My First Kreplach

by

01/05/2006

W. 47th Street between 5th and 6th Aves. 10020

Neighborhood: Midtown

1.

If one peers through the storefront windows of the National Jewelers Exchange on West 47th Street, past the hundred or so feet of bustling merchants and shoppers and side-by-side display cases filled with gold and silver, all under the harsh track lighting suspended on cables from the 20-foot ceiling, one can just make out two old-fashioned words painted onto the far mezzanine windows, words that beckon to a wandering soul in search of something warm, simple, anonymous, and familiar: DAIRY LUNCHEON.

If one heeds this call and ventures past the wedding ring dealers, the antique watch repairers, the jewels from distant lands . . . Making one’s way up the dusty staircase in the rear of the National Jewelers Exchange, one finds oneself in a bright, cramped, and cozy kosher luncheon, not far—and yet worlds apart—from the madding crowd.

The Diamond Dairy of New York occupies a sliver of what must originally have been unused air space at 4 West 47th Street. It is entirely unsuspected. Like a well-kept secret, a private club, a gem hiding in plain sight.

I found myself seated at a table overlooking the busy jewelry mart. Painted onto the glass just above me—backwards so that it might be read by those below—were the two words that had called to me like a fog light across this foreign land, which I might otherwise have lived in New York my entire life without entering once: DAIRY LUNCHEON. Next to these words a penguin in the remnants of an old cigarette ad invites hot and bothered customers: Come in, It’s KOOL Inside.

I gathered nothing much else had changed at the Diamond Dairy since 1950, the year it opened its doors. Not the semi-circular counters and swivel stools, not the display case filled with noodle kugels, and not the waitresses in white blouses and black skirts who run a friendly but tight ship for the no-nonsense gem dealers who come here everyday looking for something they can count on. On the menu were the things you’d expect—blintzes, kreplach, borscht, gefilte fish—and a few that seemed terrifically out of place: chow mein, lo mein, and linguini “with our chef’s own marinara sauce.”

I gazed down at the National Jewelers Exchange. There was intrigue to these booths, to this flea market of jewels. I sensed that there was more than met the eye; that beyond the curio cases were little locked boxes and small velvet pouches tucked into inside pockets, containing gems too precious to display—gems that came with stories and explanations and fortunes. To shop at the National Jewelers Exchange, I sensed that a person must come prepared to haggle, to schmooze, to make a day of it.

Take the booth directly below me. At first glance, to the wanderer off the street, this booth appeared to be just one of dozens of haphazard counters with a hodgepodge of signs tacked onto the partition behind it: “Bill Schifrin Wedding Bands.” “Herman Rotenberg’s Wedding Rings.” “18K-22K-24K.” And then the eye-stopper: “1,883 Unusual Wedding Rings.” In actuality, these signs told a story. In 1947, after apprenticing with another wedding ring dealer for several years, Bill Schifrin took a chance on the booming postwar marriage craze and leased his own booth at the National Jewelers Exchange. He called it “Wedding Rings.” Then one day a customer, who happened to be a hotshot Madison Avenue copywriter, decided that “Wedding Rings” was trite. “How many rings do you sell?” he asked. Schifrin said thousands. A few days later the customer returned with a card: “1,883 Unusual Wedding Rings.” The name stuck and a sign was born.

Years later, when Schifrin retired and his two daughters and a son-in-law, Herman Rotenberg, took over the business, a new sign was born: “Herman Rotenberg’s Wedding Rings.” Many signs went up; none came down. Nothing was forgotten and the future was embraced.

I wondered how many other stories there were at the National Jewelers Exchange. How many people even knew about these legendary booths? Would I ever come to 47th Street to shop for a wedding band? If I were to get married, would it be to someone who would ever think to come to Herman Rotenberg’s booth? Would it be to a nice Jewish boy whose mother told him to “go to the diamond district and look for Bill Schifrin”? Or would it be to someone who knew nothing about wedding rings, gefilte fish, and old New York customs but who wanted to get me something unusual so he Googled “unusual wedding rings” and lo and behold found that there was actually a famous booth called “1,883 Unusual Wedding Rings,” on a famous street called Diamond and Jewelry Way, and that he could come to this street, to this booth, to haggle, to schmooze, to have a delicious cheese kreplach?

“Have you decided what you’d like?” asked my waitress. She wore a white blouse and black skirt with a red paper flower pinned to her graying hair.

I hadn’t, of course, and so I fell back on my instincts. “Tuna on rye toast?”

“Very good,” she said.

“And a seltzer, please.”

When it arrived, my tuna on rye toast, it was on a paper plate. A can of seltzer was plunked beside it, followed by a Styrofoam cup. It was as if the place was saying, “We have God on our side, we don’t need real plates. So much to wash!”

