Visu­al Arts

Kib­b­itz and Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria

By – May 15, 2023

For New York­ers of a cer­tain age, Kib­b­itz & Nosh will kin­dle warm mem­o­ries. Leaf­ing through Mar­cia Brick­er Halperin’s pho­tographs imme­di­ate­ly recalls pick­ing up your tray, pro­ceed­ing to the line, and, often with much dif­fi­cul­ty, select­ing your meal from a dizzy­ing array of choices.

The cafe­te­ria was a land­mark of Brook­lyn, the Bronx, and Man­hat­tan Jew­ish neigh­bor­hoods, serv­ing work­ing-class cus­tomers famil­iar food at break­fast, lunch, and din­ner late into the night. Dubrow’s was a well-known chain of cafe­te­rias, opu­lent in design yet rea­son­ably priced. In its hey­day, it was a hang­out for small-time rack­e­teers and gang­sters as well as politi­cians and busi­ness­men, teach­ers, and neigh­bor­hood drop-ins. In his essay, play­wright David Mar­gulies fond­ly recalls Sun­day lunch­es at Dubrow’s before a mati­nee movie — a dou­ble fea­ture — or a shop­ping trip for school clothes in the 1950s. 

In anoth­er essay, his­to­ri­an Deb­o­rah Dash Moore offers an infor­ma­tive overview of the impact of the cafe­te­ria — specif­i­cal­ly Dubrow’s — on Jew­ish life in Brook­lyn, the Bronx, and mid­town Man­hat­tan. By 1920, the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in New York City had grown to 1.6 mil­lion, and estab­lish­ments of all kinds, among them cafe­te­rias, catered to Ashke­nazi Jew­ish tastes. With its self-ser­vice style, there were no wait­ers, and cus­tomers could linger for hours with their news­pa­pers, a Dan­ish, and a cup of cof­fee. Because of their neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter, cafe­te­rias attract­ed reg­u­lars, evok­ing Ray Oldenburg’s third place: nei­ther work nor home, it was a pub­lic space to relax and socialize. 

Mar­cia Brick­er Halperin began pho­tograph­ing Dubrow’s in the mid-1970s and con­tin­ued through the last days of the cafe­te­ria in the mid-1980s. Her cam­era catch­es men with fedo­ras and cig­ars, retirees por­ing over news­pa­pers and end­less cups of cof­fee, and women with care­ful­ly coiffed hair, refresh­ing them­selves after a day of shop­ping. There are no chil­dren in these pho­tographs, and only a few young faces. Pho­tograph­ing the steady stream of old­er cus­tomers, Halperin sensed she was doc­u­ment­ing an extra­or­di­nary, albeit van­ish­ing, world.

The con­tact sheets of these pho­tographs sat in her files until she retired and recov­ered them. Each image brings the cafe­te­ria back to life, if only briefly. Just look­ing at a pho­to­graph of Dubrow’s famous Kaiser rolls sets off the aro­ma of fresh­ly baked bread. Hand­some­ly designed and print­ed, Kib­b­itz & Nosh draws read­ers into this rich, for­got­ten world, explor­ing a notable peri­od and insti­tu­tion in Jew­ish life in America.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions

Dubrow’s Cafe­te­ria was as much a social club as it was an eatery for much of its exis­tence, from the Great Depres­sion to the mid-eight­ies, and Mar­cia Brick­er Halperin man­aged to cap­ture the spir­it of the New York insti­tu­tion through her por­traits and pho­tog­ra­phy. Yet Kib­b­itz & Nosh—which fea­tures her inti­mate and arrest­ing pho­tos of Dubrow’s, both its Brook­lyn and Man­hat­tan loca­tions, as well as its patrons — sat on a shelf for near­ly fifty years. For­tu­nate­ly, the author revis­it­ed and curat­ed the neg­a­tives, effec­tive­ly trans­port­ing the read­er back to a moment in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry New York City. 

While pho­tographs are at the cen­ter of this book, the work tran­scends the pho­to essay genre, deft­ly incor­po­rat­ing essays by cel­e­brat­ed cul­tur­al and aca­d­e­m­ic voic­es — Pulitzer Prize – win­ning play­wright Don­ald Mar­guiles and cel­e­brat­ed his­to­ri­an Deb­o­rah Dash Moore — to pro­vide con­text for what made the cafe­te­ria so impor­tant to New York, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry at large. The book serves as a rich doc­u­ment for future aca­d­e­mics and sto­ry­tellers look­ing to under­stand the dai­ly life of com­mon New York­ers and the cen­tral­i­ty of third spaces” to com­mu­ni­ty and culi­nary cul­ture, and it does so in a one-of-a-kind visu­al man­ner befit­ting the sig­nif­i­cance of such an institution.