When Yitzchak Gross had an unplanned day off from Ramaz High School last week, he stopped for a slice of kosher pizza on the way back to his home in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx — something that would have been impossible just six months ago.
Still hauling his school backpack, Gross, 17, found himself at Moishy’s, where everyone knows his name, immediate seating is always available and there’s rarely a line at the counter.
The small storefront shop on Lydig Avenue in the shadow of the elevated No. 6 on the IRT line is likely the only kosher venue for miles around, and the closest thing this Bronx area has to a Jewish community center.
Opened in August by a former kollel student from Queens, Moishy’s now sells pizza, falafel, knishes, soups — and hope.
“Having this store means a homebound person can send their attendant for a kosher meal,” said David Edelstein, director of the Jewish Community Council of Pelham Parkway. “A lonely single person can come in a have a meal in a friendly setting. The presence on this block makes everyone feel more comfortable about the Jewish community and its solidarity.”
In what one local rabbi calls the “last stand” in an attempt to revive the neighborhood’s Jewish character, the presence of Moishy’s comes at a time when the local Young Israel, which is currently without a spiritual leader, is offering subsidies for young couples to move into the area.
“We’ll pay the rent for new couples for the first five years,” said Teddy Held, vice president of the 55-member Young Israel of Pelham Parkway.
Alex Remer, a stay-at-home father currently living with his wife, Karen, a public school teacher, and two young children in Fort Lee, N.J., said he is considering taking the offer. “They still have a vital Jewish community with a lot of infrastructure,” he said. “We’re interested in contributing to communal efforts.”
After selling its property to the city for a new school, the Young Israel is moving to smaller quarters and using the profit to offer the financial incentives.
“People don’t realize that the Bronx is full of work,” said Held, who is in the import business. “There are a lot of hospitals in the area and we’re giving away medical jobs to people from other places.”
Forty years ago, the postwar immigrant and baby booms were in full swing along Pelham Parkway, and the Jewish ranks swelled to some 60,000, with all the infrastructure that went with it, including kosher establishments.
“There used to be five or six delis,” said Ronald Rosenbaum, a retired postal supervisor. He has lived in the area since the 1960s and stops by Moishy’s every morning for coffee and a snack and some quiet, crossword puzzle time. “It would be nice if they had a deli again.”
Today, the Pelham Jewish population stands at some 7,000 souls, most of them elderly or Russian immigrants, or both, and few with the means to live elsewhere. Last year, the JCC gave out $75,000 in direct cash assistance, and its food pantry is the fourth busiest in the Bronx.
The most recent statistics on Jewish poverty in the New York area, compiled by UJA-Federation in 2004, estimated that 1,500 people, or about a quarter of the Jewish population in Pelham Parkway and nearby Co-Op City, were living in poverty.
The 2000 U.S. census found that the Jewish population in the Bronx declined by 40 percent in the ‘90s, while it grew by the same number in nearby Westchester, giving an indication where some of those with means may have gone.
But one effect of the diminishing Pelham Parkway Jewish community is a sense of common cause and a small-town feeling.
“I love it here,” said Gross, whose parents moved to Pelham Parkway after growing up in nearby Mosholu. “Even though it’s small, everything is close and everyone knows each other.”
On a rainy day when class at Ramaz was cancelled because of a virus outbreak, Gross shared a table with Held, a Pelham Parkway native who recently moved to Woodmere, L.I., but still has a home in his old neighborhood and spends at least two weekends a month there.
“I bring speakers in every other week,” he said, while polishing off a plate of scrambled eggs. “We’re going to make a mini-Aish HaTorah.” He said Yeshiva University rabbinical students were filling in until a rabbi can be found to replace one that left last year, pursuing a better offer in Brooklyn.
As the lunch crowd trickled in, owner Moshe Isrealashvilli, a Queens-born son of Georgian immigrants, knew all his regulars by name and chatted comfortably with them as he and an assistant filled their orders. The fare is mostly fast food, but there are some groceries — cakes and challahs, grape juice, yogurts and smoked whitefish “chubs” — in the display case.
