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.
“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.”