Growing up in post-War Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a Jewish boy like me struggled in a perpetual state of anomie. Namelessness has many sources and many reasons. Living as an other in a homogenous community reinforces the sensation of unrecognizability. One’s surname might be Smith, but where everyone else’s name ends in Armenian infinity, the search for other Smiths is like an unquenchable thirst. So it was for me, ever since birth in 1952. Fortunately, the very reason for the town of 30,000 to exist dictated at least temporary salvation for me. It took shape as a childhood family friend, one of the many scientists of Northeastern Ashkenazic Jewish extraction. Now 80 years old, my mathematician friend and mentor, Marvin Kastenbaum, met me when I was four. My life has never been the same. Each day since, despite many and long hiatuses in contact, I’ve grown richer just knowing him and his wife Helen Ganz. There’s a good Yiddish word that paint’s it plain: a refueh, a healing. They’ve done it for me for fifty years.
Measles, mumps, whatever I had – I suffered from several of the usual childhood diseases. Thank God polio avoided me before Salk and Sabin came along. There was no inoculation, though, against Southern Baptists. By age 10 I knew I had to leave East Tennessee. Reading Damon Runyon, hearing my family’s friends’ stories of their childhoods on Rivington Street and Far Rockaway, New York beckoned to me like a searchlight. There I imagined I would live with men and women like Marvin and Helen on every doorstep. Heymish people. Warm and loving people. Sensitive people. Educated, sophisticated, understanding people. Somehow I’d learn to manage without the asthma preachers wheezing and shrieking hell and damnation over the radio waves every Sunday morning.
Oak Ridge was created in 1942 from remote East Tennessee farmland as part of the Manhattan Project. That effort resulted in the only use of atomic weaponry yet known to mankind. Post-war Oak Ridge was and remains to this day a place proud of its heritage, proud of its role in American history in ending the war to end all wars. As children, we drank Walter Cronkite’s stentorian rhetoric in big gulps as he narrated the battle footage from television’s Twentieth Century. Despite being baby-boomers, born after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I and my childhood buddies felt very much a part of wartime history. Over and over, one program, one place name from Cronkite’s show disturbed me to my core.
I was a Jewish boy in a wilderness of crosses and evangelicals. Our coal-miner neighbors on Cahill Lane couldn’t pronounce my simple Germanic surname, Feldman. Field-en was as close as many could get. That would be white and right. The name Auschwitz was a non-starter. Imagine for a moment how I felt: I, too, knew nothing of the camps and all that went before. My parents did not dwell upon such things. My late father’s being drafted in 1944 and sent to serve in Oak Ridge gave my parents the opportunity way to flee their entire pasts and meshigeh families. But I needed to connect, even as a pre-teen. If relatives with my same last name were not nearby, at least I could live among their history and their greatest tragedy.
What had happened? Who were these people who were led to slaughter? How did it connect with the modern world? In Oak Ridge there were no connections in everyday life. Jewish families numbered less than 100 in a town of 30,000, most of them there because the fathers came as young scientists during or shortly after the War. No signs of Jewish life existed in the streets, the shopping centers, the daily paper, the movie theaters. Anomie, everywhere. Most of the young Jews who came to Oak Ridge came from the large cities of the Northeast, and their parents and/or grandparents from eastern and central Europe at some point after 1881. In shul and at the constant gatherings, these strangers of a common heritage became each other’s best friends, families where none existed. So it was with the Kastenbaums and my folks.
