The Finer Things in Jewish Life
By Juda Engelmayer
This week, when I was teaching a class of continuing education students, we touched on some of the people I have encountered throughout my career. My wife and I owned Kossar’s, a well-known bialy bakery on New York City’s Lower East Side for 15 years, and a handful of celebrities used to walk in and buy our product. One of these people had a particular interest in my wife. Abe Vigoda, who died on Jan. 26, 2016, used to come in, but would not buy unless my wife dropped whatever she was doing, including baking the bialys, and took care of him personally. I mentioned him with some sadness, as his recent death brought fond memories of our business to the forefront, and is fresh in my mind.
When I mentioned his name to the students, however, most of the class had no idea who I was talking about. He was Vito Corleone’s buddy Sal Tessio and Detective Phil Fish in Captain Barney Miller’s precinct; how could they not know who Abe Vigoda was?
It hit me then; I finally realized that while I feel young, I grew up in a very different generation and so much of what was routine to me has changed.
A young lady in my class commented on how the Jewish deli is coming back – new bagel-and-lox shops were opening, and pastrami was becoming hip. I did not know the Jewish deli had ever been out, and pastrami remains one of my favorites today. Yet, there are some things that have changed since Abe first appeared on the silver screen, and so much of what we have now is indeed new and in some ways, better.
Recently I attended the very crowded, but lively Kosher Wine and Food Experience at Pier 60 in New York City. Hundreds of new and terrific kosher wines were on display and available for tasting. When Abe Vigoda was in the height of his career, his Shabbat table likely had a jug of Kedem Malaga wine or that syrupy Concorde Grape. There were no real choices in kosher wines then.
For food, delis were all we could hope for if you kept kosher and did not want the fast food at Kosher Country in Coney Island. There were the few higher-end Chinese food places like Moshe PeKing and the first Asian/Jewish fusion restaurant, Schmulka Bernstein’s on Essex Street. Those were for special occasions, though; my engagement party 27 years ago, for example, was at Bernstein’s.
When summertime came, we would drive to bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains and live in sheds that resembled camp bunks, with smells of mildew and freshly mowed grass offsetting one another. If the students did not know Abe Vigoda, they certainly would not appreciate the Catskill summers, unless they knew Pearl and Marty Kantrowitz (Diane Lane and Liev Schreiber), and the fanciful historical fiction portrayed in the 1999 film, “A Walk on the Moon.”
Jewish life is different today. Different in that it is better and more varied in many ways. We have choices now, and the ability to do what many of our parents could not even hope to experience. Those summers in Monticello have been supplanted by more lavish trips, across the country or even overseas. As a kid, we traveled by car. Planes were too expensive and gas was relatively cheap. I remember driving with my mother and siblings as far as Iowa in the summer of 1978. My wife’s parents drove to Alaska.
My kids had the luxury of being on airplanes almost from the moment they stopped screaming in their car seats. Sure, it was commercial, and in coach, but it was better than a long car ride. Later, I had a client with a private jet, and flying private was a real treat. It had always been way too expensive, and I cherished every time I was on that eight-seater. But who knows? Perhaps my grandchildren will see private flights become the commercial planes of the future.
Today, thanks to new smartphone apps and ingenious thinking, younger generations will fly private more than I ever did. A new company called JetSmarter has found a way to maximize the downtime and empty legs of private planes. They noticed that private planes were often sitting unused between charters and flying with no passengers. Now, for what was once unattainable for the common person, almost anyone can be privileged and fly private. Think Uber for planes.
I used to look out of the car window at airplanes above and wish I could fly on a plane. Today, millennials look out the windows of commercial jets and then download the JetSmarter app so they can avoid the “hassle” of waiting on lines at commercial airports.
As I grew up, the summer vacation land of the Catskills became Passover resorts too, and those who could afford it—and wanted to be away for Passover – would drive to hotels like Grossinger’s, The Homowack, the Brown’s in Ellenville, Kutsher’s, and the Raleigh.
Many no longer exist, and if they did, they would be passé. They have been replaced by destinations like Aruba, Miami, Puerto Rico, and the spa reports in Arizona. Back in the day, people flew commercial to get there, but this year JetSmarter is offering a Passover getaway deal where you use their private flights to get to your Passover destination. How things have changed.
Schmulka Bernstein’s is no more, but high-end kosher steakhouses like Reserve Cut at the fancy Setai hotel on Wall Street have taken over. Unlike the airplanes, fancy kosher restaurants have been around for close to 30 years now. But Reserve Cut has upped the ante to the level of the likes of Le Bernardin. Its fusion idea is not old-style kosher Chinese, but Wagyu Beef Tataki. It has a world-class wine cellar with thousands of kosher wines, and probably no Malaga or Concorde Grape. I love a pastrami sandwich, but I won’t say no to fine kosher French cuisine either.
From Abe Vigoda’s passing, and the memories of our bialy bakery, the tour through the past 46 years of my life so far has been warm, but bittersweet. What we had was good and fun. Some of my best memories were rooted in that rugged life, where we appreciated when we could get some of the finer things. Jewish life has come far, where the finer things are only getting better. I only hope that my children’s memories can be as vivid as mine, without the rougher edges.
Juda Engelmayer is a senior executive at 5W Public Relations.