by Michele Clark
Michele’s essay appears in episode 25 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
My grandfather, my Zayde in Yiddish, was Schmulka Bernstein. He disembarked at Ellis Island as a young man at the turn of the twentieth century and prospered as a kosher butcher serving other devout immigrant Jews who had arrived from Eastern Europe fleeing poverty and persecution. His name was writ large in neon above the plate glass window which framed his store on New York’s Lower East Side. Below, in smaller blinking letters there was added: Where Kashruth is King and Quality Rules. He was literate in Jewish liturgy and religiously diligent.
When he was an old man but still overseeing the business, he would laugh while opening the envelope that held his Social Security check each month. Free money, what a country! Then he scribbled his endorsement on the back and handed it one of his sons to deposit along with the business receipts. His money and the business’s money were combined. His personal needs were modest.
The brand Schmulka Bernstein had two celebrated products, both notably American. One was the five pound beef salami, not originally an Eastern European food. The other was fry beef which, as far as we know, he invented. Fry beef is a kosher version of bacon, taken from the fatty underside of the steer, as bacon comes from pork bellies. Schmulka Bernstein’s Fry Beef was sold in the same folded cardboard packaging as its gentile prototype. The salamis and the fry beef were both produced right next to the retail store, in a windowless two -story brick building.
The memory of these products has endured several decades past the actual life of the business. As recently as 2017, in an issue of the on-line magazine, Tablet, the writer and editor Morton Landowne recalled: “An apocryphal, yet believable story, that a group of Yeshiva College students spending the year in Israel pooled their funds and dispatched one of their number to New York with explicit instructions to fill two suitcases with Schmulka’s food and then, without seeing or contacting a single family member, return to Israel on the next flight.”
To those living at the time, and in the family, my grandfather’s other activity of note was his openhandedness to Jews in need.
“They called him the Angel of Rivington Street,” Aunt Natalie once told us.
“He brought people home so he could feed them,” Aunt Lillian chimed in.
My cousin Herman tells a story of being six or seven years old and walking up Rivington Street towards Orchard with his father and Zayde: “As we walked, a big man who looked kind of scary to me, he was wobbling when he walked, sort of tipping, maybe he was a drunk, maybe he was sick. I didn’t know. He stopped right in front of us and stuck out his hand. Zayde looked up at him and asked ‘Do you want food or money?’ The man said money. So Zayde took out a big wad of bills from his pants pocket and peeled off a few and put them in the man’s hand. Then the man walked away in the other direction.”
Schmulka Bernstein did not look like an important or prosperous person. He did not look like anyone’s benefactor or like a man whose funeral service, in 1968, would overflow the possibilities of the Bialystoker synagogue on Willett Street, with people who could not squeeze in weeping on the steps outside. He did not look like an empire builder. And he certainly did not look like people or literature think of as a butcher. He was less than five feet tall. He had small, shapely hands with slim fingers.
He did not look like an empire builder. And he certainly did not look like people or literature think of as a butcher.
Winter or summer, he dressed the same during the work week: a fedora, then a white butcher’s coat covering a business suit jacket and beneath that a vest, underneath that a shirt and tie, so that he seemed lost in his own clothes. Pockets in his white coat, pockets in his suit jacket, pockets in his vest. One of these pockets contained wrinkled two dollar bills, which were unusual even in those days. These he rescued from the cash register to give to us, the grandchildren. So you knew he thought about you when you weren’t there. Thick, green-tinted eyeglasses, a treatment for glaucoma, dominated his face and made his expressions unreadable. The glasses added to the sense we, the grandchildren, had that he was remote, unworldly, someone other.
To us, the grandchildren, he seemed like a person from another planet. And so he was. The planet of Poland. That, like Superman’s planet Krypton, had imploded, at least in terms of the Jews. The planet of Poland was now impossible to reach. It was sealed behind the Iron Curtain, a phrase that newscasters pronounced ominously each night on our black and white televisions. This meant that you could not get it and no one was allowed to leave. I imagined it literally as an endless corrugated steel wall. In an odd way this felt like a kind of justice, since the millions of Jews who had once lived there had been erased.
He relished American bounty in all its forms. At home in the evenings he liked to watch the old westerns on television.
He relished American bounty in all its forms. At home in the evenings he liked to watch the old westerns on television. His English was not acute enough to follow the plots, but it gave him pleasure to see herds of healthy cattle thunder across the American plains. Enough beef to feed the world. This land of plenty was so different from the place where he was born.
In Poland at the turn of the century “a butcher was not like a butcher here.” This is what his fourth son, my Uncle Harry said when I interviewed him in 2005. “There he would do everything, from start to finish. He would go out to the farm, buy a piece of cattle – one, not more than one. That’s all they could deal with was one. Buy it, bring a truck or rent one, bring it to Bialystok to a slaughterhouse. It was by hand, everything by hand. He would oversee the slaughterer. I don’t think he did the skinning. But had to do the rest of it. We don’t know who paid for it, who had the money to buy to whole animal. There must’ve been an entrepreneur involved. Had to be. There was a lot of money involved.”
A wrinkled, brown paper bag holding birdseed was always tucked beneath the cash register at the store. Once a day Zayde retrieved walked outside to the sidewalk in front of the store. Then he pursed his lips and gave a shrill, moist whistle that we, the grandchildren, could never imitate, no matter how many times he showed us how to do it. Seconds after the whistle first maybe ten pigeons, then twenty then many more were fluttering to the pavement at his feet, as if they had just been waiting for his call. Clucking struts and manic pecking as Zeide tossed grain in a circle. On the perimeter sparrows and starlings hopped up and down hopefully. With the wide arc of his arm, he made sure that even these small feathery brown and black outliers got a share too. Everybody eats.
Clucking struts and manic pecking as Zeide tossed grain in a circle. On the perimeter sparrows and starlings hopped up and down hopefully. With the wide arc of his arm, he made sure that even these small feathery brown and black outliers got a share too. Everybody eats.
In New York City feeding pigeons is illegal. Sometimes a passing patrolman gave him a ticket. This happened once while I was visiting. The policeman was towering, large-headed, matter-of-fact; he had done this before; he knew it would do no good.
“It’s illegal, Mr. Bernstein,” he said as he pulled out his pad.
Then, just to make sure my grandfather understood, he repeated himself, but more slowly and louder, “Mis-ter Bern-stein -it’s- against- the -law.”
From beneath the brim of his grey fedora, my grandfather peered up at the guardian of law and order and gave a small, crooked smile: Feeding the hungry is a problem?
Later one of my uncles who worked in the store walked over to the police station to pay the fees. This happened many times. Fine after fine. Every penalty was paid. Everybody eats.
Illustration by Corinne Pease
About Michele Clark
Michele Clark, a former New Yorker, has lived for over three decades in Plainfield Vermont. She taught for twenty years in the Goddard College Graduate Program in Psychology & Counseling where her focus was feminism, chemical dependence, and the therapeutic relationship. She has been writing and publishing stories about her grandfather and the Lower East Side of New York since she was in high school. Bounty is an excerpt from the longer memoir Schmulka Bernstein And His Children.