Marvin wasn’t a chemist or a physicist like most of the fathers. His trade was mathematics, an essential discipline in any scientific enterprise. Kheyder-educated and raised in an orthodox home, Marvin was one of nine children of an observant couple. Harry and Sarah Kastenbaum kept adjoining kosher butcher shops on the 1400 block of Washington Avenue in the central Bronx, an area overwhelmingly Jewish in the pre-war decades. I literally eat the words off the page of a letter from Marvin like the following:
“The storefront schule [school in Yiddish, but Marvin might mean shul here,house of prayer] that my father and my brother Moe “oversaw” was located first in a shop right beside the shop in which my mother had her butcher shop. The address there was 1470 Washington Avenue. This was for a brief period in the very early 1930s. The schule (Kestenbaum’s Schule, I think), then relocated down the street, in a storefront directly across from P.S. 55. It was on the East side, and in the middle of the block -approximately- between St. Paul’s Place and 170th Street. The “big” synagogue was located on the Southwest corner of 170th Street and Washington Avenue. That building also housed my grade school – The Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter. As I recall, a bagel baking factory was located in the basement directly beneath “Kestenbaum’s Schule”. It provided bagels for all the groceries and other shops in the neighborhood. It was the place to stop, especially on late Saturday nights or very early Sunday mornings, after a date or a night out on the town, to get fresh bagels for Sunday breakfast. They also baked authentic, and irreplaceable Bialystocke pletzels (Bialys). The bakers were generally dressed in their long-johns – got-kes! Women were never seen to go down those basement steps.
…The Bet Medrash Ha’godel was the large synagogue in our neighborhood. It was located on the West side of Washington Avenue, between Claremont Parkway and 172nd Street. Its rabbi was der Rebbe Schochatovitz. I wrote a bit [in another letter I’ll quote soon] about his tiny wife to whom I regularly delivered “fresh” meat (it was still warm and guaranteed to have been “on the hoof” that morning) every Monday at about midday.
[From another of Marvin’s memoirs:]
“Forequarters of beef and other meats were delivered to the shop several times each week…The normal weekly delivery schedule did not suit some of Harry’s special customers, though. To satisfy their needs, Harry made a special trip to the slaughterhouse by car, once a week. Butsie, the first one at home to get a driver’s license. acquired a 1938 Dodge, with a trunk large enough to accodmodate a forequarter of beef. He and Harry made the trip downtown at least once a week
Harry really did all this for once special customer: the Rebbetzin Shuchatovitz. The Rebbetzin Shuchtovitz would have nothing less than “freshmeat.” To understand what I mean, I will tell you that the piece of beef in the Rebbetzin’s pot at three o’clock in the afternoon was “on the hoof,” getting off a barge in the East River at 6:00 a.m. that morning. The Rebbitzin was a veritable cannibal. She was also a delightful and personable individual. I remember as being a very tiny woman who stayed closed to home, a ground floor apartment on 172nd Street, around the corner from the Bet Midrash Hagadol, the Rebbe Shuchatovitz’ congregation. She insisted that her regular “order” be delivered by a Jewish person, and she tipped very well for the service.”
The slaughter and sale of kosher meat in Judaism is governed by religious law that dates back to the time of Moses. Some of the basic commandments are contained in the five books that make up the Torah. Well before the first millennium, a multitude of rules developed governing ritual slaughtering. That body of law is observed to this day, and the slightest suspected infraction creates an uproar in orthodox Jewish communities. For Marvin’s father, though, the observance of halakha was a matter of personal choice. Harry’s gentle approach to his own spiritual life as well as that of his children is embodied in a letter Marvin wrote to two relatives this past September, a memoir that continues to help show me the way back, as well as the way home:
“When I was growing up, and deeply immersed in the kosher meat business, the physical distance between an animal-on-the-hoof and the piece of meat on my father’s butcher block was very small, indeed. I still have vivid memories of my visits to the kosher slaughterhouses that lined the East River on the current site of the U.N. buildings. I actually witnessed “shekhita” [the ritual slaughter] of individual steers and of whole flocks of sheep. I remember seeing the bearded “shokhet” [the religiously ordained slaughterer] as he ran his thumbnail down the sharp edge of his knife blade to check it for any imperfections. But what I remember best is wandering through a large, refrigerated room that contained scores of sides of beef (half a steer), each about eight feet long and each hanging by a hook on a conveyor belt. What was unique about these sides-of-beef was that each had a large cross (+) carved into the inside of the rib cage. These sides of beef were designated as “non-kosher”, because, though they may have been slaughtered according to ritual, they did not pass the inspection that would designate them as “GLATT”.
