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?

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