Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Zayde: An Introduction

Our grandfather, Zayde, Schmulka Bernstein was famous long ago in the small world of observant Jews for the purity of his kosher meat products and the generosity of his purse. 
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. From one of these he would extract wrinkled two dollar bills - which were unusual even in those days - that he had saved especially for the "kinder," the children, so you knew he thought about you when you weren't there.  
His two famous products were notably American. One was the five pounder salami, not originally an Eastern European Jewish food. The other was fry beef, which was a kosher bovine equivalent of bacon and was sold in the same folded cardboard packaging as its pork prototype.

These were both manufactured in a smokehouse at 109 Rivington Street.. Next door to the smokehouse was the family butcher store that offered fresh meats and poultry as well. Business was good. The Lower East Side was still a Jewish neighborhood, though already the exodus to the other boroughs and Long Island had begun.
Zayde's other activity of note was his openhandedness to Jews in need. This was not something that I, or any of the grandchildren actually witnessed.  But we were told.
"They called him the Angel of Rivington Street," Aunt Natalie once said.
And Aunt Lillian said, "He brought people home so he could feed them." 
Uncle Harry described him this way,  "He had, you might say, a cultural approach, not a business approach, not a modern approach. He wasn't really interested in the American dream.  Be religious, follow God's will, take care of the Jewish people according to the Jewish law. That was his main concern.
"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.
"Levinson - you remember Rabbi Levinson? - once told me he thought he had given away at least $250,000,  maybe more. And that was really a lot of money in those days."
When I knew him, just after World War II and through the nineteen-fifties, he seemed impossibly old, but he was actually in his relatively healthy sixties, younger than I am now. His sons, my uncles, ran the factory.   Zayde spent much of his time either sitting on a bench at the front of the store with one or two rabbi friends or taking care of a few of the very oldest customers, usually small Yiddish speaking ladies, who would only buy their chickens if they could be sure Schmulke's hands did the cleaning and evisceration.
Unlike the rabbis who were his bench-sitting buddies, Zayde did not have a beard. When I asked my mother why, she said it was because he was in business.  On the other hand, he was rarely clean-shaven  - which had something to do with religious law and going to barbers instead of doing it yourself.  But what law my mother couldn't say. And I never found out.
As I said when I introduced him, Zayde did not look prosperous or important.  He looked confused, like a person from another planet. And so he was. The planet of Poland.  Which, like Superman's planet Krypton, had imploded, at least in terms of the Jews.        
The planet of Poland was now impossible to reach because it was behind the Iron Curtain which I imagined in a literal way as an endless undulating wall of steel.  You could not get in and no one was allowed to leave. In an odd way this felt like a kind of justice, since the Jews who had lived there had been put beyond speech.
He was our grandfather, emphasis our: our important person. Whose stature on the Lower East Side shed its grace on we. He gave scratchy kisses with that three days growth of beard. He looked often bewildered, but maybe he was not. You cannot be bewildered and at the same time build a noted and prosperous business. Or can you?
Strangers with heavy accents would come to the store just to shake his hand and say, "Hello, Mr. Bernstein, Hello Mr. Bernstein."   We thought they came to honor him, and perhaps that was so. Only now it also occurs to me that maybe they were asking for money.