In my memory, my father did not carry chickens in his butcher shop, and he refrained from eating chicken for a long time. His reason was a very subtle one, indeed. He never questioned the fact that kosher chickens had been slaughtered according to ritual.
Rather, he found reason to question a ruling, in the early 1930s, about who had the authority to place the “plumba” [a tiny leaden tag] on a chicken’s leg, after it had been slaughtered according to ritual. Apparently, some civil or “non-rabbinic” group had proposed that the act of placing the “plumba” on the chicken’s leg did not need a rabbinical sanction. In my father’s mind, such a non-rabbinically sanctioned act was sufficient to remove its designation as “GLATT”.
Life was really simpler in those days. A rabbi, or any number of rabbis, were always close by to render an opinion. And, for almost all of them, it was a hands-on procedure. Nowadays, we find ourselves more remotely placed from the actual events that control our daily lives and our behavior and practices. We are forced to depend on “reliable sources” who, in turn, depend on “reliable sources”, and so on, down the long chain of communication, to the individuals of a group who may be the actual witnesses to an event.
I do not know how my father might have handled such matters today. He lived by his own strict rules, many of which he never imposed upon any other human being, including his own children. His home was his sanctuary. Everyone who entered it knew exactly how to behave under his roof. I believe that his understanding of “GLATT” is best described by the careful, personal, hands-on examination he made, every year, of the ESROG he would ultimately select for SUCCOT. It occurs to me that almost every Orthodox Jew goes through a similar exercise annually.”
A sign from the 1920s from a Lower East Side store specializing in knives used for ritual slaughtering: “Here is Miller’s a branch [perhaps a second location of the emporium?] The Miller’s Ritual Slaughtering Knives and Ritual Circumcision Knives are the best and the most beautiful in the entire world, guaranteed to never rust.”
I walk by First Avenue and 49th Street today, but the trees and giant bronze bull escape my notice. For me the grandiose General Assembly and Secretariat buildings of the United Nations have vanished into thin air. Before my eyes, another image appears: John Eckel’s bone boiling and tallow manufactory, which dominated the East 45th Street corner until the Reconstructionist-Era Metropolitan Sanitary Commission forced him out of business and into boot-legging and a miserable death in the Albany Penitentiary.
I see before me Marvin and his nephew Seth, almost a century later, down by the coal dust-coated East River docks, their ears filled with the mooing and bleating of doomed cattle and sheep. Foggy dawns, tug-boat whistles, car floats docking against creaking piles on the East River docks. Muscled men heave carcasses from abbatoir floors onto dressing racks. Sandburg’s might and male-ness fill the breezes that I breathe, hard by the UN gates, though naught but the fumes of stretch limousines foul the air around me.
Here is Seth, right after the War, leading a ram by a rope halter off a cattle barge, admiring its distant relative. Were times simpler way back then? The buildings have changed; we’ve become more removed from what and how our daily needs and desires are fulfilled. But war has finally touched American shores like never before. Where diplomats now drone on, protesting killing in Darfur, Sidon and Tel Aviv, other giants once walked the earth. Names like Wilson and Cudahy, United Dressed Beef ruled this world, their Jewish customers banded together in the New York Kosher Butchers Association.
“The Slaughterhouse of Wilson and Comp., Inc. has an historical background. It started 75 years ago with the first mass Jewish emigration to America. The aforementioned slaughterhouse was organized in 1860. The proprietor was then Joseph Shvartshild. [mesne owners are then recounted]. Our house is considered one of the oldest and greatest in New York which is under the authority of the most prominent rabbis in the city. The management takes all measures to slaughter the best cattle, calves and lambs… All kosher butchers are treated with the greatest respect. We invite in all kosher butchers.”
One need look no further than the corporate outreach ads of the giant gentile Wilson and Co. published in the Association’s official organ Di Shtime (The Voice) to see how closely Jews and gentiles worked together in this market so basic to daily life. Take a breath, feel the sorrow. Another world extinguished by the War. I think they called it progress.