Woody Allen might be right, that cities look best in a rainstorm. But for me, a fresh blanket of snow frames the layers of memory New York City contains for my wife Jan’s family better than an umbrella. Leaving the Ukraine because of the deadly pogroms of Tsarist Russia (what else is new?) they arrived, liked so many other immigrants, at Ellis Island and eventually settled in New York City in the 1890s.
Fast forward to 2015. Today, almost at the very spot where Jan shopped as a young girl for new clothes before the Jewish High Holidays, is a great museum of the American Story. You can hear many old voices there and learn about immigration in real terms on the Lower Eastside of New York City. Adding Jan’s family’s history and her own memories of Orchard Street to the Tenement Museum story stitches one more seam into the American quilt.
And as for dealing with cold, icebox temperatures, let’s just admit that it’s somewhere in Jan’s Russian Jewish DNA.
All stories have to start somewhere and for this one, the best place “once upon a time” would be 1904 in Brooklyn. Anna Bass, Jan’s grandmother, was born there and cousin Pam still lives in Ditmas Park. Grandma Bass was the first generation to be born in America. Goodbye Europe, with a helping of good riddance for good measure.
My father-in-law, Martin Karlin, owned a wholesale grocery business that started in Newark, New Jersey. His wife, Eileen Bass, came from Pittsfield, Massachussetts, hence the pull of the Berkshires in my family to this day (if you are new to my blog there are many past posts to search for more information).
Over the last few years going into New York City, Jan and I have developed a ritual pilgrimage to E. Houston Street visiting Katz’s Deli, founded in 1888, and Russ and Daughters, founded in 1914. This bastion of smoked fish is celebrating its centennial this season. We kid you not – a few years ago we spotted Itzhak Perlman shopping for his smoked fish at Russ and Daughters, as we were buying a chocolate babka for what was to be our last visit with Elliott Carter (incongruous but true, R&D has smoked fish and Jewish baked goods and dessert pastries, a unique blend). Seeing Perlman ended the argument about where one should buy lox, whitefish and sable in Manhattan.
Oddly enough, Jan had never as a child visited Katz’s Deli with her parents. And why should she? When Harry Met Sally hadn’t been made, so Meg Ryan’s pastrami orgasm isn’t part of film legend yet (she isn’t faking that scene as far as we’re concered, she’s just thinking about a Katz’s sandwich with mustard). And in a larger context, Katz’s was not so unique in the 1950s and 60s as it is now, slowly becoming Almost The Last Man Standing of Lower Eastside Jewish Delicatessens. UNESCO World Heritage Site sounds like a good idea, Mayor De Blasio.
Because when your father was a wholesale grocer supplying diners and delicatessens in New Jersey, you don’t cart the family in the station wagon to go to the Lower East Side for a deli sandwich and pickles on the weekend. You can’t beat what dad gets for free. But you do pack your daughter into the car before the Jewish High Holidays to go clothes shopping with her mother, like her mother did before her granddaughter came along. On Orchard Street. Like in the Old Days. In the Old Country. No questions asked, young lady!
Urban landscapes are always Works In Progress, and the Lower East Side is no exception. At least when you find a Vietnamese sandwich shop on Orchard Street, you know things aren’t what they used to be. With all of our good friends and rich experiences in Hanoi, Vietnam, this shop was a real jolt of the different new world to be found in this neighborhood of lost time.
I had heard stories for years about my wife going to shop for clothes on Orchard Street every season before school started at the end of the summer and before the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Her father would park the car on the street, and patiently read a newspaper for hours. Mom and daughter would go down the street, trying on clothes in makeshift dressing rooms of cardboard that sprung up so that the huge amount of customers could be accommodated for the seasonal sales. Every young girl’s dream, right? Changing rooms on the street? Oy vey!
The Tenement Museum tour we took included a selection of audio recordings of old timers talking about the neighborhood. Her father, her uncles, her mom, her aunts, her grandma, all spoke with the same sounds, accents, jokes and phrases in Yiddish. Because the American Story was best summed up by American comic legend Milton Berle, and his timless joke describes what so many people did when they got to America, something they couldn’t do in Old Europe.
