Boogie Rewind: When Schmulka Bernstein’s Ruled Essex Street

Posted on: December 24th, 2012 at 10:12 am by

Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas is a tradition forged on the Lower East Side of yore. So, on this eve of Christmas, it’s fitting to republish our story about Schmulka Bernstein’s on Essex.

These days, it’s comical commonplace that Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.  But this marriage of cultures was actually forged long ago in the immigrant society on the Lower East Side.  To many turn-of-the-century Eastern European newcomers, Chinese cuisine was somewhat familiar to their own.  As the Yiddish Book Center points out, both culinary styles favor “chicken broth, lots of garlic and onions, vegetables cooked to a melting softness, and sweet-and-sour flavors reminiscent of those of Ashkenazic cooking.”  Plus, there was a Kosher appeal of sorts.  Since Chinese tend not to use dairy ingredients, there was little threat of mixing milk and meat.

Not until 1959 would there be a specific restaurant that offered Kosher Chinese food, though. At around that time, Solomon Bernstein reportedly left his father’s butcher business on Ludlow Street, where he and his three brothers worked, to start Bernstein-on-Essex. Schmulka Bernstein’s, as it later became known, operated out of 135 Essex Street. Armed with the slogan “where kashrut is king and quality reigns,” the eatery was first established as a Kosher delicatessen.  But in 1959, Bernstein began offering Cantonese-style favorites alongside the more traditional fare. The above photo is an antiquated advertisement spotted in one of the holiday Nostalgia Trains.

[Photo Credit: Comestiblog]

Schmulka Bernstein’s flourished for over three decades before the owners sold the family business in the early 1990s.  The operation continued, but eventually went the way of Ratner’s a few years later.  Today, the original building is not even there anymore.  The new 135 Essex Street is now occupied by recently-opened Sons of Essex which offers an old school delicatessen counter in the front of the space.

So, if you’re eating Chinese and watching a movie this Christmas Eve, be sure to think of the Bernsteins!

Schmulka was also utilized as a set in the so-bad-it’s-good Berry Gordy film The Last Dragon. We can’t find the exact clip, so this will suffice…

What do you remember of Schmulka?

Recent Stories

Harper's 1898, Collection of Maggie Land Blanck
Revisiting the Iconic (and Photogenic) Tenement Fire Escapes

Ah, the iconic New York City fire escape. Sitting out on your “escape” really is just that. The breeze. The city below your feet. The views. The sounds. The smell (to each their own). Fire escapes have always been crucial to New Yorkers for a variety of reasons, least of which, surprisingly, was escaping fire. […]

Forgtmenot family is opening a new Greek spot a few doors down
Forgtmenot Family is Opening a Traditional Greek Restaurant on Division Street Called Kiki’s

For the moment, it remains the epicenter of cool. The eastern terminus of Division Street continues its hot streak, yet will see more change in the next few months. We have it on good authority that the Chinese supply business at number 130 – Zhen Ling Tan Taoist – is to become a new restaurant. […]

pike-street-benches
Seatless Benches Along Allen Street Mall are Missing Slats Due to Manufacturer Defect

When the city revamped the Allen Street Mall a couple years ago, residents welcomed the spiffy new street furniture. Late-night conversation sessions or mahjong games are a common sight around here. Not to mention homeless pitching camp for cookouts. However, the equipment is proving fairly cheap and unreliable. Those curvy benches in the medians are […]

abcnorio-mural
ABC No Rio Commissions New Mural by Dasic Fernandez

Continuing the apparent bi-annual painting schedule, ABC No Rio this week replaced the two-year-old “hands” mural thrown up by Brian George in 2012. Its successor is more colorful and exudes somewhat of a political tone. For its latest piece, the beloved Rivington Street art collective commissioned the services of Dasic Fernandez to decorate its exterior […]

40clinton-street
Blue Bayer Design Studio Opening an Eclectic Jewelry Boutique on Clinton Street

Ever since the departure (and subsequent relocation) of Vector Gallery back in July, the south store of 40 Clinton Street has been a vacancy. The wait is over. Blue Bayer, a New York-based craftsman, is opening his jewelry boutique here in the coming days. It’s called Blue Bayer Design, and specializes in eclectic, “risky jewelry and […]