Opposite Sides of the Street—locations in the “field” of Jewish ethnography

On opposite sides of the street on the corner of 54th Street and 13th Avenue in Borough Park are two very different kinds of eateries. On one side of the street is a “hip” café called 1982, and on the other is an unassuming-looking kosher take-out place, Shem Tov Catering. I spent some time in each of these establishments last week and was struck by the contrast they displayed in their presentation of contemporary Chassidic Brooklyn.

1982 is something of an outlier for the neighborhood where it stands. It is modeled on the style of coffee shops that spawned in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the 1990s and then went on to become an anonymous part of international “hip” culture. One can find more or less identical cafes in every city in Europe and the United States. The café has a newly laid black and white tile floor, reclaimed wood wainscoting on the walls, a pressed tin ceiling and the counter service offers high priced coffee drinks and fancy baked goods. There is nothing overtly “Jewish” about the culture expressed by this establishment except for the fact that all of the patrons and the men working behind the counter are Chassidic Jews. Almost all of the businesses on the block where 1982 is located are kosher bakeries, grocers and Judaica shops. However, what might seem anachronistic about the café to outsider eyes does not seem to inhibit its patrons. The café was doing a brisk business and had a line of patrons coming in to sit at the cute little café tables or take coffee to go.

I met Cantor Yanky Lemmer at 1982 one afternoon this week for an interview about his work in Cantorial music. When I arrived, Yanky was already there shmoozing with the baristas (all Orthodox Jewish men).  Yanky is apparently a regular at the café and has something of the feeling of a neighborhood celebrity about him. Various folks stopped by to say hello while we sat and talked. We discussed some of the challenges that Yanky faces in his career: his struggles to find the time and energy to balance between his day-job as an educator and his music career, and the complicated inter-cultural connections at his place of employment as a Cantor. At Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he is the Cantor, Yanky is highly visible as the prayer leader for the congregation. He is also the only Chassidic Jew in a “modern” Orthodox Synagogue, lending him a different kind of visibility and distinction in the eyes of his congregants.

After a great conversation with Yanky, I walked out onto the avenue, dodging between the crowds of nine-year-old Chassidic boys yelling in Yiddish and past the life-sized mannequin of Haman (the villain of the Purim story) being hung in effigy from the second flood window of a building. I made my way to the nearby Jewish record store, Mostly Music, one of the last left in New York City, where I bought a copy of Yanky’s new record among other wonderful finds.

Across the street from 1982 is Shem Tov Catering. Shem Tov is across the street, but it might as well be across a half a century from the café in terms of its décor and cultural centering. The space is unadorned and holds no pretence to aesthetic artifice or niceties. Here, the linoleum flooring shows its age and the spare and utilitarian counter displays a variety of Eastern European Jewish culinary specialties. The restaurant boasts an impressive assortment of kugels, soups and gefilte fish. There are about a half dozen tables where patrons sometimes sit, although Shem Tov seems to function primarily as a take-out place. Shem Tov Catering is the place of employment for Cantor Aaron Schwartz, when he is not leading services at the Flatbush Jewish Center.

Cantor Schwartz is usually busy either behind the counter or keeping the books at one of the tables. At times he convenes over small convocations of neighborhood friends who drop by. The restaurant seems to serve as a magnet for a certain set of locals. One day this week, when I came by to visit, I was fortunate to find Cantor Schwartz with some free time to talk about Chazzanus. As in my conversation with Yanky, our conversation focused on challenges he is facing. There is a leadership change in progress at his Congregation and this is having an impact on his practice of prayer leading. Our chat went on for a long time and covered a lot of ground. During the course of the conversation, various acquaintances stopped by, including an elderly man who Schwartz introduced to me as the grandson of Yehoshua Wieder, one of the legends of mid-20th century Cantorial music. At another point in our conversation, Cantor Schwartz sang a fragment of nusach (prayer vocal music) to illustrate a point he was making in our conversation. The father of a family that was eating supper at a table across the room took up the melody convincingly and sang along.

While there is nothing to indicate that either 1982 or Shem Tov Catering have anything explicitly to do with Cantorial music, both spaces serve as social nodes in the network that make up the lives of two contemporary Cantors. The two restaurants occupy different cultural registers within the world of contemporary Chassidic Brooklyn. These contrasting varieties of cultural shading reflect the different generational sensibilities and personal sense of style of Cantors Schwartz and Lemmer. The two spaces are also powerful reflections of the role place and cultural incidences of day-to-day life play in shaping the world of Cantors.

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