A Trio in Search of a Blech

by

01/16/2022

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

As my plane landed at JFK, the third day of Hanukkah gave way to the night before Christmas. Wise men and Maccabees, manger and menorah, holy night and holy light all merged on the taxi ride to Brooklyn for a winter holiday vacation visit with my sister Rivka. Fortunately, there was room at the inn; she had recently acquired a two-story brownstone.

No sooner had I arrived than my friend Yehuda called from the Upper West Side.

“What are you doing Thursday? I have to go down to the Lower East Side and buy a blech for Friday night. Would you and your sister enjoy a tour and shopping spree rolled into one?”

By birth and temperament, Rivka and I are midwesterners—polite, curious, friendly, naïve. We are sensible without being highly opinionated. Native New Yorkers easily see through us. We are too soft and too caring, gullible. We are easy marks. We have learned to keep a polite, cautious distance, when it comes to matters New York. 

Wasn’t it enough that I knew how to get to Times Square on the subway and had seen the Village at night? This was the winter of 1989, and the city was supposed to be dangerous. Maybe I should just be sensible. Yet, here was an unusual opportunity, an invitation from a friend and veteran New Yorker, one well versed in the history and lore of Jewish immigration and Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture). Easy marks or not, we would be in safe hands. I decided to take the plunge.

“Yes, we’ll come. Sounds great,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “But, what’s a blech?” I asked.

“A blech. A blech. You know, a blech.”

Yehuda’s repetition gave no further hint of what he was searching for. My silence communicated more directly than my question.

“A blech is a flat piece of tin, like a cookie sheet, that you put over gas burners on the stove late Friday afternoon just before the Sabbath. That way you can have a fire going all Sabbath long, keeping food warm without burning it.”

Yehuda was beginning to follow a practice observed by Orthodox Jews who are prohibited to work during the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Lighting a match is considered work, but a fire begun before Sabbath and kept alight throughout the day is permissible. A blech allows one to keep food and water warm for Saturday’s meals.

Yehuda arranged to meet Rivka and me early the next morning on Houston Street, the heart of the Lower East Side. Immediately, I recognized this famous area of immigrant life from old newsreels and magazine photographs. On nearby side streets were storefronts with doors wide open, merchandise sprawling out onto the streets, goods piled high on rickety display tables, clothing hanging from sway back racks, and boxes upon boxes reaching precariously to the sky. What an assortment on display—house wares, discounted women’s fashions, men’s work clothes, uniforms for school children, modern and outdated hardware. I easily imagined bygone days of pushcarts, street hawkers and rushing, pushing shoppers over-flowing the streets.

In all these shops we inquired after a blech, only to be met with shrugs of the shoulders, shakes of the head, hands lifted toward heaven. No one knew.

The streets were wet and dirty with old snow, and by late morning a light rain began to fall. Rivka looked at me, I looked at Yehuda, and Yehuda sighed. Up went the umbrellas. We lumbered on.

We spied two men at the end of the street unloading a truck. Yehuda poked me in the ribs with his elbow, gesturing toward the larger man dressed all in black, long payes (ear locks) dangling from under his black hat. He was swaddled in a wide, thick apron, pencil in hand, surveying a tower of boxes on a wooden skid occupying half the street. “He’ll know for sure,” Yehuda assured us.

We sloshed up to the man, whose shining blue eyes were set deeply in a face blanketed by a coarse, thick black beard. Yehuda, using his best New York Yiddish asked: “Where can I find a blech?” The man looked long and hard at Yehuda as if pondering the deepest mysteries of the Talmud. Then in clear, unaccented English he said, “I don’t know.” He shrugged his shoulders, and we shrugged our shoulders. We moved on, a trio in search of a blech.

At the end of the next block we turned left and then right and then left again, weaving back and forth, a patchwork assault upon this threadbare remnant of immigrant soil. The rain turned to snow.

It was the sign, stretching the entire width of the building, that grabbed my attention: a large red arrow with the words “Jack’s Hardware Emporium—Where What You Want We Got,” pointing downward to an ancient, wooden stairway. I had never been to a “hardware emporium.” The presence of one in a basement intrigued me. I led the way down into a large, dimly lit catacomb. To my right, behind a long glass counter, stood a middle-aged man, hardy, broad chested, with sandy colored hair, and steely eyes. He looked as if he belonged on the foredeck of a Scandinavian sailing schooner.

“Do you have blechs?” Yehuda inquired.

“What size?” returned the Scandinavian.

Size? We couldn’t believe our ears! At last, finally! But size? What size? We hadn’t thought of size. The man directed us to the end of the farthest counter. There, leaning against the back wall were three different-sized blechs. Yehuda selected the one he needed and took it up to the cash register. The man slipped the blech into a cardboard sleeve. And then, thoughtfully, he wrapped it in colorful Christmas gift paper and ribbon. Our Sabbath cooking implement became a Christmas gift; our shopping expedition was an interfaith success story. It was time for lunch!

Rivka suggested one of the many kosher deli restaurants whose aromas had seeped through the streets as we had trudged along. It was late in the day; the lunchtime trade had long disappeared. Yossel’s Kosher Kitchen embraced us with smells of boiled cabbage and corned beef, beet borscht, kugels, knishes, fish salads and salamis. We sat and sighed and ordered. Then we gulped and slurped our way through a victory feast punctuated with egg creams and sour pickles. We ate. And we ate, until we began to slide off our chairs, our eyes rolling slowly upward toward the ceiling. It was then that Rivka noticed her friend Jimmy ordering take-out at the counter.

“Hey, look who’s here!” Rivka shouted. Jimmy approached us, arms wide, welcoming us and we him, introductions all around, fellow travelers well met.

“So what brings you all the way down here to the big city, Mr. Westchester County?” my sister teased her friend.

“What do you mean? This is the best place in the world for pastrami and corn beef. Every chance I get I’m here. Only today, I can’t decide if I should get the hard salami or the soft. The wife and I like the hard, the kids the soft. Anyway, what brings all of you out on a wet day like this?” Jimmy asked with raised, bushy eyebrows.

I caught Rivka and Yehuda’s eyes, as we smiled at one another. An impish notion itched its way across my mind, and I quickly turned to Jimmy. Here was a chance for a Midwesterner to test the strutting savvy of a New York native.

“Oh, we are getting an expert tour of the Lower East Side and doing a little shopping. Say Jimmy, if you can guess what we bought, I’ll buy you a salami.” I pointed toward the far chair covered with umbrellas, coats, and our prized possession swaddled in Christmas wrapping paper.

Jimmy gave a long, hard look at the package, scratched his head and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not good at guessing games, but it sort of looks like a blech to me.”

Jimmy took home a hard salami.

***

Jerry Garfield lives in the Bay Area of Northern California, where he reads non-fiction for knowledge and poetry and fiction for wisdom. 

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§ One Response to “A Trio in Search of a Blech”

  • Peter says:

    Great story … appreciated by someone who was a Shabbat Goy from 1945 to 1952 at 219 Audubon Avenue in the Heights! I took care of Rabbi Rosenwasser’s congregation ( about half the residents in our 42 unit apartment building), and they “paid” me with canned goods that I took every Monday morning to my grammar school … Incarnation … for our canned goods to Europe drive. A very symbiotic relationship. You can read more about it on this website. Peter F. Eder

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