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The New York Sun


Gefilte Economics

April 04, 2007

By Howard Husock

It may not be a problem in Brooklyn, but in the town just outside of Boston where my family and I have lived for the past 30 years, getting fresh carp and whitefish, the traditional raw material for the Passover staple called gefilte fish, is not easy.

In fact, today, there’s just one fish market in the metropolitan area that provides the service of importing fresh, whole fish from the Great Lakes and filleting it on the spot for the crowds of Jewish traditionalists and young Orthodox families who expect to find it this time of year.

This may sound like a good deal for all concerned, yet the owner of this, my favorite fish market, looks forward to Passover mainly with dread and will be relieved when the holiday that started Monday night ends eight days later. “My wife,” he tells me when I come in early one morning, “asks me why I keep doing it.”

That he does, tells us something not just about Passover, but also about the complexities that come with running a small business and the community value one can provide.

The same family has owned the store since 1926, and little has changed since then. The owner and his nephew still routinely bring in whole fish and fillet them themselves with very sharp knives, after getting the best price possible at the daily auction on Boston’s Fish Pier.

Only during the run-up to Passover does the small store on the block of Jewish-oriented businesses — a bagel bakery, a kosher butcher, and a Hebrew bookstore — not go about its business as usual. It’s then that fresh-water fish, not normally in demand on the East Coast, is piled high in barrels or in the window on the ice where bluefish and flounder normally rest.

The usually relaxed atmosphere switches to crowd-control mode. Orders must be placed in advance, and this week only, numbers must be taken as those seeking the sorts of fish that Eastern European Jews were once able to get this time of year line up. It’s the climax of long months of planning for a small store, which must maintain relationships with a few Midwest suppliers and order well in advance.

That headache is the least of the owner’s problems, though. In order to be ready by the time the store opens at 6 a.m., he has to be up around 2. But even putting in his own extra hours doesn’t solve his most pressing gefilte fish-related problem: labor.

Filleting the fish in just the right way is not an easy skill to teach and he certainly doesn’t want to train someone for the job for just one week a year. He has to prevail upon former employees who know the drill, and even his older brother, who fortunately, is a retired surgeon.

All this for something which he will tell you is not all that profitable an item, especially if you take into account all his extra time. And yet he does it still and, his tone suggests, will continue to do so for as long as he owns the store.

“There’s no one else,” he says. Which suggests the question: Why does he do it? It’s, in effect, a public service, an act of cultural preservation for which he’s really not compensated. It’s the sort of thing nonprofit organizations look for grant money to support, and yet he does it as a private business.

One might think he could call for help from the observant in the community, but, of course, in our litigious era, one sliced finger on the hand of a volunteer would probably give the plaintiffs’ bar plenty of ammunition to bankrupt him. And, anyhow, I’m sure that, on balance, he sees the whole ordeal as in his long-term interest.

If it were ever easy to run a small fish store, it must be harder now. There’s a Whole Foods nearby with a lovely fish counter and similar prices. But it’s not selling carp for gefilte fish.

Small businesses secure their customers’ loyalty by going the extra mile. So the owner’s sense of what it takes to stay in business all these years leads him to carry on the tradition that dates to those now-vanished Jewish communities of Eastern Europe which could find no fish except that which they caught in local lakes, as portrayed in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s wonderful children’s story “The Elders of Chelm and the Silly Karp.” All of which demonstrates why “social enterprise” — the stylish idea that only businesses with an explicitly stated social goal actually achieve one — is both wrong and redundant.

Of course, one suspects, too, that he understands his service as a mitzvah, a good deed, and it’s certainly understood that way by those who place their orders weeks in advance and line up for pounds of carp. Economics is indeed, powerful — but it doesn’t explain everything.

Original Source:



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