West Side Judaica: “He had a chance to go big”

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12/15/2015

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

West Side Judaica: “He had a chance to go big”
Selzter man

How many times do expect me to walk past West Side Judaica, right around the corner from us at Broadway and 89th, and not go in?

I went in and met the owner, Yakov Saltzer.

“So every time I drink a seltzer you get a royalty?” I asked.

“Don’t I wish.”

Yakov was born in 1958 and raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Back in the seventies, he was in the picture-frame business with a partner. He liked it. “I like using my hands,” he said.

But one day in 1979, he had a chance to go big, and buy an awning business. “I liked that, too. You make the metal frame, you cut the canvas; there’s no waste.” But the owners wanted $250,000. “I didn’t have a pot to piss in. And it was my rabbi who told me…”

“To go into the Judaica business because it would be good for the Jews?” I asked.

“No, that I couldn’t afford a $250,000 business,” Yakov said. “He said, ‘Wait. A business will come up, cost you ten, fifteen thousand dollars.’”

If it wasn’t such a stereotype, it would be a pretty good joke that Yakov went to his rabbi not for spiritual guidance but for investment advice. It recalls the days of the shtetl, when the rabbi was more than a holy man — he was the civil authority and the wise community elder.

“And he was right,” Yakov went on. “Not long after, a shop came up, just down the street from here. Picture frames, but with a little Judaica. They wanted fifteen. My partner said no; he wasn’t interested. Remember, this is 1979 we’re talking about. The Upper West Side was the wild west. Most of the Jews had moved away.”

“So you bought it yourself.”

“My partner went on to buy into a hardware supply business and did very well, if all you mean is money.”

“You mean you got…” Here I paused. “What do we Jews call karma?” I asked him. “You mean you went into the Judaica business, so you got to schep naches….”

“No, nothing like that. I mean family. The woman behind the counter is my mother. They guy over there is my brother and he there is my son.”

“It’s not everybody’s idea of heaven,” I said, “to work all day with three generations of the family.”

“You have to be the right kind of person,” he said. “And they have to be the right kind of people. What can I tell you? I’m lucky.”

I looked around at the dozen or so customers threading the aisles. “You seem to be doing all right.”

“Twenty thousand dollars a month this space costs me. I’m one of two Judaica stores left in New York; there used to be thirty.”

“I thought we Jews were supposed to smart about money,” I said. “What made you think you can pay Manhattan rents and get by selling menorahs?” In truth, the place was crammed with merchandise — books, prayer shawls, tzitzit, candles and candleabras of every description, yarmulkes, rows of mezuzuahs laid out like ammunition, and, hanging from the ceiling, gorgeous, shiny shofars.

“Ach, we do okay,” he said, flapping a hand.

“In all your years here, nobody’s every put a brick through your window?”

“I lower a gate every night. But we get them in here. Just the other day, I had a lady in here yelling this and that.”

“The West Bank?”

“The West Bank, the ‘international conspiracy,’ the whole thing,” Yakov said. “I told her, ‘You get out now or I’ll hit you.’ I’ve got security cameras everywhere; I’m not afraid of getting arrested. Finally I just picked her up around the waist and carried her out into the street.”

“Christ almighty,” I said. “This happens on the Upper West Side of Manhattan?”

“Happens anyplace Jews look like Jews,” he said. “You, you can walk anywhere, nobody’s going to bother you. “Walk around dressed like me, see what you get. Even on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.”

He paused to help a man buy a beautiful golden menorah that burns olive oil instead of candles.

“My son over there,” Yakov said, pointing to a sallow young man dressed for harassment — beard, tzitzit, yarmulke, the works — speaking yiddish to a customer. “He’s taken karate. He’s good. I told him, though, ‘If you have to fight, fight. But if at the end of it the guy is lying on the floor, you’ve still lost.’” He handed the menorah-buying customer his change.

“The whole point is to know how to fight, to be able to fight if you absolutely have to, but never actually to have to do it,” Yakov concluded. “That’s winning.”

*

Dan Baum and his wife, Margaret Knox, have worked together as freelance journalists since they were married in 1987, and together have produced four non-fiction books. They are now working as senior researchers in the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.
 

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