“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”
When I finally got my first tour of this old Lower East Side neighborhood, I was moved to tears. There are bigger cities, Mexico City, Tokyo, Shanghai, but for us in America New York contains an immigrant universe that boggles the mind (and which is mirrored, quite differently, on the West Coast). I’d married into not only a wonderful family but an American Story very different from my parents’ meeting in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.
Since I have readers in over 110 countries, allow me to give you a suggestion for a great New York City American Story weekend morning. Start by planning a trip to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street. They have all types of tours to choose from, so pick something of personal interest. And you’ll need to cross Delancey Street to get there, a legend in its own right.
Jan’s memory of shopping on Orchard Street is now the location of the Tenement Museum. Makes one think about the passage of time, history, family, obligation, connection, and memory. America is a complicated and confusing place, not only to us, but certainly to a lot of people around the world. Winston Churchill quipped that one could always rely on the Americans to do the right thing once they had exhausted all other opportunities. But if you know where to look, you can find a genuine America that remains inspiring. The Tenement Museum is one of those places. View the next photo with full screen to read the sign.
But there is more to life than Orchard Street history. Hungry? Eat, you look thin.
I’d mentioned that we make a pilgrimage to Katz’s Deli and Russ and Daughters when we are in New York City. Organizing our stomachs to accommodate both places was always a challenge in past years. But never fear progress. Some things get better.
Our recommendation is to plan a 10 AM tour at the Tenement Museum on the weekend. That will allow you to find the relatively new cafe for Russ and Daughters, which is down Orchard Street at Number 127. We got there on an icebox cold morning at 8 AM when they opened (please note that they don’t open until 10 AM during the week). Don’t worry, their shop at 179 East Houston Street close to Katz’s Deli is still going strong a hundred years later. But this new cafe addition allows you to have a great, unbelievable Old School taste but wiser New School portioned Jewish breakfast, and then allow you a perfect time to take a Tenement Museum tour which will then place you in a good way to enjoy Katz’s Deli for lunch. You can really can kill two bird’s with one stone.
Feel free to buy something to take home. And enjoy the gastronomic contradictions on the wall!
Joel Russ, a Polish immigrant, arrived in New York City in 1905, a year after Jan’s grandmother was born in Brooklyn. Wikipedia tells me that he was not a feminist ahead of his time, but the result speaks for itself. Since he and his wife never had sons, he was in America and, why not? – name the business what it was – Russ and Daughters (Hattie, Anne and Ida). Like me with my parents’ restaurant, the kids were working there anyway. It wasn’t rocket science, it was called doing what you had to do to make a living. And one hundred years a later, they’ve made a legend.
As CNN’s Man of the World Anthony Bourdain wisely proclaims on their website and proudly at the storefront location, no snark needed or necessary, “Russ and Daughters occupies that rare and tiny place on the mountaintop reserved for those who are not just the oldest and the last – but also the best.”
Here is another suggestion for your American Story Day. After your Tenement Museum tour, find the Essex Street Market for an updated version of the Lower East Side. Great shops all around, and from all around the world. It’s not Jan’s grandma’s Lower East Side anymore!
Because a walk is a good idea before you go to the Promised Land of Jewish deli food at Katz’s Deli at Ludlow and East Houston Street.
I am happpy my blog is read by over 7500 people in 110 countries (thank you Monaco, for joining the fold). I’ve done walking meditation blogs in Laos at the Kuang Si Falls, in Japan at Saihoji Temple in Kyoto, but right now, in America, at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side, it’s time for a different type of reverence. To Old School Jewish Pastrami. Yes, my father knew Al Langer here in Los Angeles well. Their restaurants were close to each other (dad also knew the original Tommy of Tommy Burger’s and was always amazed, and happy, that his burgers took off from his original location on Beverly Blvd.). But sorry Mr. Langer, there is only one Katz’s Deli and it deserves its own walking meditation.
Jewish Deli Pastrami Zen Walking Meditation. Here goes!
Got pickles and sour tomatoes? You’ll need them to cut the pastrami fat, and leave your French cornichons at home.
There are only a few drinks we will allow you at Katz’s. Their own brand of Seltzer, or my favorite, a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. Please no wine snobs or craft beer chocolate stout stuff.