2.

The National Jewelers Exchange is one of the oldest jewelry “exchanges” on West 47th Street. Perhaps you remember seeing its simple red neon sign hanging outside 4 West 47th Street. Or perhaps you can’t remember anything at all from 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the block officially known as Diamond and Jewelry Way but more commonly referred to as “the diamond district.” Perhaps it’s all a blur of neon and gold, a haze of Hebrew names flowing into one another, one mall as generic as the next, Las Vegas meeting Jerusalem on this anachronistic bazaar of a New York street. Perhaps you’ve never even heard of Diamond and Jewelry Way, the single block that ushers in the vast majority of diamonds brought into the United States every year, the smallest Business Improvement District in Manhattan yet somehow containing more than 2,600 businesses.

On my first visit to the Diamond Dairy, it seemed that nothing was sacred. The delivery boy used my table to rest his bags while gathering his thoughts and arranging his receipts. Orthodox Jewish men approached my table randomly to help themselves to a piece of bread from the white tin bucket whose scraps were apparently there to feed the community at large. Every time the lid was removed, a sweet aroma of fresh white bread wafted out to help me understand why these men, who were clearly regulars here, flocked involuntarily toward the communal bucket for a free sample of the staple of life. I reached into the tin. I tasted a piece of the fresh white bread. It lived up to its aroma. I involuntarily reached for more.

It was only later, after my meal, when I was standing near the cash register talking to Sam Strauss, the owner of the dairy, that I realized what a fool I’d been. That everything, in fact, was sacred at the Diamond Dairy. That tucked into the corner behind the table where I’d been sitting was a small sink, like the kind you might see in a nursery school, about a quarter of the size of a standard sink, nestled into the rear corner of the diner so the Orthodox clientele may perform their pre-lunch ablutions, after which, according to Jewish law, they are required to break bread within four yards of the ablution site. And this was why the tin had been placed on that particular table.

It was later still that I learned that tucked within the offices and corridors of New York’s business world are hundreds of makeshift places to pray. A conference room on the 50th floor of the Empire State Building, or the office of a partner at a global law firm in the General Motors Building, or a narrow corridor here at the Diamond Dairy of New York, where every day starting at 3:30 dozens of men gather for mincha, the afternoon prayer. Flowing out of the take-out prep room into the small corridor leading to the cash register that sits at the top of the stairs that lead down to the jewelry exchange, wearing homburgs, baseball caps or yarmulkes, the men sway together in prayer for fifteen minutes before returning to their jobs.

3.

It is easy to feel like an outsider at the Diamond Dairy. Like you’ve entered a small universe with rules you couldn’t possibly understand, being outside the fold. But it’s one thing to be a non-Jew in a Jewish establishment; nothing is expected of you in that case. If you are a Chinese gem dealer in town on business, you may order an omelet or the lo mein, and not be under pressure to know what a kreplach is, or what mincha means, or why a tin of bread is placed within four yards of a small sink tucked into a far corner for makeshift ablutions. It is another thing entirely to be a Jew with no knowledge of Judaism. And this is what I was. And this is what embarrassed me. I was mortified that I had dipped my hand into the sacred bread tin, that I had sullied a religious law. I was ashamed that I didn’t know who was allowed—or required to—break this bread. I was alarmed that I had never even tasted a kreplach.

On my second visit to the Diamond Dairy I was determined not to sin again. I perused the menu. Listed in the Specials column was “Noodles with Cheese.” I envisioned macaroni baked with cheddar, perhaps a layer of bread crumbs and grated parmesan on top. I ordered as if I knew whereof I spoke. “The noodles with cheese,” I said.

At the table next to me was a man in a yarmulke who knew his Torah and knew what he wanted for lunch. “Listen,” he told his waiter, “the tuna on Israeli salad. Coleslaw on the side. Pumpernickel. Extra pickles. And listen…” The waiter leaned in, succumbing to the hushed, conspiratorial nature of the order. “A little bowl of chopped onion on the side.” The waiter hurried off. The diner took out a pocket-size prayer book and began to read from it.

When my order arrived, I was both shocked and slightly relieved. Before me was a single plate of plain egg noodles with an oversized dollop of cottage cheese plopped onto the center. On the up side: it was simple; something a person could count on. On the down: it wasn’t at all what I wanted for lunch.

4.

Ask Sam Strauss what he likes best about his dairy luncheon and he’ll quickly tell you, “The blintzes. Our blintzes are famous.” Then he’ll quickly add, “Our homemade soups. Really homemade, and all fat-free.” After another short pause: “The cozy, homey atmosphere.”

