Tag Archives: shtetl

Williamsburg wanderings

12 Oct

Down to the darkly atmospheric shtetl of Williamsburg to visit sweet 90-year-old, hungarische great-uncle S. Journeyed all the way – a 17-mile trajectory – on two wheels.

Amazing bike ride taking us from chez-nous in the north of the Bronx due south along the Hudson River, practically down the entire length of the island of Manhattan along the green walkway.

Then zigzagging furiously through furiously trendy downtown to the east side, thereafter, a hop, skip and a jump and over Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, and lo and behold: you have reached your destination.

On the way:

Whizzed over the majestic Henry Hudson Bridge.

Panoramic views, sparkling water, and a blue, blue sky.

Guy nonchalantly smoking a joint on the Henry Hudson Parkway gazing out over the river to the shores of New Jersey.

Manhattanite skaters, rollerbladers –

Manhattanite joggers running with their dogs on leash –

Manhattanite joggers pushing their babies along in trendy three-wheeled buggies/strollers –

Latino New Yorkers having barbecues and playing loud music –

People sporting about and people playing sports –

all the way down this oasis of calm snaking down the west side of their beloved, congested, noise-polluted island.

And then:

Sharp turn eastwards at W10th St.

Many a youthful trendoid (female-male-unisex) strolling through Greenwich Village, SoHo and the East Village dressed in obligatory uniform of skinny jeans, trilby hat, big black-rimmed goggles.

And then:

Up and over the bridge and back in time into Williamsburg.

Women in hyper-modest, drably coloured clothing and rigid hair coverings go about their business.

Men in full hasidic garb march off to shul (where else?)

An ancient rebbe bedecked with a flowing white beard smokes a cigarette outside his apartment building watching the yidden go by.

A shuffle into more modest layers of clothing over cycle gear in vain attempt to stick out less like a sore thumb in the heim.

Lovely time spent with hungarische great uncle S waxing lyrical about days of yore and looking at b&w snaps.

And then:

Pass by Gottlieb’s, a gloriously unpretentious, slightly faded heimishe deli, wafting hopelessly heimishe, hopelessly nostalgic odours of chicken soup, kneidlech and the like into the street.

Sub-zero chance of getting me to pass that by without a good old hearty pit-stop.

So in we dash for a hearty, greasy heimishe meal.

Overflowing bowls of mushroom barley soup and chicken egg-drop soup.

Magically-instantly refilled dish of pickles on table.

Goulash and rice (vegetarian days are gone for now).

Sounds of Yiddish and Yinglish spoken all around, barely distinguishable, intermingle.

Turns out the place has been in the hasidic proprietor’s family for the last three generations.

Loved it.

Then back onto our bikes and nip over the imaginary divide – back to the future – into trendy Williamsburg.

Immediately transported back into New-York-skinny-jeaned-trendoid zone.

Saunter down Bedford Avenue – trendy little bars, vegan cafes, muffin shops, book stalls on streets, bikes parked on every street corner.

Loved it – but not nearly as much as the real Williamsburg.

Final leg of journey:

A wobble back over Williamsburg Bridge, legs definitely tiring of pedalling by now.

Time for a quick beer before going home?


Quick one for the road at a beer shop in Greenwich Village.

And then:

Bikes in tow, we jump on the A Train all the way home.

A marvellous day was had by all.

(and thanks goes out to the kind subway bosses who allow tired cyclists to take their clunky tired bikes home on the train. Phew.)


Honey, I’m just popping down to the garage to pick up some….cholent

17 Nov

Important preliminary explanation: CHOLENT – A greasy stew made up of any or all variety of beans, barley, pulses, spuds, carrots and lumps of unidentifiable meat (or without for the vegetarian version) etc which is slow cooked overnight from before the start of Sabbath on Friday evening and generally eaten by Jewish people for Saturday lunch. Origins in eastern European Jewish communities from a long time ago to provide warmth through the bitter winters. Etymological root said to be the French “chaud lent” – slow heat. (For other unfamiliar terms, please refer to the “Glossary for the uninitiated” at the bottom of this post)

Question: Surely cholent – that stodgy, heavy, greasy stew that many of us Ashkenazi Yidden are partial to, the one that makes you need to collapse heaving, rendered immobile, on the sofa for many an hour on a Shabbos afternoon, should only and ever be eaten for Shabbos lunch (usually after a long and arduous stint in shul in the morning), and never at any other time in the week?

Answer: YES if you live anywhere in the whole world except for Monsey. NO if you live in Monsey.

For you see, I have just returned from a most pleasant and insightful weekend spent at my sister-in-law and brother-law and family who live in the most pleasant locale of Monsey, a smallish, mediumish, largeish town in upstate New York. And in Monsey you will discover, cholent has taken on an omnipresent, omniscient, all-singing all-dancing presence.

