When Ernie Fleischman was growing up in Germany in the 1930s, the plan was for him to attend the Realschule, the secondary education favored by pragmatic middle-class Jews because it prepared students for jobs in the sciences and skilled trades.
He was accepted, but by the time he was to have started, no Jews were allowed to attend. His family decided to try to find the boy a future elsewhere. Soon after landing in New York in 1937, at age 17, he learned that his host couldn’t afford to feed and house him.
“I was like a little boy lost in the woods,” recalls Fleischman. He later lost his entire family in the Holocaust, but he found his feet in Depression-era New York by becoming a butcher. Today, at 93, Fleischman works part-time at Fischer Bros. & Leslie on West 72nd Street. As the city’s oldest working kosher butcher, his story of survival and struggle tells the tale of kosher meat in New York.
“At that time when I went into the business, there were thousands of butcher shops here in the city,” Fleischman said. “Butcher shops and kosher delis used to be on almost every block.”
Fleischman is the only Jewish butcher working at the shop today, but back then it was different. Demand for kosher butchers in New York was high, fueled by about two million Jews, who comprised about a quarter of the city’s total population. More Jews back then were working-class and immigrants like Fleischman, and the trade appealed to them.
Fleischman entered it for religious reasons.
“At that time, the workweek [for other jobs] was six days a week. You couldn’t be a Sabbath observer. Saturday, the butcher shops closed, but Saturday night we worked until 2 in the morning,” he said. “People would stop in after going to the movies.”
The butcher business was everywhere, unlike today, when kosher slaughterhouses sit in flyover country and the “Meatpacking District” is the misnomer for a cobble-stoned quarter of boutiques and clubs.
But when Fleischman was starting out, “Meatpacking District” meant what it said. Live cows were shipped, killed and cut into sides there; New York was home to meat wholesalers, not just retailers. There were live poultry markets all over the city.
Despite all those mom-and-pop shops, the butchering business of the time was quite literally cutthroat. Organized crime dominated the meat cutters unions, including the kosher ones. In the 1920s, as much as half the meat sold as kosher was not kosher, said Timothy Lytton, a professor at Albany Law School, and the author of “Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food.”
Kosher meat was one of the big criminal industries targeted by New York’s special prosecutor and later governor Thomas Dewey in his war against large-scale racketeering, Lytton said.
True, the young Fleischman never became an engineer or a chemist, but he did manage to avoid his industry’s dark side. He was an assistant when he started out, and he learned the job on the job all those years.
It guaranteed a decent income. Fleischman’s wife, a fellow German refugee he met through relatives and married in 1948, was a housewife all her life. He’s been a widower for 11 years and lives on his own.
Around the time they married, Fleischman opened his own place after first getting an assurance from his boss in the shop where he was working that he could always come back. He didn’t need to; Fleischman was his own boss for 37 years, first on Sherman Avenue in Upper Manhattan and then on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. Business was good in solidly Jewish neighborhoods.
“A balaboosta [skilled housewife] wanted to see what she was getting,” he said.
The family made its home in the now-famous community of German Holocaust survivors in Washington Heights, sending three children to Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, also known as Breuer’s. Today, Fleischman has 17 grandchildren and 50 great-grandchildren — actually, 50 and a half, he said.
“There’s one on the way as far as I know,” he said, with the weary bemusement of a patriarch.
But in 2000, Fleischman’s business fell victim to the same dynamics that caused butcher shops to fail all over the city. He had survived the mass movement of urban Jews to the suburbs that started after the war, and the competition from supermarkets offering packaged meat and in-store kosher butchers. But, what suburbanization didn’t shutter, gentrification often did, said Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom Marketing and Consulting in Brooklyn, which focuses on the kosher market.
Fleischman had been paying $1,700 in rent; a new landlord wanted $4,500.
“I couldn’t swing it,” Fleischman said.
There’s another, healthier, but still new side of the business that thrives online in the form of companies like KOL Foods and Grow & Behold, which specialize in organic meat and pastured poultry. But most of the brick-and-mortar shops are gone.
“The fact that you can count them on less than one hand tells the story,” Lubinsky said.
Still, Fleishman wanted to keep on working. He called Fisher Bros. & Leslie and offered his services.
“Ernie’s my go-to guy when I need something done just right. Of course he’s slowed down just a bit, but I know the customer will get a quality package,” said Paul Whitman, who is married to “Leslie” Neiderman’s daughter and now runs operations at the store, which is celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.
Fleischman works three days a week, from 6:30 a.m. to noon, taking the bus up and down Manhattan from Washington Heights. In his off hours, he volunteers as a waiter for a program that serves meals to older people. He is aware of the irony.
But he’s the last Jew behind the counter at Fischer Bros. & Leslie, doing the work of breaking sides of meat down into cuts like briskets, spare ribs and chops; soaking; salting and removing the veins for inspection by the mashgiach, or kosher supervisor.
Lubinsky says the few remaining shops may well survive, having lived to see the revival of cities and a new interest from young people in the art of butchering.
Whitman declined to share exact numbers, but said the 15-employee shop makes several million dollars in annual revenue. He sees the business’ strength in prepared foods, as well as its opportunity for growth in expanding its delivery customer base.
Still, the kosher butcher shops of the future may not employ any Ernie Fleischmans, young or old.
“Being a butcher is not high on the list of careers for a young Jewish person,” Whitman said.