(New York Jewish Week) – Back in 1975, Marcia Bricker Halperin had just graduated from Brooklyn College with the dream of becoming a professional photographer when she stepped into the Flatbush outpost of Dubrow’s, a cafeteria-style restaurant, for a warm cup of coffee.
It was there that inspiration hit. “I was wonderstruck,” Halperin writes in the introduction to her new book of photographs, “Kibbitz & Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria,” describing the “cavernous” space with mirrored walls and a mosaic fountain. “It was the most idiosyncratic room I had ever seen.”
“I sensed it was a vanishing world on its last legs, and that impelled me to document it,” she continues. “On many visits, the tables were empty, sans a painterly still life of condiment bottles and jars in the morning light. I also perceived cafeterias as places that embodied a secular Jewish culture, something that was of great interest to me.”
Halperin was prescient: She started photographing these once-ubiquitous eateries one decade before the final Dubrow’s location in the Garment District would close in 1985. The chain’s first location was founded in 1929 on the Lower East Side by Benjamin Dubrow, a Jewish immigrant from Minsk. By the mid-twentieth century, the family-owned company expanded throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan and Miami Beach, with ownership passing to the second generation, and then to the third. In Dubrow’s prime, a stop at one of the cafeterias was practically required for politicians such as John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.
Nearly 50 years after her first visit, Halperin’s new book is a tribute to this now-defunct New York City cafeteria culture and the characters she met during the five years she regularly photographed there. The compelling 152-page book features her original black-and-white photos along with essays from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Donald Margulies and Jewish American historian Deborah Dash Moore.
“Although Jews were not the only ones to patronize cafeterias, they preferred them as inexpensive places to hang out to bars, which often attracted an Irish immigrant or working-class clientele,” Moore writes in her essay, titled “See You at Dubrow’s.” “By the 1930s, cafeterias were part of the fabric of Jewish neighborhood life in New York City, a welcome alternative for socializing to cramped apartments, street corners, or candy stores.”
Now living in Park Slope and retired from a career as a special education teacher, Halperin talked with the New York Jewish Week about the city’s lost cafeteria culture and what inspired her to capture it with her camera.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
New York Jewish Week: You took these photos nearly 50 years ago. What made you decide to publish them now?
Marcia Bricker Halperin: In the 1970s, there was such good feedback on the work. I was given a show, I was collected by a few people, I had a photo in The New York Times. People wrote me letters in the mail: “Ms. Bricker, I’m interested in buying one of your photos.” At the time, I was in a project called the CETA artists project, a federally funded arts project in the ’70s where I was paid to be a photographer. It was very much like the [Depression-era] WPA project, but one of the great differences with the CETA project was anything you shot, you owned.
So I continued photographing changing New York during those years — some of it by assignment for nonprofit organizations that I worked with, like the Jewish Museum and an organization in Brighton Beach that was resettling the Soviet Jews that were arriving in the ’70s. They wanted photographs to help both the Soviet Jews understand American life and the old Jewish population in Brighton Beach understand Russian life. What a great opportunity!
I was going to be an artist and I did adjunct teaching and different things to make it work. I kind of fell into teaching high school photography and then, from there, I fell into teaching special education — that took over. Thirty-five years later, I retired from teaching. The day after I retired, I took out my negatives and my photography stuff and bought a scanner and all kinds of printers and things.
So, I was a photographer once upon a time and then taught for many years and, overnight, I became one once again.
How did it feel to see these photos again? Had you developed any of them before?
Yes, I printed quite a few of them then. I worked as a darkroom lab technician, so I had an opportunity in the ’70s to do a lot of silver gelatin prints. I would bring in a thick envelope of the imperfect prints to the cafeteria and at that point, everybody knew me. I gave out portraits to people. If I hadn’t shot them, they would gather around me asking: “Do you have my picture? Did you print it?” Especially the staff — there was a very international cohort of people working there and they all wanted pictures to send home to their families.
After that, the pictures lay fallow for all these years. I protected them and stored them very carefully. When I had the opportunity to come back and put together a sample book, I started looking through the negatives and I said, “Oh, my God, I don’t remember that picture.” It was a time warp to see some of these photos taken in the 1970s. In Manhattan, the ’60s had happened, but Flatbush in Brooklyn was the “Old Country.” It hung onto the past for a while and some women dressed like they were still in the 1950s.
Dubrow’s closed just ten years after you started shooting there. Could you feel at the time that cafeteria culture was ending?
I kept a journal at the time. When I went back 42 years later to look at it, I had written: “One day I’m going to show up here and this is going to be closed.”
There were other cafeterias in Manhattan and the Bronx and they had all closed. I’ve collected like every article ever written about cafeterias, and there’s one from 1973: “Are cafeterias going to be gone?” So it was fairly well known that this was a vanishing kind of establishment in New York. The automats ceased having the little boxes, Burger King bought them out, they tried to modernize and it got pretty sad. Sometimes during the day, the huge cafeteria would be empty and people would say, “This business can’t survive.” So I knew I was photographing in the vein of needing to document the things that are there and will be gone. It was one of the things that propelled me to get out there and photograph.
Today, things are different. There’s food courts and wonderful little coffee places. There are many businesses, especially here in Brooklyn, trying to perpetuate “grandmother foods” and there are restaurants that are serving “reinvented Jewish-style foods.” So there are some continuations, but in terms of the huge, opulent cafeteria spaces — grand professional murals, intricate woodworking, food with a crazy amount of preparation, 300 items, 30 different cakes — no restaurant could possibly survive like that. The only thing that still exists are my photos of them.
What was the Jewish culture of Dubrow’s and Flatbush like at the time?
Growing up, we went to a little old “Conservadox” synagogue. We were the kind of family where my mother kept a kosher kitchen at home, but on Sunday nights we’d go out to the Chinese restaurant. Dubrow’s menu was “Jewish-style” but it was also a place you could go out and have your first shrimp salad sandwich, which became their most popular food. They were famous for shrimp salad!
These cafeterias were all started by Jewish immigrants. But they were democratic for everyone — there was ham on the menu, shrimp. You could choose whether to have just meat or have a meat meal and then have a cream pie for dessert. That was your choice. With cafeteria-style, like religion, you pick and choose what you want and what you want to observe.
When I would go there, all the older people would ask: “Are you Jewish? You don’t look Jewish.” I’d say,“I’m Jewish. I know a few words of Yiddish, my parents speak Yiddish at home.” They would be satisfied with that. There was this sense that it was a club a little bit, it was a Jewish establishment. Not that everybody wasn’t welcome, and everybody socialized with everyone else.
Socializing was a big thing there, not necessarily eating. Many of my pictures are people sitting around — sometimes it’s a coffee cup on the table, most of the time the table is empty. They were there to meet their friends and talk. Some people said it replaced the synagogues. The old men would go to Dubrow’s and have a cup of coffee with their friends in the morning and gossip and talk.
“Kibbitz & Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria” will be published on May 15, 2023. The photos are on exhibit at the Edward Hopper House in Nyack, New York through June 25.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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