This story was written by .Jay Horowitz
My Grandfather, came to this country at the age of 15 from Poland with nothing.
He was offered a shoe shine kit by his Uncle. He never talked to him again.
He was insulted to be offered a job to bow before others since this was not only demeaning in his mind, but against his religion (Judaism). He started buying and selling rags in the street with a pushcart on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By the time he passed away, he had paid for and brought to this country from Poland approximately 15 relatives and given them jobs at the business he created. (Beckenstein’s Inc.). He had a wife, 3 daughters, 9 grandchildren (myself the youngest), and 3 buildings on Orchard Street paid for in full. One of the buildings (130 Orchard Street) he purchased from New York Telephone. Not bad for a man who couldn’t write English. By the time I was Bar Mitzvah age (13), I was offered two choices of how I would spend my Sunday’s. I could go to work with my dad in the family business (Fabrics), or go to Hebrew High School. I had one question, would I get paid? My Mom said I would, So, I chose to go work with my Dad. I earned $10 for the day. But I got my lunch for free. Usually Spanish food from a Bodega around the corner. I was good with that.
After college, I went straight into the store to help my dad. Keep in mind, this business was now comprised of about 50 employees, about 9 of them were cousins or uncles. There was Uncle Irving, and his sons (Jerry, Alan, and Neil). Uncle Murray, and his son Garry and his daughter Sharon. Then there was my Dad Sol, and myself (Jay) and for periods of time my sister Eileen, then her husband Bruce. Orchard Street was a place of opportunity for Immigrants from Poland and Russia to start a business. Our businesses were open on Sundays. This was not allowed in other parts of the tri-state area. The “Blue Laws” did not permit stores to be open 7 days a week. Therefore, if you were open Saturday you had to close Sunday. Since we and other shop owners were closed Saturday, for the observance of the Jewish Sabbath, we (all of us) were allowed to be open Sundays. Sunday was a hectic day on Orchard Street. It was like a major street fair. Hundreds if not thousands, of people (of all faiths, nationalities, and race) were in the street looking for bargains. That is what the street was known for. Whether you were looking for Ladies hand bags at Fine and Klein, a leather coat at Danny’s Leather Goods, a luggage set or a man’s executive briefcase at Altman’s Luggage or fabric to make a suit, dress or a slip cover at Beckenstein’s Fabrics, people came from all over the world to negotiate the price that would be paid for merchandise. They called it “Hondling”. I became well-schooled in how people from the Middle East and Eastern Europe would try to negotiate the price of what they wanted to purchase.
I was told it’s part of their culture and it would be respectful to respond in kind. So, I did. Besides our retail trade, very often dignitaries from other countries (UN Diplomats) would come to our store for fabric to bring home to their country as presents for family and friends. Movie and TV stars, famous singers etc. would come in every now and then. There were people like Diana Ross, Jane Pauley and Jack Lord (Hawaii Five O) to name a few.
We supplied fabrics to many institutions, such as Radio City, NYC Opera, Disney, Boston Ballet, Kodak, Ralph Lauren, Busch Gardens, Macy’s (for the holiday parades) to name a few. It was an exciting time for me in my life. Between the ages of 13-18, I traveled with my dad to work every Sunday morning at about 7:45 A.M. During a part of that period, the World Trade Center was being built floor by floor. It was visible from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Each Sunday we traveled into the City and I would notice it would get a few stories higher. That was amazing. The cranes were immense. Fast forward: One early morning when I was an adult running the Ladies Fabrics Division, the Secret Service (machine guns at their side) came in, and told me Indira Gandhi was about to enter our store and to prepare ourselves. They asked me to say hello and welcome her. When she came in I said, "welcome", and stuck my hand out to shake her hand. She replied by doing the same. So, we shook hands! When she went to the second floor to shop, one of the Secret Service came over to reprimand me. He said, “ You weren’t supposed to shake her hand”. I responded, “She’s in my store now, I will greet her as I feel appropriate.” He didn’t look happy with that.
The Orchard Street that was in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s does not exist today. But the memories of what I learned and experienced will never be forgotten. Those times are brought back to us by the painting that Hedy Pagremanski was commissioned to paint by my dad, back in the 1970’s. I hope you enjoy the image of this painting. It represents a slice of time, in a great section of NYC, “The Lower East Side”