The local Jewish community has more than just an emotional stake in Moishy’s. The council, a subsidiary of the Bronx Jewish Community Council, gave Isrealashvilli some of the seed money to get started, takes out occasional advertisements on his behalf, and urges local elected officials, like Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., to order food at Moishy’s for Jewish celebrations, like Chanukah parties.
“The borough president is very menschy to me,” said Israelashvilli.
But even with the nearest kosher establishment miles away in Riverdale, it’s rough going.
“I have a monopoly,” he said. “You’d think I’d be doing better, but it’s not working to my benefit.” While he fills frequent orders for students and faculty at nearby Albert Einstein Medical School, it’s not in proportion to the number of observant students there. “People don’t like to leave their daled amos,” he said, referring to a Talmudic measurement of four cubits. The clientele is mostly within a few blocks.
“There are still a few frum families who care about kosher food,” he said.
Nathan Crystal, 62, a retired postman who stopped for a take-out order of pea soup and a tuna sandwich said he’s been living in the neighborhood since 1965, a block or two from Lydig Avenue. “This is practically the only way to get anything kosher,” he said. “If my parents were alive today they would probably have to eat non-kosher.” But Crystal added that the quality of Moishy’s food was “just like Borough Park or Flatbush.”
Sruli, 44, an optometrist from Hillcrest, Queens, who works on nearby White Plains Road, and preferred not to give his last name, said he’s a regular for his preferred salmon croquettes and sweet potato lunch special.
While no one expects a return to the neighborhood’s former glory, the remaining residents want to at least stop the deterioration.
“I feel connected to the Holocaust survivors here, to the people who have needs for food and clothing,” said Held, who visits his old neighborhood several times a week.
Rabbi Moshe Fuchs has a similar relationship with Congregation Sons of Israel on Cruger Avenue. Although he lives in Far Rockaway, the rabbi has kept a nearly 30-year-old promise to his father, Rabbi Jekuthiel Fuchs, who died in 1982, to keep the congregation’s doors open after his passing.
“The Jewish community has been in constant decline since then,” said Rabbi Fuchs, who counts about 75 regulars, but no dues-paying members in the congregation.
Edelstein, who came to Pelham Parkway from Queens in 1977 because he wanted to run a Jewish community council, works out of an aging office on the ground floor of an apartment building down the block from Moishy’s. On a budget of $305,000 cobbled together from public grants and funds raised by his council and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, the council helps some 50 to 60 Russian families each week, and gives out some $150,000 in food assistance.
“The community was much stronger when we got here,” said Edelstein. “We’ve lost them to the three M’s: moving, Miami and the melech hamaves [angel of death].”
He said the council operates under the principle that no matter how small the Jewish population gets, “Every Jew needs and desires to be surrounded by services and resources for Jewish life that make you feel like part of Klal Yisrael.”
Rosenbaum, 75, the retired postal supervisor, has been living in the neighborhood since 1969. “I don’t have the financial means to move,” he said. “But still, I like it here. With the subway it’s easy to get to Manhattan.”
He started coming to Moishy’s when his regular haunt, a diner around the corner, closed, and likes the friendly atmosphere.
“It’s definitely a challenge having a kosher store in this neighborhood,” said Israelashvilli, who left Queens to spend a post-marriage year learning in Israel. Three children later, he and his wife, Florence, a native of the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, returned to New York and accepted an invitation from her mother to stay with her in the Bronx.
Looking for a business opportunity, he took over what was formerly a kosher take-out store, redecorated to allow more seating and revamped the menu to fast food. He had learned about the food business as a kid when he worked with caterers.
As she placed chunks of pizza into the mouth of their youngest son, 13-month-old Aaron, Florence Israelashvilli said she wishes there was more of a Jewish community for her three children (the others are 4 and 3), who go to Yeshiva Ohel Simcha in Flushing, Queens. “But they’re in school most of the time, so it doesn’t matter that much,” she said.
Rabbi Fuchs of Sons of Israel said he admires Israelashvilli “for trying to revive the Jewish taste on Lydig Avenue. It’s a last stand.”
But although he’s happy to help in the neighborhood’s continuity battle, Israelashvilli says he’s not out to make a point, just a living. “I’m just trying to put bread on the table,” he says, “not to be a hero.”
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