For Monsey is not what it first seems – a typically small-town American small town. It is in fact a modern-day shtetl set in modern-day USA where thousands of Hassidic and other types of Jews have made their home. Here you can find Mordechai the Jewish locksmith, Benyomin the Jewish hauler, Mr Glatt the kosher butcher, and so on and so on.

And this is where the cholent story comes in. For in Monsey, you can now buy cholent ANYWHERE! ANYTIME! No longer sold on Friday afternoons before Shabbos, the cholent scourge is creeping earlier and earlier back in the week. You now have to cringe at that unmistakeably overpowering cholenty smell when you pop down to your local bagel shop for breakfast of a Thursday morning.

And much much crazier than that, you can now go down to your local Jewish-owned Shell garage, and while you fill up your massive American automobile, you can nip into the garage shop and buy a bowl of STEAMING HOT FRESH CHOLENT bubbling on a giant-sized hotplate!!!

According to a well-informed local source, the Shell garage is only one of a number of local “cholent hang-outs” where the chow is now on sale most nights of the week, and where some young Hassidic men and women go to surreptitiously eye each other up over a bowl of the unctuous stuff. In fact, my source claims it is only a matter of time until the said-cholent-guzzlers are, shock horror, chatting each other up à la “So how’s your kishka?” Surely not! Horror of horrors! A slippery slope! Where will this end!

And if that were not bad enough, these Jews – generally so punctilious about eating only strictly kosher food stamped with a hundred or so proofs of its “kosherness” by a whole gamut of rabbis – are apparently eating cholent WITHOUT A HECHSHER ON IT! Stop! Say no more!

(OK, so I’m exaggerating a little bit – it’s not really as bad as it sounds, for the cholent is made by none other than the extremely frum garage owner’s extremely frum wife. But even so, they should know better.)

Indeed, there have been sightings of said Shell garage owner scurrying back and forth between his garage and his nearby home weighed down by huge steaming pots of the stuff. Unconfirmed reports state that his cholent revenues now vastly exceed his petrol revenues.

Next visit to Monsey, make no mistake about it, I’m making a pilgrimage to this cholent heaven to sample for myself. Pictures to follow.

Glossary for the uninitiated:

ASHKENAZI: Jews originating from central and eastern Europe, who tend to be pale of skin and whose ancestors probably spoke Yiddish at some point or another.

YIDDEN: “Jews” in Yiddish.

SHABBOS: The Jewish Sabbath, or day of rest, beginning Friday sundown and ending Saturday sundown. Also pronounced “Shabbat”.

SHTETL: A close-knit Jewish community, where everyone knows each other’s business. The term was first used to refer to such communities in eastern Europe in previous centuries.

SHUL: Synagogue

HECHSHER: A certificate proving that restaurants, packaged food etc are kosher.

FRUM: A Yiddish term to denote Orthodox or practising Jews.

This post is dedicated to Family Kind

The herring incident and how I am transformed into local supermarket hero

10 Nov

Picture the scene – it’s Friday afternoon, just a few hours before the holy Sabbath, and I’m browsing the local supermarket in my newly adopted New York neighbourhood, minding my own business, when I come face to face with an elderly lady brandishing a trolley contraption of sorts. We size each other up before she cries out that most majestic of cries (with an unmistakeable just-got-off-the-boat-from-Eastern-Europe-yesterday accent, rolling her tongue deliciously over the double “rr”):


She looks at me expectantly. Puffed up with pride that I can be of such use to another human being, I oblige. I help her make her choice through the dizzying array of  jars and plastic containers of herrings bursting off the shelves of the kosher fridge section, handing her different flavours (in cream sauce, schmaltz, plain, in wine sauce etc), and different brands (Gold’s, Miller’s etc), each of which she scrutinises thanks to the magnifying glass she brandishes in her right hand. Hurrah! She finds her perfect herring choice – right flavour, right brand, and thanks me profusely. We both walk off beaming.

I round the corner to the next aisle, and another old lady, about a quarter my height and with suspiciously gleaming jet-black locks, comes at me.  “Am I glad you’re so tall!” she cries out with that most Semitic of New York intonations, as she indicates for me to stretch up to the lofty heights of the top shelf to reach for her favourite type of “kasha”, all the while extolling the praises of this most versatile of Shtetl grains (starch? pulse?) with a dreamy look in her eye. “Oh how good this tastes with the juice from your roast chicken!”

I walk over to the cheese section. It’s only a matter of time until another elderly lady looks to me for succour, I can feel it in my bones. And sure enough, a more portly middle-aged woman, looking half in my direction and half at the cheese display, pronounces out loud, with deep irritation: “Now where have those herrings gone, they’ve moved them again!” Bristling with usefulness, I swiftly set her in the right direction and assure her that her chosen brand is well stocked.

I see a dazzling new career path opening up to me:

“Herring Consultant and High Shelf Reacher”

knew the streets of this new Goldener Medina would be lined with gold, but little did I realise how soon it would be before I found my calling in life.

New York life beckons, brimming with new opportunities.

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