On March 26, a huge explosion and fire rocked lower Second Avenue in Manhattan. Someone had illegally (and apparently repeatedly) tapped into a gas line serving 121 Second Ave. The resulting explosion killed two people, injured over a dozen more, reduced three buildings to jagged rubble, and left over a hundred people (including a much-loved paraprofessional in my kids’ school who’d lived on the corner of East 7th Street for over 40 years) homeless.
Today, there’s a vacant lot where 119, 121 and 123 Second Avenue once stood; its chain link fence is covered in memorial photos, flowers and tributes to the two young men who died there. The rest of the block looks normal again. Residents in the surviving buildings have moved back in, and all the standing businesses on the block have reopened.
B&H Dairy, a beloved kosher restaurant at 127 Second Avenue, has been shuttered since the blast. First the owners had to wait for city inspections; then the fire department, which has beefed up safety requirements in the wake of the disaster, ordered B&H to get a new fire suppression system; then the historic building needed approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission to install the new system; then the Department of Buildings had to generate permits for the job; then the contractors had to be approved by the FDNY. The work is finally slated to start next week.
But it may be too late. A little 28-seat diner in a big city needs a steady stream of customers to stay afloat; by the time B&H reopens it’ll have lost four months of income. But regulars—who rhapsodize about the challah and blintzes—are determined to keep B&H alive. “It’s one of the last of its kind,” laments the neighborhood blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, “a heritage business in a New York that is losing its New Yorkiness.”
B&H began its storied life in 1938, a kosher dairy restaurant serving what was then the “Yiddish Broadway” of Second Avenue. The initials in the name stand not only for the last name of its founders Abie Bergson & Jack Heller, but also for “Better Health,” as proudly proclaimed on sign outside. (Butter and sour cream are healthy. Ask anyone.) Florence Bergson Goldberg, the daughter of Abie Bergson, sees a connection between her family’s beloved business and the B&H of today. “B&H was more than just a place to grab a quick bite,” she reminisced in a letter to the city supporting the diner. “It was a place as close to home for so many who had left the only homes they had ever known behind, a place where new friendships were forged and stories were exchanged and people sought comfort in the food that reminded them of the lives they once had. This tradition of friendships forged and camaraderie among fellow patrons continues today, thanks to its present owners who are also seeking the American dream.”
Those owners are Fawzy Abdelwahed and Ola Smigielska. The two met when Fawzy took breaks from working at B&H to dash across the street for a bite at The Stage, another old-school NYC institution. He soon fell in love with Ola, then a waitress. Before long the two were wed. As the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation noted, “[A]nd thus a Catholic from Poland and a Muslim from Egypt became the proud standard-bearers of a kosher restaurant founded by Jews in the late 1930s.”
B&H is still kosher. At the time of the explosion, its hechsher was up to date. But the restaurant also reflects the diversity of the new East Village, with a multicultural staff and t-shirts reading “CHALLAH! por favor.” But, Florence Bergson Goldberg said in an interview, “I understand the food is very much the same.”
Florence left the neighborhood a long time ago. She told me, “I grew up and moved to Canarsie and then to Long Island and then to New Jersey, and now I’m in Florida with all the rest of the people who started out on the Lower East Side!” Her father came to the United States from Poland at around age 12. “There used to be a lot of dairy restaurants on Second Avenue,” she remembered. “My father was a counterman at one, across the street from what became B&H, and he decided to go out on his own. The guy he worked for told him he wouldn’t last six months. Sour grapes! He proved them all wrong. All the other stores closed down and now it’s the only dairy store left on Second Avenue.”
The neighborhood was different then, she said. “People didn’t have a lot of money, didn’t take even a half-hour for lunch, and this was where they went. It provided a hot meal at a good price. Everybody knew everybody else. Mobility then wasn’t what it is now. People stayed where they grew up.” She recalls feeling cherished by the staff. “They all cared about me as a youngster,” she said. “I could’ve eaten anything! But I loved the rice pudding. Whenever we went out as a family, my father never had dairy. When you work in that climate you like meat. So on Sundays, we’d go down to Delancey, to Ratner’s.” (Ratner’s, of course, is now gone.)
Florence read to me from her father’s papers. “We opened on a beautiful Tuesday, with a special breakfast,” he wrote of B&H’s first day in 1938. “A choice of juice or hot cereal; two eggs, any style, with vegetable; two rolls with butter; coffee, tea or milk for 20 cents. Soup was 10 cents. The biggest item was sturgeon for 20 cents.” Of his life in 1939, Abie wrote, “B&H was a home away from home, my wife gave me a son, and the grandparents are full of joy.”
Abie lived most of his adult life at 232 East 6th Street. By the late ‘60s, he was frail and ill. “But he wanted to keep working,” Florence remembered. “In 1968, the grandkids picketed in front of the store, marching with signs that said, ‘Grandpa, Retire!’ Shelley Winters came in and thought the kids were adorable.” She wasn’t the only celebrity who visited. Across the street was the Orpheum Theater, and stars would come to B&H during breaks in rehearsals. “Paul Newman, Jack Klugman — they all came in,” Florence said. “And of course, earlier it was the stars of the Yiddish theater – Molly Picon, Boris Tomashevsky, Maurice Schwartz. My brother went to the Jacob Joseph Yeshiva, where they got tickets to all the Yiddish shows, so we saw everything.”
Bergson and his partner (Heller was succeeded by Sol Hausman—“another H!” Florence noted) sold the B&H in 1969 or 1970. In 1978, The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section profiled B&H counterman Leo Ratnofsky on the eve of his retirement; he’d worked at B&H since 1940. Leaving his customers, he said, made him feel like crying. “These actors and actresses, the hippies, the yippies, the beatniks, the bohemians, people who’ve run away from God knows where – I’ve always felt an attraction to them. Especially the starving ones.”
Food is a huge part of every Jewish immigrant narrative. “We landed on Ellis Island,” Bergson recalled in his unpublished memoir. “The food consisted of bread, potatoes and coffee, but they did a very good job on all the immigrants. They deloused us and threw away most of our clothing. How I remember being on that island watching the lights of the city and all the boats passing by. I was 12 years old and felt like Alice in Wonderland.”
Florence hasn’t been to New York City in years. “My son goes back a lot with his children,” she told me. “They take the big table in the back. He lives in Merrick, and they do a nostalgic thing, taking the kids back to where he used to live, to have the challie.”
I have no familial connection to B&H, but I want my children to have the challah too. I want them to live in a multicultural East Village that still has some connection to the Jewishness of our ancestors. And the current owners ache to return. “I miss the whole operation,” Fawzy Abdelwahed told neighborhood blogger EVGrieve, “I miss the whole operation. I miss my customers. I miss seeing them. They are my friends—I know them by name. I miss serving people every day.”
Listen to Tablet’s podcast (recorded at B&H) about the history of Lower East Side dairy restaurants here, get updates about B&H’s battle to remain afloat here, and donate to the effort to save B&H here. To allow a fire caused by carelessness and greed to destroy a beloved neighborhood institution would be a true shame.
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