That portion of the city
which comprises the populous East Side has its caterers and dish
lenders, who have tiny shops in the cellars of the Ghetto tenement
houses, where they rent out dishes for such festive Yiddish
occasions as births, engagements, funerals and weddings.
The shops, darkly hidden
away under the stairs of the gloomy buildings, are difficult to
find. It is practically impossible for strangers to reach them save
by the guidance of some native of the East Side. Even this means is
not without its difficulties. Nine times out of ten the Yiddish
woman when questioned will wrap herself tightly in a dirty red shawl
and an air of mystery and declare that she knows of no such place.
Later one may be found almost under her house.
The Ghetto child is more
communicative, but must also be approached with caution.
"Is there any little
store around here where one can rent dishes?" is a fairly safe
The little girl with the
pensive Jewish face and unspeakably dirty dress rebalances her fat
little brother on her knee and gazes thoughtfully at the inquirer.
Little Abey, who bears a strong resemblance to the little boy "who
had no little handkerchief to wipe his little nose," coyly covers a
very smeary face with still dirtier hands.
The question is
repeated, and the little girl, smiling affably, tightens her grip
across Abey's fat little paunch and answers above his roars of
"Yes. They have some in
stores on top and some downstairs. But they wouldn't rent you any
"Because youse a
Gentile. They maybe let youse have 'um, but they wouldn't take um
back after youse used um," says the grimy little representative of
the chosen people, with all the superiority of the clean toward the
unclean; and her answer is warranted to start even the most
complacent, bath-a-day Gentile pondering on the value of relative
points of view.
But, that blow survived,
the Yiddish child is ready to turn informant, and points out several
cel-airways leading to the dish lenders' shops.
carefully picks the way down the rubbish-strewn steps, on which
three cherub-faced babies are playing with a dad rat on a string,
and enters a tiny, dark shop. Around the walls are a series of
shelves lined with heavy, fracture-defying pieces of crockery. Those
on whose shiny surfaces strange birds and beasts disport themselves
and unknown flowers bloom are ranged in the foreground to catch the
longing eye of the Yiddish customer. Attractive jugs of a curious
design and a few old brasses balance themselves alluringly along the
edge of the upper shelf.
Out of a shadowy corner
the form of an old man rears itself. On the uncertain bench from
which has risen he places the old book over which he has been
crouching, and covers it with a large, flowered red handkerchief. As
he comes into the lighter dusk of the room his small, dark eyes
blink like an old, disturbed owl's. He folds his hands under his
patriarchal beard and waits for the intruder to speak. But all
attempts at questioning the old dish lender are fruitless. The
ancient wags his sparse, white locks and mumbles a toothless Yiddish
answer. His questioner, forgetting that his touch is pollution,
makes a move toward the dish-covered shelves, but the old man bars
his way, three fingers raised as though in such a curse as Moses
laid on the rebellious Israelites. Before the silent, threatening
attitude of this old patriarch of the Ghetto the trespasser beats a
hasty retreat, scrambling over the three cherubs and the defunct
rodent up the filthy steps.
Further along the
ill-smelling, crowded street the searcher discovers a surprisingly
clean and very orthodox little Jewess peering into the ornate window
of a crockery store. She is willing to act as guide and interpreter.
"This is a store where
the rich Jews come to rent dishes for parties," explains the
gazelle-eyed daughter of Israel. "It is a very beautiful store," and
she gazes with admiration at the gorgeously flowered vases,
eccentrically shaped dishes and bric-a-brac fighting for window
space. Two china storks with preternaturally long red legs claim
"When they have babies
they rent them storks," the little Kosher girl points out. "They are
used a very great deal." And looking about the baby-covered
sidewalks and tenement steps, one can easily believe her.
"Is there a good ice
cream store around here where we could get a drink?" asks her
Her dark eyes shine
eagerly, but the answer is that of one who cannot be led from the
"Thank you," says the
orthodox little Jewess, politely, but very firmly. "I can't take
And the stranger gets a second jolt to his self-esteem.
From the attractive
brightness of the fruit-laden pushcarts, yellow with apples, pears
and bananas and red with the ripe tomatoes and the chili colorados
of the Far Southwest, the visitor plunges down into the second
stifling, dusty cellar shop. Here a white china dog, of American
manufacture, who is lord of the foreground, disclaims his
nationality with a cold stare at the intruder. In the background are
small stacks of thick, florid dishes. Only second in importance to
the haughty china canine is a beflowered, gilt-edged act of glass
tumblers and pitcher. A dozen squat salt dishes and a box of knives,
forks and spoons mark the outskirts of the enticing array.
A short and marvelously
stout woman, wearing the ugly brown wig of the Yiddish matron,
enters the shop, accompanied by two curly headed boys. Her ample
curves almost overflow the tiny room; the dish lender, the two small
boys, the china dog and the visitor are content to occupy the
The gaunt dish lender,
with parted red beard and shoulders hunched deprecatingly forward,
pleasantly lifts his thin upper lip from three yellow teeth, sweeps
a comprehensive hand toward his possessions, and the haggling, an
invariable accompaniment to a Yiddish deal, begins. The shrill
argument and frantic gesticulation ends with the stout woman's
renting the china dog as a table ornament, and her departure with
the small boys, each clutching several rented dishes to his bosom,
in her wake.
Some of the underground
stores are a medley of stoves, pots and pans, fat spice bowls and
the inevitable dishes which are the most important asset to the
From the door one
catches a triangular glimpse of vivid October sky. From above come
the shouts of the street vendors and the rumbling of wagons and
pushcarts. To this and the quickening sting of the autumn air one
gladly turns from the musty gloom of the quaint, overcrowded shop of
the dish lender.