Growing up on the Lower East Side with the Real Schmulka Bernstein, My Grandfather
The following guest piece was written by Michele Clark, granddaughter of the real Schmulka Bernstein.
My grandfather Schmulka Bernstein owned and ran a kosher butcher store (Schmulka Bernstein Kosher Meats and Provisions) and factory smokehouse on Rivington Street, between Essex and Ludlow, from the 1930s until 1964. He was noted for, among other things, the guaranteed purity of his products. He was also the originator of Fry Beef, the kosher beef copy of bacon. His smokehouse, also on Rivington, produced kosher salamis and bolognas. He and my grandmother lived on that street, in an apartment, their whole lives, so our extended family life tended to revolve around it. For years after we moved to Queens, I thought of my true home as Rivington Street.
To come upon him in those days on Rivington Street, at the butcher store or in the family apartment that was just across the street from the store, you would not think him a prosperous or important man. He stood less than five feet tall, with small, shapely hands and fingers that looked like my mother’s hands or mine. His command of English was marginal. Thick green-tinted eyeglasses, a treatment for easing glaucoma, dominated his face and made his expressions unreadable. This added to the sense we, the grandchildren had, that he was remote, unworldly, someone other. Winter or summer, on the street or in the store, he dressed the same: a fedora, then a white butcher’s coat covering a business suit jacket and beneath that a vest so that he seemed lost in his own clothes. Pockets in his white coat, pockets in his suit jacket, pockets in his vest.
Schmulka was also noted for his generosity to local Jews in need. My Uncle Harry once said, “He lent money to anyone who came to him: a rabbi, a stranger. They had to be recommended of course. He lent them money. He did not expect to be paid back. I wonder how many ever paid him back. He didn’t ask, my mother didn’t like that, though she gave too – to women, he just gave.”
In 1959, his oldest son, my uncle Sol, moved his delicatessen from Rivington Street, and started a restaurant around the corner called Bernstein-on-Essex. (Sol owned the building at 110 Rivington and we lived on the second floor until I was 4.) It was separate and apart from my grandfather’s butcher shop. And even though my uncle Sol went out of his way to find an upscale sounding name for his establishment, most people insisted on calling it Schmulka Bernstein’s.
Uncle Sol, in his turn, was the originator of kosher Chinese food. For years, Bernstein-on-Essex was the only restaurant of its kind anywhere. It attracted observant Jews from all over the globe. Like our grandfather Schmulka, our oldest uncle became a man of note, an innovator, in the small circle of Jewish observance and then, later, in the somewhat wider circle of those who look with longing toward the Lower East Side as the Plymouth Rock of American Jewish life. Despite the ups and downs of Lower East Side economics, the restaurant continued to prosper until my uncle died in 1992.
Two men, two generations, two different businesses. Together they helped define that particular corner of the Jewish Lower East Side for sixty years. For a long time, the mix-up in names between the two businesses drove me crazy. If you Google “Bernstein-on-Essex,” you will discover it was commonly known as Schmulka Bernstein’s. Father and firstborn son are forever fused in the public imagination. This misunderstanding felt to me like an erasure of the years before 1959, the years of my childhood, when the butcher store and factory smokehouse were the center of our large extended (6 pairs of aunts and uncles, 18 first cousins) family life.
It seemed to wipe out our real, sometimes turbulent, but always interesting family narrative. The butcher store and the smokehouse had been at the center of that life. For me, the restaurant was tangential to the family story. But for people who didn’t know us, it became the focal point.
Two years ago, I began to write a blog about the sons and daughters of Schmulka on the Lower East Side, and the difficulties and satisfactions of leaving that life behind. I’m still writing it. There are twenty-five entries, with probably another bunch to come. I have tried to make it as unsentimental as possible. But I find people read nostalgia into it regardless. And maybe the nostalgia is there and I just can’t hear it. I know none of my uncles and aunts, most of whom worked in one of the two family businesses, ever wished to return to the Lower East Side or to those years. When the first business failed and the second closed, they were freed!
As I have previously written in my blog, I have come to understand that when people called Bernstein-on-Essex “Schmulka Bernstein’s,” they were really paying homage to that immigrant story and to the continuity with Schmulka Bernstein that the restaurant represented. They weren’t erasing it. And after all these years, I saw that it was okay; it had always been okay.