Growing Up Jewish and the Bronx


bronx deli


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Bronx Deli

Philip Cohen

My grandfather and grandmother, Izzie and Lena Gelber, spent most of their married lives in a third-floor walkup at 932 Bronx Park South right across the street from the Bronx Zoo. It was a four-room place, with a large living room overlooking the zoo. On hot summer days the screenless windows facing the park would be open, and the summer heat would blast into the apartment accompanied by the sounds of horns honking on Bronx Park South and the more distant sounds of elephants honking, along with vague animal aromas. Sometimes you could see peacocks roaming about on the other side of the fence. It was wonderful.

My grandfather was a plump, balding man who wore a hearing aid in his left ear. I remember him planted in a certain overstuffed chair in the living room, reading the Yiddish newspaper, the Forvertz, never saying very much at all. He was of a generation of men, immigrants, maybe exclusively Jewish for all I know, who made it a habit of not saying very much. Indeed, I have it on good authority that his brother-in-law, my Uncle Benny, uttered not a word in English, or Yiddish, from 1955 until the day of his death, some 20 years later. My grandfather Izzie, Itsik Shpitsik as I once heard someone call him and I did ever after, sat rooted in that easy chair, occasionally bouncing me on his knee, reading the Forvertz, periodically grunting and, oh yes, smoking cigars that were fresh when LaGuardia was mayor, this memoir, you understand, beginning in the late 1950's.

I have one other memory of my grandfather. My childhood saw the glory days of Davy Crockett. Every boy from four to nine wished he had been born on a mountain top in Tennessee , even if he had no idea where or what Tennessee was. True to its entrepreneurial spirit, the Disney Corporation, which of course had made the TV series and subsequent movies, marketed a variety of Davy Crockett paraphernalia. My parents bought me a plastic rifle and a fake buckskin Davy Crockett outfit full of fringes. While all my friends were similarly attired, they had to make do with a faux version of what was, after all, the crowning glory of the outfit: fake coonskin caps made of some kind of synthetic material that began decomposing the moment the first bead of sweat permeated them.

Now my grandfather was in the fur business. I don't know exactly what he did, but every day he would go off to work at a company called Reichbert Furs. And one day when he came home from Reichbert Furs he brought with him in a brown paper bag a Davy Crockett-style cap made of real fur. Now I do not know what animal laid down its life for me—it almost certainly wasn't a raccoon, so to that extent it, too, was a fake. But what a glorious fake! I was the king of the suburban Indian fighters with that cap. Single- handedly, I defeated Santa Anna attired in that real fur cap.

Ah yes, killing Indians and Mexicans adorned in a hat composed of the fur of a dead animal. Such were my politically incorrect beginnings.

He died young, Grandpa Itsik Shpitsik. Immediately upon retiring from Reichbert Furs, he went into the hospital to address a longstanding stomach complaint and never returned to that apartment at 932 Bronx Park South. I was eight years old. We arrived from our home in Levittown , New Jersey , 90 miles away, to sit shiva with my grandmother, who I remember sitting on the couch right next to his overstuffed chair in that living room, grieving Itsik's loss, saying over and over again in her East European accent, "But I don't understand. He was recuperating." I remember thinking that "recuperating" must be a Yiddish word, because I didn’t understand it, and she seemed so fluent with it.

He was somewhere around 65, my grandfather, when he shuffled off this coil. I don't know if it was the New York air that killed him, or a diet filled with schmaltz, or a lifetime of hard work. Maybe it was those cigars. God knows, walking into a room filled with the smoke from those foul things almost killed me. Whatever combination of life's vicissitudes it was that removed him from this earth at 65, he left my grandmother a widow with about 11 or 12 years of living left in this world, a world where widows did not easily remarry or fully re-form their lives in their husbands' absence.

Not long after the shiva my parents and my Uncle Louie relocated my grandmother from that apartment on Bronx Park South and brought her to another section of the Bronx, to a two-room place on a small one-block street called Kossuth Avenue, right near Mosholu Parkway, up the road from Jerome Avenue. It must have been a Jewish neighborhood. How could it not have been? I had no idea what either a Kossuth or a Mosholu was, but because my grandmother, with her heavy East European accent, would pronounce those names to me, I remain convinced to this day that they are undoubtedly as Jewish as Jaffa Road in downtown Jerusalem. Of Jerome Avenue , I would hope all will concede without equivocation that it must of necessity be a Jewish locale. Except for a certain saint of that name, I know of no Jerome who is not a Jew. There she picked up her life. There she joined a synagogue and the local chapter of Pioneer Women, of which she seemed always to be president.