Strauss took over this business thirteen years ago. The son of a bakery owner, he was born and raised in Brooklyn but later moved to Westchester. One of the things that attracted him to this job was the hours. Catering to a largely Orthodox Jewish business clientele, the Diamond Dairy is closed weekends and holidays, and locks its doors by five thirty every day, even earlier on Fridays. “For the restaurant business,” says Strauss, “this is unusual.”

His presence behind the cash register, perched on his stool, ringing up customers’ receipts and making small talk in a fluid combination of English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, seems as inevitable and enduring as death, taxes, diamonds, and chicken soup for colds.

The first time I talked to him, I asked him his name. “Sam,” he said. “And your last name?” A customer waiting for change chose to answer for him. “O’Malley!” Which was good for a few laughs from anyone within earshot.

Strauss is avuncular, in his sixties, with grey hair and beard, black trousers, white shirt, and the ever-present yarmulke. He presides over his establishment with an equal measure of humor and proprietary concern, keeping an eagle eye on all that transpires while schmoozing respectfully with his clientele. Just under the surface of it all, flowing like a steady undercurrent, is the presence of religion.

5.

On my third visit to the Diamond Dairy, I summoned the courage to utter the word kreplach. Angie, my graying waitress with the flower in her hair (who, as it turned out, had only worked here for three-and-a-half years, “but I’m getting used to it”) asked me what I’d like.

“The cheese kreplach,” I said casually. But it immediately felt awkward, the -ch hanging in the air like a failed parody.

“I’ll see if we still have them,” she said. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. “If we do, you want them boiled or fried?”

A choice. My mind raced. “What would you recommend?” I asked.

Angie blinked. Then smiled. “Fried.”

“Fried, then,” I said.

As she was leaving my table, she asked, “Apple sauce or sour cream?” She was already at the kitchen door announcing my order when I managed, “Sour cream?”

I turned to my right and looked down at the jewelry exchange. My eye was caught by the spinning lights of several emergency vehicles parked outside. I remembered for a moment where I was, on the one single Manhattan block that ushers into the United States the vast majority of our country’s gems.

Angie placed a plate before me. On it were two round patties of fried dough and a small plastic container of sour cream. I wondered if I was supposed to leave the sour cream in the container or pour it out onto my plate. So much I still didn’t know. I decided to let it spill out onto my plate.

I cut into the first dumpling. Inside was a warm, slightly melted blend of ricotta, eggs, and sour cream. I took my first bite, and as you might expect, it was divine, dissolving in my mouth as quickly as it had entered it. I immediately went back for more. This ritual continued until the first kreplach was history.

At some point during all of this, Sam Strauss, who hadn’t seen me enter the luncheon today, walked by my table.

“Hello Sam!” I said.

“Ah,” he said, seeing the half-eaten kreplach on my plate, a twinkle appearing in his eye. “Enjoy!” And he continued on to his perch behind the register.

And so I did. And when my plate was clean, I gathered my things and took my check to the register. Sam rang me up.

“How’s your daughter?” he asked me, remembering details from our last conversation.

“She’s excellent,” I said. I reached into my bag and took out a recent preschool photo. I handed it to him.

He gazed at the picture. “Ah,” he said, “she’s beautiful.”

“She’s a handful,” I said.

“Enjoy her,” said Sam, handing back the photo. “As they say in French, may she give you many nachas.”

“That’s what they say in French?” I asked.

“Well, that’s Yiddish French.” He thought about how to translate nachas. “What’s the word? I’ll have to look it up.” He thought a little more. “Wonderful things. I guess that’s the closest. Children give wonderful things.”

But he didn’t need to explain nachas. As soon as the word had left his mouth, I had a sense of what it meant, even though I couldn’t put words to it. This was always how Yiddish had sounded to me, so expressive and strangely self-explanatory.

I bid Sam farewell and headed down the dusty stairs. Outside, on 47th Street, more emergency vehicles had arrived. Fire trucks, ambulances, police cars, all emblazoned with “Haz Mat Operations.” Shorthand, I realized, for hazardous materials. EMT workers tended to a man on a gurney. He wore an oxygen mask. Perhaps there had been a chemical leak from one of the lapidary workshops. I looked around for a clue from other passersby. The street and sidewalks were crowded. Some people had paused to watch the scene, some people looked up and pointed to the upper floors of 47th Street’s nondescript buildings, searching out possible causes for alarm. But most people continued on with their lives, shopping, working, talking into their cell phones, bustling along this typical and yet most unusual Manhattan block.

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§ One Response to “My First Kreplach”

  • Noel says:

    I am a first time caller to the show Pam, that was lovely, New York is good on the big things but truly great on the tiny little things. The tenth St. Baths come to mind.

§ Leave a Reply

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