A Tasty Piece of History Is Sold
My childhood bakery, Gertel’s, is closing this Friday. I feel like crying.
The blog rumors have been flying for over a year. The building was sold. Walking past it was like visiting a terminally ill patient in a hospice; each week was possibly its last.
The Hester Street store, a Lower East Side fixture for 99 years, was shuttered for several weeks before Passover, and then there was a brief reprieve: another Passover, another Shavuot. There was hope it would last forever. But nothing does.
It wasn’t just a bakery. When you walked in you smelled bread, hundreds of loaves laid out on metal racks, going to camps all around the Catskills. On Thursdays, there were long brown cardboard boxes earmarked for celebrations all around New York.
I was proud that they were going to kiddushes at the upscale out-of-the-hood synagogues. But the reality was that they were all leaving the Lower East Side. It was a mirror for an entire community.
Tuna with a shmear on a kaiser roll, the best in the whole city, was only $3.25. The best cheese blintzes that your bubbe never made were $2.00 each. It wasn’t nouvelle, it wasn’t high-priced, it wasn’t in Zagat’s, but to anyone who sampled their delights, there was no other.
I would ask the employees when their last day would be. They always looked sad, but couldn’t venture an answer, just a shrug. Some were there for 20 years; the true old-timers, though, were long gone.
My sister in Pittsburgh always brought back cornbread from Gertel’s for her father-in-law. Last weekend, I bought my West Side cousins rugelach — fresh-baked goods is the only amenity that my humble neighborhood had over theirs.
Sharing Gertel’s was a way to bridge the holidays at work. Hanukkah was jelly doughnuts, Rosh Hashanah was honey cake, Purim was big doughy hamentaschen, Passover was leaf cookies, Shavout was the creamiest sugar-free cheese cake. (I never let on that it was sugar-free until after they tasted it.) My co-workers each had their personal picks: big black-and-white cookies, chocolate-sprinkled sugar ones and cinnamon swirl danishes that even the most heimishe bakeries on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn couldn’t compete with.
Pre-Starbucks era, Gertel’s was a place where you could hang out, relax, sit down and live at a slower-than-a-New-York-minute pace. When I was little, lines formed around the corner to get in; it was as hard to get into as standing-room-only “Jersey Boys.”
The changes started slowly. Cabs started appearing in the neighborhood; at first after dark, then during the daytime. The co-ops added a gym (albeit no competition to Club Reebok or even New York Sports Club).
The streets were filled Fresh Direct trucks delivering food to the homes of time-pressed professionals (my own included). The couples in the neighborhood sported tattoos and their pre-school kids blue Mohawks; there aren’t too many black hats and streimels around here anymore.
The owner of Gertel’s didn’t just sell a store. He sold a piece of Jewish history. He sold a piece of the community — and a pretty tasty one at that.
As for the rugelach, my personal pick was raspberry. Of course, it’s like picking a favorite child. It’s impossible not to love the chocolate, cinnamon or apricot just as much.
Nancy Brenner works in a public relations agency in New York.