You could hear the elevated IRT that ran down Jerome Avenue from my grandmother's place. This was especially true on a humid New York summer night when the screenless windows in her bedroom were wide open, when the traffic was relatively sparse and the air was still. Now you might think this metallic noise a major encumbrance to such an enterprise as sleep, but for me it was not. For me it was part of the landscape, a noise painting. When I was there by myself, pleased to be visiting her there by myself from Levittown , I could easily fall asleep to the rumble of those noisy cars as they passed either way on their nightly duties.

My grandmother's widowhood was a boon to me. I would visit her by myself a couple of times a year. She would take me all over the city by that very subway that lulled me to sleep. She would take me to all the sights that make New York the only city in America that is really world class. And she would do it gladly, as if escorting me to those places was a task assigned to her by God, which it may have been. Certainly it struck me as a task designed by God for grandparents alone.

We would travel to the Empire State Building to the Jewish Museum, to the United Nations. Once or twice we went to Radio City , though I never warmed to the Rockettes. Periodically we would identify a movie we both wanted to see. It didn't matter where this film was playing. Such was her apparently innate skill at negotiating the subway system that she could get us anywhere, to any movie theater, on time, without missing a beat. She would often doze on the train, only to awaken right before our stop. A constant worrier, I always feared that she'd sleep past the stop. But no. Somewhere before the station, like clockwork, she'd awaken and usher me off the train. To my ten- or eleven-year-old view of the world, this was an act of genius.

In her own quiet way my grandmother owned the city, and did her best to give it to me. I realize now that when I would see her some place outside of New York , as when she came to visit us in the suburbs, she was so out of her element that she lost her powers. There was no subway in Levittown , no Mosholu Parkway . There was no Jerome Avenue to which she could walk and do all her shopping. Her magic power lay back there, amid the noise and dirt of New York . Though I didn't know it at the time, and she may never have known it, Levittown was like kryptonite to her. It sapped her of her super powers.

Down on Jerome Avenue, under the elevated train through whose slats the sun never completely shone, there was a cornucopia of activity, a treasure trove of places to shop, places to eat, people to gawk at, movies to see, all negotiated through the prism of a primarily Jewish ethnicity. For a boy raised in the suburbs, for whom the 7-11 over by the junior high school was the closest thing to a mall within hiking distance of my house, understanding that the definition of a mall is markets with the complete absence of ethnicity, walking down to the avenue was a thin slice of the world to come, or at least a thin slice of a world as far removed from Levittown, New Jersey, as corned beef is to Wonder Bread.

And speaking of corned beef, there was a restaurant there on Jerome Avenue , a kosher delicatessen sitting right under the El, with a bar on one side and I don't know what on the other. You could tell it was kosher from the flashing red neon Star of David hanging prominently in the middle of the window. I don't remember the name of the place, though it undoubtedly it had one. From the first time I saw it I wanted desperately to eat there. I remember I would stand on the other side of the Avenue from it, always viewing it through the veil of moving traffic and the shadows cast over the neighborhood by the el. Even across the street from it, you could smell the rich delicatessen aromas: seeded rye bread, hot Romanian pastrami, corned beef, salami, pickles, knishes, potato salad, coleslaw and cream soda. Well, maybe not all of that was packed into that delicate eau de deli that was blown out onto the avenue like so much dust and which I smelled every time I went down there, but some of it most certainly was picked up by my olfactory senses, and my imagination did the rest. These aromas permeated that block, rising above the automobile emissions, defining it, clarifying it, differentiating it from any place else on earth, as far as I was concerned.

