In celebration of her bas mitzvah last week, my daughter Chayala and I went on a father-daughter outing. No, we didn’t go to Eretz Yisrael, LA, or Miami. Far more exciting than that, we went to visit the land of my youth: Manhattan’s Lower East Side. For me it was a walk down memory lane; for Chayala it was a glimpse into a strange and unfamiliar world.
We walked up Grand Street and East Broadway, and I pointed out to her the apartment buildings where both sets of my grandparents had lived. We then went to 550G Grand Street, the building where I had grown up until our family moved to Monsey. We spent a few minutes meeting with Mrs. Pauline Hagler, our beloved neighbor from those years, who still lives next door to the apartment I grew up in.
I noticed that on the front door of our old apartment there was a Puerto Rican flag and a mezuzah. Mrs. Hagler explained that the family currently living there isn’t Jewish but wanted to hang a mezuzah on their door like everyone else on the floor. Unfortunately, no one was home when we knocked, so we didn’t have the chance to see my old apartment.
We stopped by a bakery where the cashier told me that she remembered my parents and grandparents well. We visited Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim, the yeshivah of Rabbi Moshe and then Rabbi Dovid Feinstein zt”l, and where I attended through first grade. We drove by the impressive building where my Zeide had once been the rabbi but, painfully, it has since become a museum.
We were also able to visit the Polisher shtiebel, where not only my family had davened, but my Saba and Savta davened, as well. Walking into the shtiebel was like walking into a time warp. Everything looks exactly as it did 30 years ago.
The highlight of our trip was visiting Rebbetzin Malka Feinstein, wife of the late Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, in her apartment. When I asked the Rebbetzin for a brachah for Chayala, she warmly replied that she gives orders, not brachos. She then “ordered” Chayala to keep giving her parents nachas.
It was very nostalgic for me. But there was still one last place we had to visit, because no visit to the Lower East Side is complete without a pickle.
If you’re asking what pickle, you obviously don’t know much about the Lower East Side. Guss’ Pickles was a fixture on the Lower East Side for decades. It began with Izzy Guss, an immigrant who arrived in New York from Russia as a youngster in 1910 and sold pickles from a pushcart before he opened a shop on Hester Street in 1920. The shop, with its iconic barrels of pickles, outlived dozens of rivals, and eventually became one of the neighborhood’s last pickle stores and a Lower East Side legend. It’s been said that if you haven’t eaten a Guss pickle, you haven’t eaten a real pickle in your life.
These days, because of legalities, the pickle store is called “The Pickle Guys.” But they pride themselves on having the same quality and taste as Guss’ beloved pickles. When Chayala took a bite into one of their pickles, she confirmed that she had never had such a tasty and crunchy pickle in her life. It’s the type of pickle that inspired Joey Newcomb to sing his song about the “krach” of the pickle. Chayala was surprised to find out that pickles start out as cucumbers. It was a fascinating discovery for her.
After we arrived home that evening, I emailed The Pickle Guys to ask them their secret for getting such a good pickle crunch. They responded that the key was to find a quality cucumber. Smaller ones like Kirby cucumbers are best. Then let them pickle slowly and naturally in the fridge, and not to heat or cook the brine. They allow the pickles to remain bathing in their specially prepared juice and spices for days until they produce their distinctive taste.
There is ongoing discussion in the world of psychology called the nature-nurture debate. Nature refers to one’s innate genetics, while nurture refers to one’s upbringing and life experience. Contemporary experts acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a role in psychological development, but they debate which is more significant.
The Torah outlook is clear that one is influenced and molded by both nature and nurture. The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os 6:1) famously writes that throughout life a person is heavily impacted and influenced by his social environment.
Munching on a crunchy Lower East Side pickle on Sunday, I reflected on the fact that, on some level, we are all “pickled” by our neighbors, friends, and community. No one lives in a vacuum. Our surroundings mold us and have a profound effect on how we think and behave. If we hang out with people who aren’t scrupulous in their morals, it is bound to affect us negatively. On the other hand, when our social circle takes Torah observance seriously, our personal observance will inevitably be enhanced, as well.
The Jewish People have always placed a strong emphasis on community life. We celebrate together and mourn together and are there for each other. We influence each other and encourage each other to maintain our faith even in challenging times.
More important than the delicious crunchy taste of a pickle, I hope Chayala will remember the profound truism that the pickle symbolizes: Where we hang out and who we surround ourselves with will have important ramifications on our lives.
Just as the best pickles are created in barrels spiced just right, the best people surround themselves with positive role models, neighbors, and friends.
That’s an invaluable lesson for a bas mitzvah – and all from a Lower East Side pickle.