When You Learn How to Do It, Please Let me Know…

Stepping out of Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Factory the other day, down on Houston and Forsyth, a giant belch escaped my gorgle, in studied satisfaction with my late-day pit stop. Yonah’s is the only restaurant that I frequent with a working dumbwaiter. Its greasy tables and unwashed floor only add to the taste of the diet-busting delicacies that I relish.

Decades pass but the faces and voices remain the same: There probably never was a Yonah Shimmel; today no scion rules the roost. A succession of modern-day Russians have run the joint, but they might as well have stepped of the ferry from Ellis Island a year or two ago. Greenhorns on their way to becoming All-Rightniks, the managers of this little curiosity shop can depend on a steady stream of tourists and locals, 7 days a week, digital cameras in hand, to knosh a knish and then take some to the Times Square Marriot or on the subway, still piping hot from the basement ovens.

Why do I love the place so much ? Because it’s a part of me that never was, that entered my soul by osmosis, not by birth. A son of first generation American Jewish parents from modest (or lesser) Philadelphia backgrounds, I was born and grew up in East Tennessee. I consider myself a casualty, though unbloodied, of the Second World War. My late father had a Master’s Degree in Chemistry, so when basic training ended for him in 1944, he was herded aboard a train bound for parts unknown to help the US Army develop a secret weapon that required his skills in spectroscopy and analyzing enriched uranium. That’s how a boy with a Jewish soul grew up in gustatory goles, the exile of the Diaspora in a Southern Baptist version of the tkhum ha moshav, the Pale of Settlement from Czarist days.

Oak Ridge retained a Jewish community after the War ended and the gates of the secret base were opened. The hundred families in our cinder-block shul were almost all soldiers and their wives and children who remained at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory instead of returning to the rapidly changing, soon-to-be blockbusted Jewish neighborhoods of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. My town was situated in a “dry” county – even kosher wine was illegal to possess. A 90-mile drive to Chattanooga for that most basic of ritual necessities was required, and subito in any event. Traditional Jewish food was only available in people’s homes. The nearest Jewish deli was in Knoxville, an hour’s drive away back in the day, on a two lane road through farms and fields bestrewn with billboards announcing JESUS IS LORD !. My parents rarely bought food at the Knoxville oasis due to our tight budget and Harold Shersky’s immodest prices. Halvah was a once a year treat at Hannukah in a vacuum-packed dark blue tin that we opened by turning a tiny key round and round to unwind a metal band separating the lid. Five kids and two grown-ups made do with 8 ounces, carving off wafer thin slivers to melt in our mouths.

Knishes are a lot of work to make, and have no special holiday connection like matzoh balls for Pesakh or cheese blintzes for Shavues. My mother never made them. And thus I arrived in New York in 1969 to matriculate at Columbia College without bodily memory of a delicacy supreme. Yonah Schimmel filled a void I never knew I had. There I remember the bubbes I never knew, the zeydies who lived with us for a year apiece, the two old men, so different but so Jewish, who knew the world that Yonah baked.

I sit at one of those well-worn cafeteria tables, perched on one of the variegated wooden chairs, selecting my own silverware from the stainless steel dishwasher holders that adorn the Formica tops. A kasha knish is brought to my table, steaming from the inside out due to the miracles of microwavery. Salt and pepper and a healthy dollop of hot mustard, some cole slaw and pickles and a glass water tumbler of creamy cold borsht. Suddenly I’ve crossed into oylem habe, the world to come. Sitting across from me with his gentle smile, speaking Yiddish with me in his loving way is my mother’s dad, Pop, we called him. The screaming and yelling in mamaloshen that pierced the air when he lived with us and my mother and he fought is absent. Spread out on the table is our game of checkers and hand of “War” all dealt, but now it’s time for a bite to eat.

But Me? Eat this stuff ? I’m five years old, and no way am I even going to taste these funny smelling, weird looking things Pop has on his plate, the herring (feh!) the kasha (my father HATES the smell), the beets which seem like deviled poison. Pop digs in and I sit silent. He’s from a different planet but I don’t mind.