Whenever I entered that block and smelled that aroma I wanted to eat there more than Romeo wanted Juliet. My culture was calling out to me, beckoning me, seducing me like the Sirens to Odysseus. I sadly report to you that I never ate there the entire time my grandmother lived on Kossuth Avenue . She never went out to eat, and neither did my parents and I when we visited. And somehow, as I moved into my teenage years and had money of my own, it never occurred to me to bring funds adequate enough for a quick visitation and a sandwich, not even for a hot dog which one could purchase from an open window for 45 cents. It was and remained a kind of private obsession, a Jewish red meat fantasy, my own private Bronx, always desired but never realized.

There was one time it almost happened. We went to the New York World's Fair one Sunday, where my parents, my brother, sister, I and my grandmother spent the day moving slowly from exhibit to exhibit, my parents having a particularly bad day of it. Normally they simply couldn't agree on most things. On that particular day they couldn't agree on anything. My mother wanted to go to one exhibit, my father wanted to go to another. One wanted to eat lunch here the other wanted to each lunch there. This was a typical outing with my parents, set apart only by the particular extent of their difficulties on this particular day. A day such as this usually ended with my mother dramatically exiting the car and pretending to walk away until my father would relent and do whatever it was she wanted him to do.

On this day there would be a new twist to the old theme. While we were still within the confines of the World's Fair, my mother kept repeating that she wanted to eat dinner there. This would have been okay with me, as the place was lousy with restaurants that appeared remarkably exotic by my eleven year old standards. But my father, who knew a fine-tuned rip-off when he saw one, kept complaining that everything was too pricey. After much of this, finally, all six of us got into the family green Rambler station wagon and, without having eaten dinner, headed from Queens to the Bronx to bring my grandmother home. With silence reigning in the car, we pulled onto Jerome Avenue right at sundown, and, my dear God, did my eyes deceive me? We pulled up right next to the deli of my dreams. We were going to eat there. My God, I could die happy.

With the car at the curb, the engine turned off, excitedly I pulled at the door handle, opened the door, and, it being the passenger side, I put my foot on the curb to exit the car and have my deepest private dream realized, when from the front seat I heard my mother assert, "I'm not going to eat there."

There was a well-known finality in that pronouncement that was not to be denied. Reluctantly, I brought my foot back into the car, and shut the door. My father restarted the engine and we drove off, to where I remember not. That was it. I knew I'd never eat there—this was the straw that broke my back. It was over, my quest was over. And though I occasionally would recall those corned beef yearnings, I pushed them aside to accommodate other desires that came with my later teenage years.

My grandmother died when I was a sophomore in college, during winter break. To get to the funeral I had to travel by Greyhound bus from Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I had been visiting a friend, to Philadelphia, near where my folks lived, and from there to a funeral home in the Bronx where a eulogy was delivered by a rabbi who never knew my grandmother, who never knew just how remarkable a soul she was. The best he could say of her was, “she lived a full life.” True enough, but he hadn’t been properly educated about my grandmother to fill in even some of the pieces.

She had died at home, only dimly aware that she was dying, this being a time when doctors and families colluded in withholding vital information from the dying elderly on the misguided assumption that deception somehow protected them better than the truth. With her death, I thought my New York City life died. There would be no more visits to Kossuth Avenue, no more visits to the Empire State Building , Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, the Jewish Museum, Yankee Stadium, or Greenwich Village. I would never hear of Pioneer Women again.

I thought her death put an end to my life in New York City . It did put an abrupt end to that chapter of it. There was to be a hiatus of approximately six years between the time I last visited the Bronx to see my grandmother and the next time I would get there.

For you see, I returned to New York as a rabbinical student. I lived in Brooklyn and studied in Greenwich Village . As I entered my third year of school, I inherited a wonderful position as a student rabbi in the Jewish Home and Hospital in the Bronx . Usually, I would go there on a Friday afternoon, visit with residents, conduct Shabbat evening services, and return the next morning for Shabbat morning services. The residents were lovely, truly lovely people, and even as I write this, some sixteen years past the experience, I am able to conjure up fond memories of many of them, all of them by now, almost certainly, having shuffled off this plane to the next.

When a resident would become ill, he or she would typically be taken to Montefiore Hospital. I did not go there often to visit ailing residents, but from time to time, for one reason or another, I would have occasion to do so. Once, at the request of a resident's family, I made a special trip to the Bronx for a mid-week visit to the hospital. This was, you understand, the hospital my grandmother had gone to receive the death sentence that was never mentioned to her. But it had been some years, and I was a bit fuzzy about the whole thing.

