Embracing the Mayhem at Barney Greengrass Before the Holiest — and Hungriest — Day of the Year

By Carol Tannenhauser

“As my grandmother used to say, ‘If you look up, you see better. If you look down you see worse. Be happy where you are.’ I’m happy where I am,” said Gary Greengrass, grandson of Barney Greengrass, founder of the eponymous appetizing store and restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue between 86th and 87th Streets. It has been there since 1929. Before that, it was in Harlem, dating back to 1908. It was Barney who was first crowned the “Sturgeon King.” The title passed to his son, Moe, Gary’s father, and then, to Gary.


Gary Greengrass.

“I used to be the Sturgeon Prince,” he said, wistfully. “Now, I’m the king.”

And heavy is the head that wears the crown, at least in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the holiest — and hungriest — day of the Jewish year. For those who observe, fasting starts at sundown Tuesday and is “broken” Wednesday night, after the shofar is blown.

That’s where Gary comes in. Barney Greengrass provides the food for the “break fasts” of hundreds and hundreds of families and friends on the Upper West Side, throughout the city, and all over the United States. The process begins well before the holiday.

“We send out a reminder letter a month in advance, with a receipt showing what the customers had in the past,” Gary explained. “They need to get their order in by a certain date and we set a deadline for when they can make any changes. And that’s it. Once those dates arrive, the train leaves the station; there’s no turning back. We can only push the envelope so far. Even the biggest ‘machers’ adhere.”

A FedEx representative is stationed at the store two days before the holiday. The energy inside is somewhere between that of a military operation and a Broadway production. Men wheeling cartons rush in and out. “Gary!” people call from every direction.

Gary and his staff stay in the store from Monday morning until around five Tuesday night.

“We don’t go home. We don’t sleep. It’s a very stressful couple of days,” he said. “I look forward to fasting. That way I know all this craziness is over.”

FOOD, NEWS | 14 comments | permalink
    1. JS says:

      This is a funny article, but so true and so New York.

    2. SMSS says:

      I’ll be eating his food in a few hours. Yum!

    3. Ted Leibowitz says:

      And the food/products are the best.

    4. UWS Nudnik says:

      We know Gary is a very bright guy.

      In fact, he’s SO smart that he could be a……..(wait for it)…….be a……………..
      BRAIN STURGEON !!!

      • UWSHebrew says:

        STURGEON IS A NON KOSHER FISH.

        • Smoky says:

          But the smoking makes it divine.

        • Cato says:

          — “STURGEON IS A NON KOSHER FISH.”

          You say (SHOUT) that like it’s a bad thing.

          • UWSHebrew says:

            I “shouted it”, because of the absurdity of Jews shopping for food after fasting for the most revered holiday in Judaism at a business establishment that proudly states (and sells), a prohibited food in Judaism. It might as well be called Barney Greengrass the Porkchop King.

        • Eric says:

          What you say is true from an orthodox perspective.
          But sturgeon and swordfish have scales when they’re young, but lose them as they get larger. While most Orthodox rabbinic authorities say that these fish are not kosher the Conservative Movement‘s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has ruled that swordfish and sturgeon are kosher.
          Those who observe strictly should steer clear but if you are not quite so frum, enjoy.

          • UWSHebrew says:

            Nobody recognizes what the Conservative Movement has to say regarding Jewish law, especially what is kosher and what is not. You either follow Orthodox law, or you don’t. Want to sit next to your wife in Synagogue? Hear an organ play? Fine. But you can’t break basic rules of Judaism and then “rule” on other aspects of it.

            • Eric says:

              While you and I are both sitting on the same side of the mechitza on this one, it is worth noting that roughly 71% of American jews identify themselves as either reform or conservative. They are not “nobody”.

    5. Sid says:

      Murray’s Sturgeon Shop > Barney Greengrass

    6. William Daddi says:

      Gary:

      Best to you from an old NYU friend. Will come in and visit one day.