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Remembering Berel Raskin The Fishmonger, An Icon Of Hasidic Crown Heights For Decades

Sholom Ber Raskin — a.k.a. Schlomo, a.k.a. Berel — legendary fishmonger to Hasidic Crown Heights for over 65 years, died on Saturday at the age of 84, reported in an obituary.

Raskin was born in Leningrad in 1934, as government authorities had begun to strangle Jewish observance across Soviet Russia. When Raskin was six, his mother took him and his brothers east, to the city of Gorky. His father stayed behind, and died during the Siege of Leningrad.

Raskin eventually made it to America, in 1954, with stops in Tashkent, Uzbekistan — where a community of Lubavitcher Hasidic Jews had formed to practice Judaism far from the centers of Soviet power — as well as a displaced persons camp in Austria and a suburb of Paris.

He grew up in close proximity to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the rebbe, or spiritual leader, of the Lubavitcher Hasidic group, which soon became known around the world as Chabad. As a young man, Raskin reportedly agreed to grow a beard in exchange for Schneerson officiating his wedding.

In 1961, Raskin opened his fish market, having no experience in food service and knowing little about fish. (His reasoning? It’s easier to get kosher certification for fish than for meat: If a fish has scales, it’s automatically kosher.) To the point: When he asked Schneerson for his blessing in starting his new business, the rebbe reportedly said, “What do you know about fish?”

Raskin’s Fish Market grew from a lone shop on Kingstone Avenue to a lone shop on Kingston Avenue, plus a wholesale business that ships fish around the world. Though the store has kept its classic 1960s-era sign even, as its red letters faded to pink, it has adopted elements of modernity, such as a vibrant Instagram page.

For both Crown Heights regulars and visitors in pursuit of nostalgia, visiting the shop was an exercise in sensory overload and an experience of warm hospitality.

Raskin?s Fish Market has a wall of herring, 20 varieties in all. Image by Lauren Rothman

“Stepping inside the small, narrow storefront, you’ll see piles of salmon, snapper and dorade heaped on top of mounds of snowy crushed ice,” reads a 2013 story about Raskin’s in the Forward. “Behind the counter a friendly, elderly man still wields his fish knife with startling precision, scooping the skin off a salmon filet in seconds.”

Besides fresh fish, Raskin’s offers gefilte fish, canned fish and herring — 20 kinds of herring.

“I could talk about herring all day — and I have,” Raskin told the Forward.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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