Don’t lose your ticket stubs for paying when you leave (think Seinfeld Soup Nazi rules) and if offered table service, listen to the Katz’s staff. They are making a lot of sandwiches and it gets busy.
This American Classic needs mustard. Not Dijon or country French whatever or tarragon infused trendiness. Use the mustard on the table, and just remember, tables are communal. Jan should know – her paternal grandma (Karlinsky) was a Communist.
Phew! Time for an afternoon nap……..
Because Jan’s grandmother and mom and Aunt Elaine were Old School Ladies, Katz’s Deli would not have been their favorite place. That place would have to have a little class, which New York City can dish up with ease. Old School Class. Yes, there is a samovar still in the family home in New Jersey. And you can see samovars all over the Russian Tea Room by Carnegie Hall on 57th Street.
Jan remembers two meals of celebration at the Russian Team Room. One is now tinged with the sadness of recent grief. When she graduated from high school her Aunt Elaine took her niece Jan to celebrate with a lunch at the Russian Tea Room, and gave her a modest but meaningful check which Jan used to buy chamber music at Patelson’s Music Shop. And like that legendary music store, Aunt Elaine is no longer with us, as she passed away this October, as I mentioned in my blog posts when I took a short break from writing. But she would have loved the fact we went back to the Russian Tea Room to celebrate and remember her life and that graduation lunch (and for good measure she went to high school with Woody Allen).
And so food continues to leave its mark on our taste and in our memory and in our hearts. When these fuse into a single moment, magic occurs. Marcel Proust would build an entire career on such observations! Aunt Elaine made a big first impression exposing her niece to her first kir, that Dijon cocktail of white wine mixed with cassis liqueur. Just a grown-up taste for her niece that day, while the waiter turned away. But the taste, and her aunt, returned as Jan slowly savored her own Russian Tea Room kir so many years in coming. Life travels and returns to us through food and spirits. And music is an equal fellow traveller, as Jan used those chamber music parts purchased that day for her entire career.
Our marriage is a balancing act between the two biggest cities in the United States, New York City and Los Angeles. We don’t take sides any more, but the icebox temperatures we encountered made Jan know that thirty five years into living in Los Angeles makes her a Californian first. She’s always amused, sometimes annoyed, at the wild eyed worship things in and from New York receive out West, and she’s encountered her fair share of inflated Juilliard artist bios never checked out or Harvard consultant studies masquerading as a master’s thesis impressing impressionable Angelenos who should have walked out of the meetings. Don’t get her started on LA Philharmonic ads appearing weekly in the New York Times. New Yorkers could care less, trust us on that, so the ads are about LA’s now out of date cultural insecurity. At least we won’t change our minds until we see major New York organizations advertising in the LA Times. And my mom was around every movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Era, so go ahead, try to impress me.
Which are other ways to say that we have both New York City and Los Angeles in perspective. When you grow up in them, they are not ovewhelming. They are home. It’s all a question of degree and how you define success.
And if I can borrow an Asian family term not used in the West, for our ancestors here in America success was defined as having enough food to eat, a place to sleep that was warm and clean, general safety from harm, and a chance to move up the ladder. Jan’s other meal at the Russian Tea Room must have taken place when she was a very young girl. But what she remembers is that her parents took her and grandma Anna Bass to the Russian Tea Room. Jan probably had to wear white gloves. The reason for the dinner has vanished from her memory.
So for our 57th Street celebration last week, she had to order a Russian Tea Room beet borscht, in honor of her grandmother. Because though she forgot why the dinner took place, Jan stlll remembers what grandma and her mom ordered for themselves and for her. Borscht of course!
I will be turning soon to the musical reasons we were in New York City in future blogs, but those musical reasons were also to connect the past, present and future. The last world premiere of our musical grandparent, Elliott Carter, was reason enough to travel to Carnegie Hall. And cities have to be redefined when people leave the story of your life. New York doesn’t feel the same without Elliott in Greenwich Village, or Jan’s grandma, mom, or Aunt Elaine able to join us at the Russian Tea Room or to go shopping on the Lower Eastside. But the memory of those people in that city does remain. And food and spirits are one sure way to find your way back in time as you figure out What’s Next? after they’ve left the stage.
“Why are we eating this?” said grandma that night long ago. “This is the food we had when we were poor.”
Best, best, best,