The original Jacob Schimmel was a part time Hebrew teacher, a “melamed”. He began the business with a pushcart and later rented a small store in partnership with his cousin, Joseph Berger. Two years later, Joseph Berger took it over completely and ran it up to the present generation. His wife, Rose (originally Schimmel), worked with him and they were instrumental in making the store famous. He died in the late 1930’s, leaving the restaurant to his son, Arthur and his wife, Lillian.
When I began the painting, Arthur Berger had passed away and his wife, Lillian and two sons, Joseph and Harold, were running the business. The area had deteriorated, but the restaurant had not. Famous people from the industrial, political, and show business worlds still eat there and on Sundays there were waiting lines, but that’s not what interested me. There was such a sense of immigrant history in that building and I wanted to show that. At first I did the building without people but it looked so lonely without them. Then I put in Lillian Berger (the tall blond woman in front of the door), and then some neighborhood people, but something was still not right. But then I met Fannie Kaufman and everything fell into place. She is the elderly woman in the brown patterned dress and this is her story:
“I came to America as Fannie Kaufman, age 10, in 1902. I came via Ellis Island. In those days, men and women were put into separate sections. I can still remember how my mother and I wept because we were afraid of never seeing my father and brother again. I was a typical “greenhorn” who could only speak Romanian and Yiddish. The idea of school taught in English loomed as a large obstacle, but from the first day education and American schools brought an entire exciting world to me. We lived through years of watching arriving immigrants whose first stop in the Lower East Side was a tea shop which my father had. There we heard news of relatives we had left behind. There was person to person communication concerning relatives who might have arrived shortly before.
We knew waves of Irish and Italian immigrants as they arrived. We learned to respect customs strange to us, but part of every nationalities heritage. My parents heard of a small tea house in Greenpoint and we left the Lower East Side.
I painted her grandson next to her. His name is Peter Doft and he balanced the painting for me!
“Seventy years after my grandmother left the Lower East Side I came to Soho. I lived there while doing graduate work at the downtown campus of N.Y.U. I wandered through the streets, remembering vaguely the stories told to me by all of my grandparents. I spoke to new waves of immigrants and watched the profiles change. I guess that when I left, the circle had come full time around.”