Volume 78 / Number 13, August 27 - September 2, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Dough presents Mort Zachter’s account of stumbling upon unexpected wealth.

The aroma of rising Dough
On the Lower East Side, an author’s remembrance of things past

Dough: A Memoir
By Mort Zachter
HarperCollins; 194 pp.; $13.95

By SARAH NORRIS

One of the most surprising and touching memoirs I read last year, Mort Zachter’s Dough tells the story of how, at age 36, after taking out a second mortgage to support his family, Zachter discovered a family secret. His uncles, owners of a day-old bread store in the Lower East Side, lived in a decrepit housing project but had secretly managed to make millions of dollars.

Zachter’s reminiscence shifts between his vision of his uncles’ lives at the “bakery” through the ’40s and ’60s; and 1994, when the truth of his family’s financial solvency was disclosed to him by a banker. One of the most entertaining moments in the book is Zachter’s account of discovering dozens of two-dollar bills stashed away in his uncle Harry’s fruitcake boxes, prompting a relative to quip that Zachter really is from old money. He writes honestly about how he sought to make sense of his struggles to pay the bills for so many years with the reality of his sudden seven-figure inheritance. “Multiple lifetimes of nothing but hard work and deprivation had amassed this fortune,” he writes, “But what good had it done?”

The answer is laid bare as the book itself, the product of Zachter’s time now that he doesn’t have to work. Filled with memorable anecdotes and revelations, Dough was originally published in 2007 by the University of Georgia Press but, after garnering rave reviews, the paperback rights were purchased by HarperCollins, and the book has been given a new cover—and more attention. Zachter’s ruminations on the shifting scene of Downtown illuminate the costs—and rewards—of material pursuits. Here, published as a new addendum to his book, is Zachter’s essay “The Lower East Side: Then and Now”:

Where derelicts once roomed in flophouses, a luxury hotel on the Bowery provides turndown service for guests who sleep on 400 thread count Egyptian cotton linens. Nearby, the architecturally provocative seven-story New Museum of Contemporary Art towers over the Bowery.

The Lower East Side constantly renews itself. Whether that is good or bad depends on your perspective. For example, in the fall of 2006, for the first time in over a century, no Yom Kippur services were conducted at the First Roumanian-American Synagogue. Earlier that year, the 150-year-old Romanesque Revival building had been razed. When I walked past the site in the late summer of 2007, all that remained was a multimillion dollar real estate opportunity masquerading as a vacant, weed-strewn lot. Most likely, a residential condo will be built someday. Will its owners have any idea of what once stood there? Will they even care?

I remember attending services inside a sanctuary that could seat over 1,600 congregants. Then I heard the last echoes of what was once called the “Cantor’s Carnegie Hall,” where Jacob Pincus Perelmuth (better known as Jan Peerce) once sang.

On the south side of Rivington Street change had already come. In the place where Mr. Lipshitz once sold siddurs, you can now buy cappuccinos.

A few blocks away, the Eldridge Street Synagogue survives. Why this synagogue was renovated, and the First Roumanian torn down, is a question for the rabbis and the historians. While they debate, on Houston Street, customers still line up to buy lox at Russ and Daughters and potato knishes at Yonah Schimmels.

And despite all these changes, at 350 East Ninth Street, beneath a framed black-and-white photograph of Uncle Harry and Uncle Joe, the merchandise is still moving.

Reprinted from Dough with permission from HarperCollins. Copyright 2008.

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