes. “Larry, say good morning to Mr. Greenberg.”
“It’s alright Mrs. Levy. It’s the hand,” he said, waving the three remaining fingers on his left hand at the boy. “The children are always frightened. In this business, accidents happen. Now I have a friend in Brooklyn who. . . I don’t think you want to hear about that,” he began, suddenly catching himself before sharing a too grisly tale. “Is there anything I can do for you Mrs. Levy? We have orders to get out.”
Mrs. Levy glanced around the shop quickly. She had to get Greenberg to incriminate himself. “I was hoping that maybe you had something cold to drink – - for Larry.” The boy looked up at his grandmother, afraid to tell her that he wasn’t the slightest bit thirsty.
Greenberg hoisted his hat up on his head until it sat on his forehead. He leaned forward and rested on the wood block counter in front of him. “Mrs. Levy, you passed a deli and a Chinese restaurant before you came in here. Why didn’t you stop and get the kid something to drink?”
Mrs. Levy had to think quickly. “Mr. Greenberg, Mr. Goodman is never open this early and do you expect me to bring my grandson into the Chinese restaurant?
“This isn’t a soda fountain Mrs. Levy.”
“I never thought it was. It’s just that Larry is so thirsty. Aren’t you dear?” she stroked his cheek and the poor boy felt like sinking into a crack in the floor and as far away from his grandmother as he could.
“Max, you bring your lunch. Give the kid whatever you brought to drink with it. I’ll buy you another.”
“But Mr. Greenberg,” he sputtered.
“Max, I’ll buy you another one. Just give it to Mrs. Levy.”
“Are you sure?”
“Max!” bellowed Greenberg.
Max turned to the cooler behind him and opened the door where the “Do Not Open” sign was taped. Mrs. Levy’s jaw dropped as she peered inside. She had certainly seen pictures of them in magazines. She walked by them quickly when she visited the supermarket, but she had never seen one outside its plastic wrapper. Right there in front of a brown paper bag containing Max’s lunch was a Virginia ham; decorated with slices of pineapple and cherries. There it was sitting in the cooler next to a container of milk.
“It’s true, it’s true,” she screamed, dragging Larry along with her. She threw open the door and rushed out on to Tremont Avenue. The door slammed behind her and bells jingled madly.
Greenberg glared at his assistant. “You told me to,” whined Max.
“Why did you choose this moment to listen to me?” Greenberg bounded from behind the counter, tugged open the door and chased Mrs. Levy out on to the Avenue. “It’s for Max’s mother. You can have the pot roast for free!” he shouted after her. But he never caught up to her.
When the housework of the morning was done, Mrs. Levy, like all of her friends, paused to chat with her neighbors. She opened the bedroom window, put a pillow on the windowsill to cushion her elbows and stationed herself at the open portal ready to gossip with her friends in the building and on the opposite side of the narrow driveway between her walk-up and the one next door.
Once, during a heated exchange, the window came down on Mrs. Weissberg’s head and the fire department had to come to extricate and revive her. Then the landlords joined together and banned the practice. But it didn’t last long. The ladies realized that they could wedge a piece of broomstick under the window and never have to worry about a window coming down on anyone’s head.
“I was walking with my Larry yesterday,” announced Mrs. Levy, from out of nowhere.
“That’s Rachel’s boy?” asked Mrs. Stein from across the driveway.”
“No, Rachel’s boy is Steven. Larry is Miriam’s son. But it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sure it matters to them,” joked Mrs. Stein and the women on both sides of the driveway giggled like schoolgirls.
“Larry and I were walking past Greenberg the butcher when he told me what his sign really says.”
“It says what it’s always said,” snapped Mrs. Schwartz.
“That’s right,” said Mrs. Levy. “And it’s never said what you thought it said. Greenberg doesn’t really sell kosher meat; he just sells meat. That’s what the sign reads. Meat, meat! My Larry read it to me. And when we went into the store you’ll never guess what he had in the meat cooler.”
“I’m sure we won’t,” said Mrs. Stein.
“He had a great big Virginia ham and a bottle of milk right next to where he keeps the briskets.”
There was silence on both sides of the driveway.
“Are you sure it was a ham?” asked Mrs. Schwartz.
“Are you sure it was a bottle of milk?” asked Mrs. Stein.
“I know what a bottle of milk looks like!”
“Maybe it wasn’t his,” suggested Mrs. Schwartz.
“It was in his refrigerator,” said Mrs. Levy, carefully pronouncing each word and every syllable.