I still like the PB+J that I preferred then. But I’ve grown to love what I then despised. Pop loved me unconditionally in his own way: a poretz, a peasant, in every way, his understanding of people was plain and his needs simple. But food he enjoyed and I miss his face, his rough carpenter’s hands, his unfiltered Camel cigarettes that he would light with a match that he snuffed between his fore-finger and a well-calloused thumb. One day soon, Pop will come sit beside me at Yonah’s. It’s his place, too, and I’ll wait ’til he comes, wiping the seat and setting it right, the kisey ha kuved: the throne of honor, seat of love.


Purple has many connotations: purple prose, purple robes, purple bruises, and in the days of flower power, purple acid. I came to New York as a freshman at Columbia College in 1969; it was then that I first discovered Yonah’s. The year that followed included other trips. J. Edgar Hoover and AT+T occupied similar turf in my druggie friends’ minds. Dropping acid, using fake long distance calling credit card numbers, and attending protest marches with the SDS were indistinguishable in our minds. Two years after the Summer of Love, New York’s Lower East Side was in full bloom when I arrived on the Greyhound Bus with my worldly belongings crammed into two sturdy sample cases that my father’s dad had used for years as he flogged the northeastern Pennsylvania haberdashery route for a New York-headquartered men’s shirt manufacturer. And one day in Central Park, my very first autumn in my longed-for new home, I met Adam Purple, a man about town.

With his long beard and elfin looks, Adam was a sight to behold, a counter-culture Rip Van Winkle, high as a kite. With his companion, The Purple Woman, he rode around on a dinky bicycle, handing out leaflets with arcane sayings, strings of numbers, orderless prose, all printed in purple letters. Tie-dyed purple clothing and matching hats complemented the couple’s odd behavior, she never saying a word as they approached you on a lawn in Central Park with their gifts of precious secret paper weaponry to defeat the evil designs of the Man.

In coming years, many buildings on the Lower East Side were abandoned by their desperate owners as drug dealers and prostitutes took over the ‘hood. Fires followed by the dozen, just like in the South Bronx, and vacant lots appeared where knish-fressers had once made their homes. Down on Forsyth Street, Adam Purple and his frau made their home in one squat or another, and their bicycles sprouted strange contraptions at the rear.

Paris has its Tulieries, London its Hyde Park, but Eldridge Street became known for the Purple People’s garden. A veritable Eden, the couple painstakingly graded and cleaned a vacant lot, building graceful, winding brick pathways, adorning the space with a plethora of flowers and vegetables. Horse manure collected from the Central Park drives and trucked downtown on shopping carts rigged to their bikes made the plants grow to gigantic size. Decades before their time, this crazy pair made the earth bloom where before only tears and sweat had ruled the day, Bulldozers later destroyed it all for low-income housing.

The couple split up years ago and no one seems to know what happened to The Purple Woman. But Adam Purple has survived, collecting cans, sleeping God knows where downtown. Just like Pop’s, his ghost lingers in my mind, reminding me of a gentler time, when I was young and New York shone like a cinder-clad diamond.


My knish consumed, my legs well-rested, Palm Pilot safely stored, I saddled up on my bike the other day and headed into the Houston Street maelstrom, heading east and on to home. Out of the corner of my eye, though, I spotted a figure that made me stop short. His colored fleece hat gave him away. A few yards ahead of me an old man with a battered bike, its rear basket brace loaded with returnable soda cans, turned onto Eldridge Street and headed south.

In his long white beard and gentle face I instantly recognized a man once famous. At least to me, back in the day. Heading home took on a new meaning, so I pedaled off, veering south instead of north, hoping to catch the aging denizen. It didn’t take long, and I found him stopped beside a trash can, foraging for empties and a bite to eat. From a respectful distance I called him by name, offering two singles from my outstretched hand. “You’re Adam Purple, aren’t you?” I said. “And what’s you name?” he responded with caution. I smiled and instantly we were on the same page. “Ben,” I said. “You’re famous to me. I remember your garden. I miss it so.”

Clear as a bell, he blamed Giuliani, even though Koch was the boss when this Third Temple was destroyed. “Have you ever read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography?” Adam asked me, innocently. I told him I had many years ago. A few more words and I made for the north woods, wishing I’d asked for his picture and more.

Photos are easily obtainable though. His is above and it’ll do just fine. But possessing the past, now there’s the trick. When you learn how to do it, just please let me know.

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