SUMMER RITUALS | COMPANY FOR DINNER
Weekdays, the Rabbi Dined Out
By COREY KILGANNON • NY Times
AS in many New York neighborhoods, summer brings a demographic shift in Borough Park, a predominantly Hasidic section of Brooklyn. The playgrounds are quieter than usual and the familiar sight of women dressed in wigs and long skirts, surrounded by children, is less common.
In July and August, many families there head for bungalow colonies in the Catskills, leaving behind men who work all week and reunite with their wives and children on the weekends. They call themselves summertime bachelors.
Weekday nights can be lonely for these men, who are used to returning home from work to a lively family dinner. But consolation can be found at a handful of informal supper clubs that have cropped up in Borough Park.
“The men here, their families remain upstate, so they’re looking for some good, reasonably priced food, and for some company,” said Rabbi Shlomo Weiss, who broke bread one recent weeknight with perhaps a dozen other men in the basement of a large building on 53rd Street near 13th Avenue that is usually used for religious education. It has been running a summer dining program for roughly 25 years, and on a typical busy night feeds 200 people over the course of several hours.
Religious books and materials were cleared away and piled against the walls, and a half-dozen long tables with plastic tablecloths held bottles of seltzer, bowls of pickles, piles of rye bread and the occasional prayer book. A serving table had chafing dishes of knishes, breaded chicken and rice.
One by one, the bearded men, dressed in heavy black clothing, entered the cool basement area, exhaling as they escaped the summer heat. They pulled off their jackets and placed their black hats on the white plastic folding chairs.
“The men don’t want to sit alone in some restaurant and pay high prices, so they come here,” said Rabbi Weiss, 62, a life insurance salesman from Borough Park who has 14 children, most of whom are grown and married and, he added with a wink, provide him with plenty of grandchildren. Everyone in the basement room seemed to know him — actually, everyone seemed to know everyone, the men chatting in Yiddish throughout their meals.
The 53rd Street operation is run by Volvi Weiss, 33, of Borough Park, who works by day at a local lumberyard. He collects the suggested donation of $12 — although some men pay less, and some more, depending on their income. The cash register sits at the end of the serving table, next to a big bowl of matzo ball soup.
Such meals are generally available Monday through Thursday evenings in general-purpose rooms or basements of community centers. In the insular Hasidic community, the locations are often passed along by word of mouth. Typically, one enters through some nondescript doorway; the entrance to the building on 53rd Street is down a darkened alley littered with cigarette butts.
The summer bachelors — the men chuckle at the connotations of such a label — say that they find comfort in the steaming dishes of food, and from eating with other men who are also temporarily on their own.
“This is what we like, haimish food, not some fancy stuff they try to give you in restaurants,” said Moses Leifer, 50, using a Yiddish word for homey. A manager of nursing homes, he was eating recently at the 53rd Street supper club; his family was in the Catskills. “Don’t get me wrong: we also like the efficiency — you’re in and out, one, two, three, and there’s no waiting in line.”
Some local organizations offer the men nighttime lectures and study groups, but for many of them, it is the meal programs that offer the most comfort. They are often run at a loss, as a community service, the organizers said.
“The house is empty, so you come here and you eat with people in the same situation and it makes the time pass quicker in the evening,” said Meir Laufer, 34, another of those eating on 53rd Street. He works in banking; his wife and six children were in South Fallsburg.
Political candidates often drop by the dining halls to chat and campaign. This night, John Heyer, who is seeking the local City Council seat, spoke to the men and shook their hands.
Generally, each meal program is operated by a separate Hasidic sect. The one on 53rd Street is run by a division of the Satmar sect that follows Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, whose father, Rabbi Moses Teitelbaum, was a powerful Satmar leader. When the father died in 2006, his followers split into two groups: one loyal to Aaron, the other to Aaron’s brother, Rabbi Zalmen Teitelbaum. Each brother claims to be the grand rabbi of the Satmar dynasty, and the split continues to be the subject of bitter debate.
Zalmen Teitelbaum’s followers run a similar meal program nearby, but declined to let a reporter visit. When the men on 53rd Street heard this, they erupted.
“This proves we are the chosen ones,” one diner joked. “You came to the real Satmar sect. The other ones kicked you out.”
Another meal program, in a yeshiva on 18th Avenue, is run by the Ger sect; it is known for its copious food and for using real silverware, not plastic. On one recent night, the generous spread included herring, potato salad, pickles, pepper steak, three different chicken entrees, a plate of cold cuts, chicken soup, and rugelach for dessert.
The Ger program feeds perhaps 150 men a night for a suggested donation of $12. Regulars include Mayer Kagan, 39, a wristwatch seller whose wife and six children stay in a Catskill bungalow in Kiamesha Lake.
“I miss my family during the week, but I can come here and have company — we sit, we schmooze what’s in the news,” Mr. Kagan said.
Though less homey than the supper clubs, several restaurants in Borough Park have also become popular with the summer bachelors, including Big Fleishig’s Express, a glatt kosher one on 16th Avenue.
A frequent customer, Mark Fuchs, said his wife and four small children were staying in a bungalow community in Monticello. After he finished his chicken dinner, his cellphone rang. It was his son Shloimy, 5, calling to show off his spelling skills. After hanging up, Mr. Fuchs sighed and said, “They’re up there having a ball and I’m down here paying the bills.”
Big Fleishig’s owner, Moshe Samuel, works the counter and teases the men that they are helpless without their wives. “You should see them come in here, the first week their family is away,” he said, while ringing up orders on Monday night. “They’re like lost lambs. Their wives always tell them what to eat, so they can’t even order for themselves.”