“If this is true,” pondered Mrs. Schwartz. “Then everyone has to know. We have to start with Rabbi Rubin. He’ll know exactly what to do. We should go right now!”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Rabbi Avram Rubin met the ladies in his study. Though each of them had attended High Holiday services at his shul for as long as any of them could remember, none of them had ever actually met him. Why: because they always sat upstairs with the other women. This was as close to the Rabbi as any of them had ever been. The Rabbi knew their husbands from daily minyan, shabbos, or High Holiday services, but not their spouses.
While the Rabbi sat behind his desk, Mrs. Levy repeated her story amid a host of quick comments from Mrs. Schwartz and Mrs. Stein. The Rabbi nodded attentively and without expression. As Mrs. Levy came to the part of her story about the ham and milk in the cooler, the color drained from Rabbi Rubin’s face and he hid his face in his hands.
“What’s the matter Rabbi?”
Rabbi Rubin peered out at the women from between his fingers. “And whom do you think gives Greenberg his hechser?” Mrs. Levy squinted at the Rabbi, unsure of what he meant. Rabbi Rubin repeated himself. “And whom do you think gives rabbinic approval that Greenberg’s shop follows all the standards of kashrut?” He paused for a very long time while the women exchanged glanced. “I do! And if you found traif in his shop, that I’d missed for so very many years, I will be the laughing stock of the Bronx!”
It was decided that Mrs. Levy and Rabbi Rubin would go to Greenberg’s butcher shop. As they walked silently along the Avenue, she could not help but study the Rabbi’s face. Mrs. Levy had never seen him look so intent. He stared at the sidewalk, but she knew that he was thinking about what to do and what to say to Greenberg when he reached the butcher shop. He was much taller and younger than he appeared to be when she watched him on the bimah during services, standing on the pulpit in his long white robe. Now in a dark suit and a kippah on his head he appeared less regal, but every bit the object of respect and admiration.
Though neighbors tried to stop them and greet the Rabbi, he quickly dispatched them with a wave of his hand. He was focused on discovering exactly what Greenberg was up to and he refused to stop until he knew. It was nearly closing time when they reached the shop.
Standing at the curb, the Rabbi studied the shop window. He could see his framed letter of rabbinical approval sitting on the sill inside the shop. He noticed that the glass in the frame was cracked. Was it an omen or a coincidence?
Then he glanced at the neon sign. There was no mistake. The Hebrew characters blared out for all to see – “Meat Meat,” not “Kosher Meat” as it should have read. He wondered if it always read that way? Did he simply see what it was that he wanted to see? Greenberg was not the only butcher he approved. He tried to picture their signs in his mind’s eye and remember what they said. He could not.
He pressed his face up close to the window and peered into the shop. There was one customer in the shop and Greenberg was escorting her to the door. “Mrs. Levy, please wait out here. I’m going in to speak to Mr. Greenberg alone.” Before she could protest, Rabbi Rubin pressed past the exiting customer and entered the shop. He closed the door behind him and finding the key in the dead bolt, he locked the door.
“Pinchas, what are you doing?” pleaded the Rabbi.
Mrs. Levy stared through the window at the strange scene that was about to unfold.
Greenberg spotted Mrs. Levy with her face pressed up against his store window. “Rabbi, have you been listening to her?” he said, shaking his finger in Mrs. Levy’s direction.
“She’s certainly correct about the sign. Has it always said meat meat?” asked Rabbi Rubin.
“What are you talking about?”
Backwards as they were, Rabbi Rubin pointed to the neon sign in the window. “What does that say?
“It’s supposed to say kosher meat. Doesn’t it Rabbi? I wouldn’t know. I don’t read Hebrew,” admitted Greenberg. “I’ve been a butcher my entire life, Rabbi. I apprenticed under my father and uncle. And I know what’s expected of me.” He voice rose in the empty shop as he shook his hand at the Rabbi.
Outside the shop, Mrs. Greenberg pressed her face up against the glass and shielded her eyes from the glare of the setting sun, trying to see what was happening inside.
A stranger stopped to ask what she was looking at. “Rabbi Rubin is inside talking to Mr. Greenberg about the traif he sells.
“Greenberg the Butcher sells traif!” responded the shocked passerby.
Rabbi Rubin paced across the tiled floor in disbelief. “How did you think you were going to get away with it? What possessed you to think you even could?”
“I didn’t think it would make a difference,” Greenberg said meekly.
“You and I and even Max have something very important in common.”
“We do?” asked Max.
Rabbi Rubin nodded slowly. “Oh yes, we have accepted the responsibility of maintaining a promise.” Max and Greenberg stared back at him blankly. “People throughout the world eat foods that we would never even consider putting in our mouths. Foods distasteful to Americans and even more repugnant to Jews hoping to maintain a link with the divine by following the laws of kashrut.”
