If there were a lifetime achievement award for funeral directors, Charles Salomon would be an obvious candidate. He has worked in the business for over fifty years and, in his words, has had a very full career. He has been honored with positions on several important boards: he has been president of the Jewish Funeral Directors, is on the board of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, is the official funeral director of Temple Emanu-el, and is a prominent member of many synagogues. Recently, the National Funeral Directors Association magazine featured Charles on its cover. Quoting Billy Crystal, Charles said, “If you hang around the store long enough, they give you something.”
He gave me a thorough explanation of the history not only of Riverside Memorial Chapel, but also of Jewish funerals in general. Charles took me back to the very beginning, during the bulk of Jewish migration to New York in the mid-1800s. The Jewish population mainly settled on the Lower East Side and needed a place to bury their dead. According to traditional practices, when a Jewish person died, men or women volunteered to wash the body and dress it in a hand-sewn linen shroud – Charles shared that his great-grandmother sewed these shrouds for her congregation (now the linens are bought from the Orthodox women who continue to hand-stitch them). There were no funeral homes, just the houses of the deceased’s loved ones. The body was then placed in a pine box and sent to the cemetery. During this whole process, the only person who needed to be specifically hired, Charles pointed out, was the coach-driver who drove the coffin to Queens, where many of the cemeteries were located. It was, therefore, the livery owners who eventually became the funeral directors, seeing an opportunity to give further to their community. Eventually, coaches turned into hearses and carriages morphed into limousines.
Charles then branched off from this general history to tell the more specific story of Riverside Memorial Chapel. Louis Meyers, he explained, was a stableman who wanted to start his own business. Together with his eldest daughter, Sarah, he began a livery business in 1897 on Norfolk Street that helped transport the dead in a neighborhood that suffered from overpopulation and disease. A salesman named Charlie Rosenthal married Sarah and helped run the business. In the early twentieth century, the Jewish population began migrating to East Harlem and the Meyers family went with them. It was not long, however, before the Roaring Twenties, when some Jewish families were able to afford a move to the Upper West Side. Charlie Rosenthal and his children followed the pack and built Riverside Memorial Chapel in 1926. Charles pointed out that there was not a public funeral facility before Riverside Memorial, making it the first of its kind.
Many aspects of the funeral home changed over the years. For example, Jewish people attending non-Jewish friends’ funerals began to request more ornate caskets, though still made without metal. Also, as the new population aged, the funeral home became overcrowded, causing an expansion into the building next door in 1949. In the early sixties, Charles’s own story joined that of Riverside Memorial Chapel’s. His family was very close with the Rosenthals, and Morty Rosenthal (one of Charlie Rosenthal’s sons) asked Charles’s father, “What’s Charles going to do after college?” Despite the fact that Charles had plans to go to law school, Morty asked if he wanted a job at Riverside. Charles turned to his father and cried, “Dead bodies, Dad? That’s what you want for me?” He ended up eating his words after he graduated from law school and found there were no jobs to be had. His father took him to Barney’s to get a black suit and Charles promised himself that he would try working in the funeral home for six months. On his first day, however, he was asked to hop in one of the shiny black cars and drive it out to Queens. As a young man in a nice car with important jobs to do, Charles said he was a “Kid in a candy store,” adding, “From day one I was mesmerized.”
In the meantime, the Rosenthal's were amassing an empire. After having split from Meyers in 1933, the Rosenthals built a national funeral car company that could be hired out by different funeral homes. They partnered with Caesar Kimmel's Kinney Parking Company and began providing cars and drivers throughout the country, along with garages and ordinary rental cars. However, after Jessica Midfit’s exposé on certain funeral home practices, American Way of Death, was published, the Rosenthal's started divesting from the funeral side of the business. New legislation in response to her piece made it more difficult to be a funeral director. It was at this point that Morty Rosenthal took Charles to breakfast to tell him that he was in negotiations, but specifically mentioned that Charles was part of the deal and that he was guaranteed a job. “They were good people,” Charles stated simply. What did the Rosenthal's do next? They took the next logical step in building a conglomerate; they bought Warner Brothers. Because of this, television shows and film production companies often use the Chapel for shoots. “But when they leave, they leave it spotless,” Charles assured me.
Charles was sure to mention that though the establishment focuses primarily on the Jewish funeral experience, the Chapel welcomes all faiths. Talmudic law (and, to an extent, U.S. law), he informed me, specifically requires the Chapel to “provide assistance to anyone who knocks on their door.” These days, funerals are often live-streamed, so family members can witness the funeral rites of a loved one “all the way from Israel.”
I sat mesmerized by Charles Salomon for over an hour and a half. How often does one get to learn the history of something as important as a funeral from a true expert. I do not believe that there is anyone today who knows it better than this fine gentleman. Although I was young, I do have memories of not one, but three different funerals held at Riverside for my two grandfathers and my grandmother. I can still remember standing outside, confused, sad, but, at the same time, fascinated at how well this West 76th Street machine was oiled.
The West Side Institutional Synagogue, with its towering stone walls and ornamental turrets, is a building of religious importance, though the worshiping that takes place inside may not be clear from the outside. This is because the building was originally erected as a Methodist church in 1889, but then became the home to the synagogue in 1937. Chet Lipson, a member of the congregation, and the temple’s Rabbi, Daniel Sherman, offered to give us a tour of the magnificent structure. The annex, which was added to the main synagogue in 1958, as the stone plaque outside indicates, houses both a preschool and a senior center. Our two guides led us past small children and strollers into the room where the morning services take place. The space is primarily used by Tifereth Yisrael, the Yemenite group that rents the room from West Side Institutional. We then entered the main sanctuary, which, given that WSIS is orthodox, is split up into a men’s and a women’s section. Rabbi Sherman elaborated, however, that the gender separation is only enforced during prayer and that co-ed seating is allowed during lectures and speeches. I was amazed at the size of the room, which the men boasted seats some 600 people and is considered to be the second largest sanctuary on the West Side. On a separate occasion, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabbi Aaron Reichel, a practicing attorney, whom the other two men referred to as the synagogue’s historian. He explained that the congregation was formed in 1917 and began holding events in theaters in Harlem. In the early twentieth century, Harlem had the third largest concentration of Jews in the world, after Warsaw, Poland and the Lower East Side. During its heyday, the Institutional Synagogue’s Hebrew School contained a thousand students and over three thousand people passed through the doors of the synagogue each day. When the Jewish population started shifting away from Harlem, the synagogue ultimately moved downtown, landing in its current location. The congregation changed the stained glass windows of the old church, covered the murals, and removed the organ, turning the structure into a new kind of religious home. In the 1960s, however, there was a fire that destroyed the interior. They managed to save the torahs, but the sanctuary had to be rebuilt. While sharing photos of the reconstruction with me, Aaron spoke of the highly regarded Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, who founded the synagogue and was an incredibly influential figure in Jewish-American history. Aaron's passion for this great man, which inspired him to write The Maverick Rabbi, is especially understandable, considering Rabbi Goldstein was Aaron’s grandfather. Aaron gave me the shortlist of the Rabbi’s accomplishments, including making kosher food available on a national scale, becoming president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, and being one of the first American-born orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Goldstein’s goal for the synagogue was to make it both 100% orthodox and 100% American, with an equal emphasis on Judaism and patriotism. I was particularly touched when Aaron mentioned that the synagogue hosted monumental Thanksgiving parties and that many of its congregants joined the army to fight in both World Wars, with Rabbi Goldstein sending them rousing letters throughout their time in service. Aaron’s interest in the synagogue is both personal and academic. He has done an extraordinary amount of research on the building and its influential members, but he also has been an active member of the synagogue for a large portion of his life... it was his father who married Rabbi Goldstein’s daughter and took over in 1960. Aaron would sometimes unofficially fill in for his father when he was away, as he was the one who had his finger on the pulse of the temple. He noticed that after the fire, the synagogue took a while to return to its former glory. He thanks Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, however, for reinvigorating WSIS in the 2000s. He credits the rabbi with “building up the synagogue again. ” He also believes the synagogue is fortunate to have the dynamic Rabbi Sherman as its spiritual leader today, "to lead it into a future that will hopefully not just match but exceed the synagogue’s glorious past. "
There are very few items that the husband and wife team, Carlisle and Daphne, have not monogrammed at some point in their shop. Filled to the brim with hats, robes, sweaters, lunch boxes, and even stuffed animals and piggy banks, Monogram Cottage has a plethora of clothing and other gifts that are begging to have initials or names put on them. The pair, originally from Jamaica, can add lettering to a variety of materials, including plastic. Their creative juices appear to always be flowing, especially when they monogrammed hospital slippers to bring to patients. Though the Cottage functions mainly as a gift shop, Carlisle was quick to tell me that he and his wife are always happy to monogram pieces that people bring to him. In addition, they create custom designs and fonts for their customers. Going down to the basement with Carlisle, where most of the stock is kept, I was surprised to learn how high-tech the monogramming art is: Carlisle creates a design using a specific computer program that converts the lettering into a stitching pattern. That pattern is then sent upstairs to Daphne’s computer next to her sewing machine, where she sews the design onto the chosen item. Apparently, it was Daphne who piqued his interested in monogramming – she was trained to do this through her former job, ultimately allowing the couple to enthusiastically open up Monogram Cottage outside of Manhattan, in Dobbs Ferry, NY. From the moment they opened their store in 2004, the pair had many New York City clients, ultimately causing them to decide to open another shop in Manhattan. Their first one, in 2013, was on 78th Street, but two years later they were forced to move (the building was being demolished), thus landing them on 76th. Today, they are content to focus their energy solely on the Upper East Side, having given up their Dobbs Ferry location. In the basement, in addition to shelves full of labeled gift items and Carlisle’s massive computer, there is a small cot. Carlisle told me that the bed is a very important part of the business. Sometimes, Daphne has so much work to complete that she is at her sewing machine long into the night and has to have a place to lie down for a little bit. Sure enough, during my visit, Daphne was sewing the entire time. The couple works hard to earn the second half of their store’s name: “Best Personalized Gifts. ”
Though I spent a year and a half living in London in my younger years, I did not become nearly as attached to English cuisine as Olivia, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, did when she lived there. I realized this when her eyes lit up as Arjuna, the executive chef of Jones Wood Foundry, brought out plates of English pies and fish and chips for us to sample. With a huge smile, she dug into the mushy peas, made with fresh peas instead of the traditional canned, and the flaky battered cod. She and Sideways photographer Tom then tackled the meat pie of the day, made in a rosemary crust. I tried the accompanying mashed potatoes, which were impossibly soft and fluffy – I later learned that the kitchen goes through twenty pounds of potatoes and four pounds of butter to make them. We were in taste-heaven. We dined outside in the charming backyard garden as we spoke to Arjuna who told us about his Indian heritage and his time traveling through Europe. He began by saying that food is deeply tied to love and happiness in Indian culture. “If the mother’s in a bad mood, Indian families eat nothing.... So the moral of that is: make your mom happy. ” Though Arjuna is a dual citizen, British and American, he has always chosen to stay in the States. He pointed out, “All the kinds of cuisine you could ask for are right here in New York. ” He explained that though he had spent a little time in Cornwall in St. Ives, he had not cooked very much traditional English food until joining the Jones Wood team. He learned a lot from Jason Hicks, the owner and former executive chef, who designed the menu and has since taken on more of a consulting role. Jason wanted Jones Wood to be a “food-driven pub, ” where people can come in with no expectations and then be wowed. As Arjuna stated, “There’s something for everyone” on the menu, pointing out that they had changed the recipe of the French fries to use canola oil instead of beef fat, so that they would be vegetarian-friendly. Moreover, they are triple cooked and slow fried so that they are extra crispy. It is not just the food at Jones Wood Foundry that is authentically British – the interior of the restaurant, designed by Yves Jadot, is filled with touches of English culture. There are pint mugs, hunting horns, photos of the English military and Winston Churchill, cricket bats, British bus stop signs, and the obligatory “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. I expected Arjuna to tell me that the restaurant is home to numerous ex-pats yearning for well-made English food, but instead he said that there are actually a lot of locals who come four to five times a week. “They give me a big hug, ” he said with a smile. The name, despite being Anglican, is possibly the most American thing about the pub. In the nineteenth Century and earlier, the pub's current neighborhood was a forest known as “Jones’s Wood. ” It almost became the main parkland for Manhattanites, but lost the bid to Central Park. Shortly afterwards, the building that now houses the restaurant was constructed and occupied by a foundry that produced railings, weather vanes, manhole covers, and many other metal works. When Jason Hicks opened his restaurant in 2009, he chose to name it after the original business that was housed in the space. After we told him how fun we find it to explore the kitchens of the restaurants that we visit, Arjuna invited us downstairs to watch him make Sticky Toffee Pudding, a traditional English dessert composed of fluffy cake, often with currants, with molten toffee sauce poured on top. Though he appeared to be at ease with us while sitting in the courtyard, it was when he entered these quarters that we noticed he came into his own, like a fish in water. It makes sense: a large part of Arjuna’s life is connected to the culinary world. He even met his wife, now a successful playwright, in a restaurant. At Arjuna's urging, we ascended the steps back to the garden, where he served us his masterpiece. The dessert, smelling of rich molasses with a scoop of ice cream on the side, was positively scrumptious. Beautiful weather, a lovely setting and a terrific, dedicated chef made for a perfect afternoon.