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Eating in New York's Lower East Side: Finding Jewish Roots in a Multicultural Neighborhood

Shel Horowitz traces his roots in the Jewish foods of the Lower East Side.

These streets of my young adulthood--back again, so evocative, so different.

Though I grew up in New York, I was late coming to this neighborhood. In my 20s, back from college and living on my own, I started exploring the nooks and crannies of my native city--and the Lower East Side was the mother lode, the commingling of cultures and customs unlike any other. Indian, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Orthodox Jewish, Latino, American Hippie--all crammed in to crumbling tenements in this huge, crowded, rundown stretch of seething city. But now, living in the country, 150 miles away for the past seventeen years, I only get into this neighborhood once or twice a year.

Today, it's my own Jewish culture that I seek.

At first, getting off the subway at Delancey and Essex, I'm struck by the noise, chaos, litter, broken glass. A city that shouts at observers, buries them in congestion...a city where the green growing things I'm so used to now are all but invisible, trapped beneath acres of concrete.

But walking a block in, I regain my rootedness. I begin to feel at home as enter an old confectioner's shop on Ludlow--visible from Essex through a parking lot that used to be a building. Yet I notice the first awareness of dilution. The shelves are lined as much with modern European and American gourmet treats as with the old solid chocolates and barrels of bridge mix.

Back on Essex, I stop at one of my old haunts: G&M Kosher Caterers. This tiny deli is filled with Old World Jewish cuisine: the heavy stuff, cholents, kugels--and maybe the world's best knishes: doughy, flavorful creations, hand-rolled, and as far removed from those funny biscuits they sell at baseball stadiums as an organic summer tomato is from the pink square cardboard ones sitting lifelessly in 3-packs in the supermarket. I buy a dozen to take home. The signs on the walls attest to their kosher certification, and speak of Chassidic music events to come. Yona Shimmel's on Houston is more famous, even after years of Indian or Pakistani ownership, but G&M's are vastly superior.

Then there are bagels. Real Lower East Side bagels that give your jaw a workout with every bite. No frou frou spinach or blueberry bagels here--these are hardcore: onion, poppy, sesame, Russian black pumpernickel and such. I buy them from a place I haven't been to before: Kossar's Bialys (a bialy is like a bagel, but the hole only goes halfway through and the remaining center core is covered with onions).

Peering in the window at an ancient storefront, I am surprised when the buzzer rings. I enter, breathing in the scent of crumbling leather. The proprietor, as ancient as the shop, in his long white beard, asks if he can help me. He is a repairer of Jewish holy objects: Torah scrolls, tefillin straps, and more. The shop is fascinating. Tiny, like most of the shops in this neighborhood, it seems to have been here since the beginning of time, unchanged except for the addition of electric light a hundred years ago, and a security system more recently. On a different day, I might take out a notebook and interview him about his craft. This day, I simply browse quickly, thank him in Hebrew and move on.

Many of the stores are closed today, on this sleepy Sunday at the tail end of the year. Perhaps the Judaica merchants are vacationing this week. I look in the windows at antique candlesticks and Chanukah menorahs, olivewood Havdallah spice boxes, hand-made modernistic skullcaps and talesim (prayer shawls).

My next stop is the one and only Gus's Pickles--an open storefront with no door and walls, huge barrels of pickles (four varieties), sauerkraut, olives, marinated mushrooms, pickled peppers. Then men, wearing thick sweatshirts advertising nationwide delivery, scoop out large bowls full, cram them into quart containers for the long line of people on the sidewalk. One of the clerks, a young black man with a good sense of humor, tells the person in front of me he should see the place the week before Passover. I wonder what it's like to work outside in the cold all day, hands immersed in brine. Still, these men clearly enjoy playing off their audience, having fun as they dish up a quart for me of full-sours--the kind that as a kid I called "electric pickles," because the brine had so much garlic it actually made your mouth buzz.

My last stop, around the corner on Hester Street, is Kodouri Imports, an appetizing store filled with exotic dried fruits, coffee in flavors I've never seen before (decaf pumpkin spice?!), barrels and boxes of bulk seeds and nuts, jars of tahini (sesame spread), lekvar (prune butter), and some in Hebrew that I can't decipher. My bag is already full and their prices seem high, so I don't buy anything. But to inhale those mixtures of smells...a moment of heaven is enough.

[ Because several people have requested it, I'm including the contact info for Gus's Pickles. Gus's Pickles is now located at 85/87 Orchard Street. The temporary cell phone number is 516-642-2634. They are open 12:00pm to 6:00pm. There is a new pickle vendor in their old spot, the Pickle Guys (operated by some of Gus's former employees). They have a website at http://nyc.urbansavings.com/pickleguys.htm with a 10% off coupon. ]

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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