After I left the hospital and began driving away on that particular occasion, the strangest thing happened. Something looked familiar. I don't know, a building, a road, I don't know. But blindly I followed my driving instincts and before too long I found myself in my grandmother's old neighborhood, right there on Kossuth Avenue up the way from Mosholu Parkway and Jerome Avenue . It looked pretty much the same, that neighborhood, despite the absence of loved ones. With my car window open, I could hear Mosholu Parkway in one direction and the elevated train above Jerome Avenue in another, and they were a symphony of city noise. I continued driving my car down toward the Avenue. It was still darkened by the elevated, still a Babel of shops and humanity. And, yes! Did my nose deceive me? With my window open I detected a familiar aroma of hot red meat and accoutrements blowing out onto the avenue. The deli, the nameless but nonetheless classic delicatessen, my fantasy restaurant, still stood sandwiched between a bar and God-knows-what. Oh Lord, that aroma! I smelled it and I was a kid again. But I wasn't a kid any longer. I was an adult with a car and a credit card. Should I? I hadn't yet had lunch. Should I?

You're damned right I should. I parked my green Volkswagen Beetle, turned the engine off, pulled the door handle, opened the door, got out, and went in.

I took the proffered seat in a booth, and read the menu. The price of a corned beef sandwich was extraordinary, not to say astronomical. My God! And to add insult to injury, the potato salad cost extra.

But this was the fulfillment of a fifteen-year-old dream, and price be damned. I ordered matzo ball soup, a sandwich, corned beef on seeded rye, naturally, potato salad, and Dr. Brown's cream soda in a can. I amused myself by reading a discarded copy of the New York Post while awaiting my meal with something akin to the anticipation of a groom on his wedding night.

I wish I could remember something about the interior, some decoration or something about the attitude of the wait staff, but, alas, I cannot. My mind is a blank about everything that afternoon, except for one thing,

The food.

It was terrible.

It couldn't have been worse. The soup was a monument to sodium, so salty I quickly emptied three glasses of ice water. The matzo balls, yes, they were hard as rocks; they were so hard that in my memory they crunched when I ate them. The rye bread was stale and the meat fatty. The potatoes in the potato salad swam in mayonnaise, and were accompanied by not much else. The fork had an indistinguishable spot of dried something on it. The cream soda in a can, however, was fine; one cannot do much damage to a can of cream soda. (I marvel at the fact that one cannot order Dr. Brown's soda at any place but a deli. That Dr. Brown knows his business.)

I sat there contemplating whether to complain. Such acts were not beneath me. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't bring myself to do it. I once craved chocolate chip pancakes at a pancake house, until the one time I actually ordered and began eating them. This is how I felt here: What had been served to me was the cuisine of the house, and I, of other tastes, simply could not abide it, like that pile of chocolate chip pancakes that had, not ten minutes before I had ordered them, been the object of my desire. So I made my way through this fare as best I could, politely refused a doggy bag, paid the bill, and pulled away from Jerome Avenue in my green Volkswagen Beetle.

I wonder what lesson to draw from this tale. Perhaps something about the death of childhood icons in adulthood would be appropriate, but that's simplistic. After all, the deli could have been great, or at least good, or at least adequate almost as easily as it was lethal. Were that so, then the lesson would be different, and since it could have been so, the lesson must be something other than talk about destiny.

I dream about my grandmother from time to time. In these dreams she's still alive, but old, so old she's a complete invalid, bedridden, shut away in a tall building, nearly invisible. In these dreams we communicate with each other face to face, but just barely, in whispers. Though this communication feels inadequate, nonetheless in my dream state I am aware that this modest level of communication is far superior to what I am actually permitted in my waking state, and in my dream I am happy to have this much dreamlike contact. But when I wake up, I realize I am not permitted even that limited communication with my grandmother, and must make do with memory.

Perhaps that's the lesson to be drawn from my unhappy luncheon: though Jerome Avenue continues on its merry way, for me it cannot. Lunch at the deli, great or terrible, would have been unsatisfying. Even the cream soda left me thirsty. Driving my VW Beetle away was the only thing for me to do, for separation, though difficult, is sometimes the only thing you can do.


from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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