The Herring Joke

COMMENTARY, February, 2012

(With italicized asides by Jerome S. Kaufman, Editor)

What a great story!

The Herring Joke

But … I am a little afraid you have to have been raised by an American Jewish immigrant father from Russia, whose very life there depended upon a daily diet of herring and potatoes, just to survive. After 50 years here in the “goldina medina” (referring to the The USA – The “Golden Land” as named by the Jews and many other immigrants), my father’s favorite day was Sunday, the only day he did not have to work. He would sit himself down for breakfast and relish a good piece of schmaltz herring with boiled potatoes while he read his favorite Yiddish language newspaper, The Forward, still in print, but I don’t think any longer in Yiddish.

Back to the joke …

FOR 65 YEARS, every day, Fishbein goes at noon to Ratner’s, the  famed  dairy restaurant on the Lower East Side, a few blocks from his clothing stall on Orchard Street, and has the schmaltz herring and a can of cream soda. He outlives waiters, cashiers, bus boys. He sees the neighborhood change.

One day when Nixon is president, a waiter says to him: “Fishbein, live a little. Before you die, go up to Famous on the Upper West Side at 72nd and Broadway. Isaac Bashevis Singer practically lives there. They have great schmaltz herring. Give it a chance!” He thinks about it and says, “Yeah, why not?”

He decides he will go the next week. Word spreads throughout the neighborhood. There is buzzing. There is gossip.  How will he get there? How will he get back? He’s a lifelong bachelor. He’s probably never been above Houston Street. As he leaves his stall at 11 on Monday, murmuring follows him down Orchard to Delancey Street.

(Where my Aunt Anna, (alehashalom) lived in an apartment house and who my Dad in Detroit use to identify as “the Communist” about 60 years ago) 

At Delancey, he descends into the subway. He takes the F train to West 4th, transfers to the D at 59th, climbs the stairs to the 1, and emerges at 72nd Street 40 minutes later. The word has traveled here too by Jewish telegraph; people are waiting at the subway exit to stare. As he crosses Broadway, people are pointing. He is oblivious to it.

Fishbein enters Famous. An awestruck owner wordlessly guides him to a booth and hands him a menu. “I don’t need it;’ he says. “Schmaltz herring and a cream soda.”He looks around. People look down immediately The restaurant is hushed. The waiter comes with a bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda and a plate with a herring on it. Fishbein picks up his knife and fork, and just as he’s about to cut into it, the herring looks up at him and barks, “Schmuck! The schmaltz herring is lousy here! Go back to Ratner’s!”




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