“Rabbi, like you just said,” replied Max, “people around the world don’t worry if a hamburger is kosher, or if it’s really made of ham. Eating it ain’t gonna kill ‘em.”
“Civilizations have disappeared from the face of the earth because they didn’t have something to keep them together,” explained the Rabbi.
“Jews haven’t been around this long just because some of them keep kosher,” said Max.
“Not just because they kept kosher, but because keeping kosher, in part, helps us to remember who we are.”
“I don’t understand. Why can’t you just eat like the rest of us?”
“Because, then we wouldn’t be who we are. We’re not any better than anyone else, but we are different: by choice. That’s the key to our survival and the source of more pain and suffering than I could began to share with you, but we are still here,” said the Rabbi.
As the minutes ticked by the size of the crowd increased, all with faces pressed up against the window and trying to see inside. The crowd quickly exaggerated the reason for Rabbi Rubin’s visit: from simply selling traif, to selling horsemeat, to butchering wayward pets in the back of the shop. The crowd heard and saw exactly what they wanted.
Police Officer Sullivan had no idea why a crowd had formed in front of Greenberg’s butcher shop. “What’s going on,” he asked a woman he recognized from the neighborhood.
“Greenberg has been selling us traif,” she replied, shading her mouth with a hand.
Officer Sullivan had no idea what traif was, but he knew it could not be anything good. “I’ll just speak to Mr. Greenberg myself,” he muttered as he wadded through the throng. He tried the door, but it was locked. He tapped on the doorjamb, but he was ignored. He banged on the glass and still not response.
In the fleeting light of the day, Rabbi Rubin, Greenberg and Max saw their judges and jury silhouetted through the window.
“Those are your customers Pinchas. The good people whose trust you violated. Now show me the ham. Mrs. Levy said it was in the cooler behind the counter.”
Greenberg glanced at his assistant Max. “Open the door for the Rabbi, Max.
Max grabbed the left-hand door and yanked it open. The cooler was empty.
“No, I’m not going to fall for that. Mrs. Levy said it was behind the door with the Do Not Open sign.”
Max and Greenberg exchange worried looks. Max shut the left-hand door and in open quick motion he opened the right-hand door. That side of the cooler was empty as well.
Greenberg stared at the Rabbi. “I told you that you can’t believe what that woman says.”
Maybe Mrs. Levy was wrong. Maybe the whole event was imagined. The Rabbi’s eyes slowly glanced around the entire shop and finally came to rest on the metal door and heavy handle that led to the meat locker. “Now open that,” said the Rabbi, flicking his head in the direction of the door.
Greenberg wiped his hands on his long white coat. “Of course Rabbi, of course. Open it Max.” Max stood transfixed in front of his boss, while his head almost imperceptibly shook back and forth. “I told you to open the meat locker.”
In a singsong voice his fearful assistant called out, “Mr. Greenberg!” while he head more visibly moved left and right, then back again.
Greenberg did not understand. “We have nothing to hide. Now open the locker.”
Max slowly walked toward the heavy metal door. Before pulling open the door, he shielded his eyes with one arm. Greenberg suddenly understood Max’s reticence about opening the door. Before he could do anything the door swung open and revealed the plump Virginia ham sitting on a plate beside a bottle of milk, amidst a locker filled with hanging sides of beef and lamb.
Rabbi Rubin clamped his hands against his cheeks in shock. Suddenly vindicated, Mrs. Levy threw her hand towards heaven. Someone in the flabbergasted crowd of neighbors tripped over Max’s bicycle. The handlebars that brushed so gently against the shop window were thrown toward the crowd and then back against the glass shattering a large hole in the pane that rapidly spread until the entire sheet shattered on crowd and into the shop.
It was pandemonium on the sidewalk outside the shop as well as inside, with neighbors brushing shards of glass out of their hair and off their clothing and Rabbi Rubin chasing Greenberg and Max around the counter. Officer Sullivan stepped through the portal where the window was once and grabbed Greenberg’s phone to call for support. He snagged both Greenberg and Max by the collars of their long white coats and kept them separated from Rabbi Rubin until help arrived.
Word spread, about the riot that had broken out on Tremont Avenue and how the police were called to protect Mr. Greenberg and Max. That kind of thing never happened in the neighborhood. Greenberg closed the store and another butcher took over. He kashered the shop, with assistance from Rabbi Rubin and threw a big party for the neighborhood. People soon forgot all about Mr. Greenberg and how one woman had saved the neighborhood from a catastrophe that rocked their faith. But on both sides of that narrow driveway: Mrs. Levy would never let anyone forget.
from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine