They Buy Matzos from Gimbels and Macy’s: Passover in 1920s New York

Our “guest blogger from the past” is a 1920s reporter for the Jewish Daily Forward (the Forverts). By 1923, the article says, many assimilated Jews in New York City didn’t want neighbors to know they were Jewish, and so they began ordering Passover foods from department stores instead of Jewish small businesses.

Why? Well, a delivery boy in Lower East Side garb would have been a giveaway, but a Macy’s delivery van, they figured, was “neutral.” This is my (quick) translation from the original Yiddish.

The Forverts, March 29, 1923

They Buy Their Matzos from Gimbels and Macy’s Department Stores

Newly rich “all-rightniks” don’t want Christian neighbors to see East Side Jews delivering packages to them on Pesach.

The day before Pesach on the East Side and on Riverside Drive.

By a Forverts reporter

A 1929 Macy's Department Store ad for delivery of Passover foods.

Macy’s ad for Passover foods, from the April 18, 1929 issue of the New York Journal.

The day before Pesach is the real holiday for our young people. Even earlier, two weeks before Pesach, they are already skipping elementary school and high school. Most have to help their mothers prepare for the holiday at home, while others must help their fathers at the pushcarts or the stores, where business is so frantic you can never have enough staff to satisfy all the customers.

And at home, there is also plenty to do: kashering, scrubbing, cleaning, fetching down the Pesach dishes, hanging new curtains on the windows, lifting old oilcloths from the floors and laying down new ones; making new little outfits for the children, shopping for all the Pesach foods — Can you now begin to calculate how many tasks a Jewish housewife is bombarded with at home on the day before Pesach?

Is it any wonder, then, that the day before Pesach, Jewish children are as pleased as can be and love the holiday wholeheartedly, no less than they love their “Easter vacation” from school?

In addition, Jewish children collect quite a few dollars the day before the holiday for their special Pesach jobs.

There are quite a few sources of Pesach income, and they are interesting ones.

Almost every Jewish holiday has its sources of income. On Purim, poor youths and poor adults receive a few cents from bearers of shalach manos.

On Sukkos, Jews carry around the esrog reciting blessings, and on the day before Sukkos people can earn some coins selling green branches to adorn the sukkahs.

But today, where are the Sukkos hymns or cries of “Happy New Year!” or the Purim noisemakers or the Simchas Torah flags?

Pesach, though, is the king of jobs. No holiday provides nearly as many jobs as Pesach.

First, there is delivery work. These days, around the wine shops and matzo bakeries, there are boys who earn a good couple of dollars helping women and men carry the parcels of matzo and wine they are buying.

This trade has established prices. They calculate the weight of the parcel and the distance to the destination. So to deliver a package of matzo from Grand Street to Henry Street, the boy will charge ten cents. But to deliver a parcel of Passover wine on the same streets, he will charge fifteen cents.

Why fifteen and not ten? “Because wine is heavier, and you handle it carefully, too,” is the practical answer the roving delivery boy gives you.

To deliver two packages of matzo from Grand Street to Eighth Street he can charge you a whole quarter and sometimes even more.

Deliveries are just one of the numerous Pesach jobs. While this task starts right after Purim, the others begin in the week before Pesach.

This time of year, if you walk down Essex Street, Orchard, Rivington, Hester, Forsyth and all other densely populated Jewish streets, including our epicurian East Broadway, you will hear a shout: “Haggadah, Haggadah, two cents a Haggadah!” That’s boys selling Haggadahs for the Seder.

The last day before Pesach, the shout is a bit different. Then they cry, “Haggadah, Haggadah, one cent a Haggadah!” In other words, the price has dropped.

The job of burning chometz is not only very common but also much loved by our youths. They see it as both a business and a pleasure.

It’s a way to earn a few cents, knocking on housewives’ doors and taking away their chomets. They collect the chomets from several blocks, and that’s when the real pleasure and fun begin.

They start a big fire in the middle of the street and burn the chomets. The fire blazes and the kids toss bits of wood and paper and wooden boxes into it, and enjoy themselves.

The pleasure is even greater because they know they don’t have to fear the policeman. The Irish cop knows it is “Passover,” and from previous years, he remembers that just as Jews must have wine on Pesach, they must also burn their “komets” in the street.

He looks the other way and lets them make a fire.

There is yet another job: buying up chomets from businesspeople. This is, though, a purely Gentile pursuit, enjoyed by the Polish janitor, the Italian iceman and the Negro window cleaner.

But all the jobs I’ve listed so far are only secondary income sources, “sidelines” as they say in English.

Everyone knows what the biggest sources of Pesach income are, from which Jews earn many thousands of dollars: wine-selling and the matzo industry. Obviously, clothing stores, hat shops and a dozen other types of stores are also too busy to celebrate at all on the day before Pesach.

The one thing that did irritate me was an old Jew peddling matzo.

He has his pushcart on Stanton Street and sells little packages of matzo. His busy period first begins a few days before the first Seder. He sits on a wooden block near his pushcart, strokes his unshaven face and looks for an opportunity to strike up a conversation.

“Oh, it’s not like it used to be,” he said with a sad gesture. “It used to be that the day before Pesach, before I was a matzo vendor in the street, I used to make a good living delivering matzo to people’s homes.”

“Why did you give that up?” I asked.

“You think I wanted to give it up?” he asked, starting to warm to the question I had asked him. “I had no other choice. The wealthy Jews got even richer and moved away, some to Riverside Drive, some to Washington Heights, some to Fifth Avenue. And you realize, of course, that when people get rich, they start to be ashamed of ‘everyday’ folk. That’s how I gradually lost the customers to whose homes I used to deliver matzo. And when I lost the wealthy clients, I had to give up the business and become a peddler. Too bad, it was an excellent business!”

“With so many Jews in the East Side (kinehore), can’t you find any other customers?” I asked.

“You consider them Jews? Goyim is what they are. People used to buy from me because they knew I’m an observant Jew and that my matzos are really matzos, you understand? Kosher Peysedik matzos. And these ‘tzadiks’ we have today care much less whether their matzo is kosher matzo or not, as long as it’s matzo. They shop at the grocery and that’s all. What they truly love is the wine and the chremsels and the other Pesach dishes, but they don’t care a hoot about the whole matter of kashrus.”

I was very curious to learn where our former East Side Jews, other than the all-rightniks on Riverside Drive and in Washington Heights, buy their matzo. Or do they perhaps not buy matzo at all anymore?

I set out through the wealthy streets and I found some good information about that.

Most of our affluent Jews still remain Jewish, and as it happens, they keep Pesach. Pesach is a holiday that gets baked into hearts right from childhood and people cannot forget it even if they become rich and move away from a Jewish neighborhood.

Come Erev Pesach, this type of former East Side Jew will have the chauffeur bring around the big enclosed automobile—a limousine, it’s called—and ride to the matzo bakery to pick up the few pounds of matzo he ordered in advance by telephone.

He does not want the bakery to send a delivery person to bring the matzo to him, as the courier might be a Jew with a beard or a boy in rags, and then the Christian neighbors will find out that Mr. So-and-So is actually Jewish.

He will go collect the matzo himself.

Lately, though, the big department stores have been coming to the rich Jews’ aid. Department stores such as Macy’s and Gimbels now sell matzo. So the moneyed Jews from Fifth Avenue or Washington Heights order their matzos from the big department stores.

After all, there’s no way for the Christian neighbor to know what’s inside that pretty wrapped box that the Gimbels or Macy’s wagon is bringing.

And so, a lot of people benefit from this holiday: Jewish youths, Jewish peddlers, Gentile janitors and street cleaners, and even the big department stores.

They’re all earning a few cents and are, thank the Almighty, happy and content.