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Though the storefront hasn’t changed in more than 50 years, the Raskins’ business has evolved into a massive enterprise with a sophisticated production facility, overseas product runs, and customers literally across the globe
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
It’s a Friday morning two weeks before Pesach and I’m standing on Kingston Avenue in the heart of Crown Heights. The sign above me reads “Raskin’s Fish Market,” and through the large plate glass window I catch glimpses of bright-orange flesh, pearly white slices, and glints of silvery scales.
Inside the Crown Heights icon, there’s no sleek packaging, shrink wrap, or neatly printed labels. The black and white tile floor may seem very retro — but in fact, it’s the real thing. This is the same floor Berel Raskin originally rented back in 1961, when the newly arrived Russian immigrant took the risk of opening his own fish business.
The aisle is narrow; back in the 1960’s no one could have predicted just how many customers would try to cram their way inside. At the counter — really a wide metal shelf — huge slabs of fresh fish rest on wide beds of ice. To the left is a freezer with rolls of frozen fish loaves and small packages of “sushi ready” varieties of fish for home consumption. Next to the narrow staircase leading to the upper floor, metal shelves are stacked with varieties of canned tuna. All bear the name Raskin’s, along with a photo of a smiling bearded gentleman.
It’s the same face I spy behind the counter. Berel Raskin, the face and name behind this famous family business, is patiently discussing the advantages of a particular slice of salmon fillet with a customer.
At least four men join Mr. Raskin behind the counter on this busy morning. Two are his sons, Yossi and Shloime. A grandson named Zalmy is also an active member of the family business. Yossi Hayward, who seems to be doing a dozen things at the same time from his station behind the counter, is wearing a navy blue Raskin’s shirt. “I’m not a blood relation,” he says, “but after working here for eight years, I’m part of the family too.”
Each one of these men greets his customers with the same warmth and attentiveness as the founding father. A little further back, two workers converse quietly in Spanish, as they wield their long, sharp knives with skill. “White fish coming up!” one of them says, skinning and weighing the quivering specimens before handing them to the senior Mr. Raskin for grinding.
“That will be $8.55,” I hear, as a young mother’s Shabbos order is filled. The Raskins treat her with the same attention they’re giving to a young man who has come to oversee the Pesach orders for ten different families. “Back again for your family orders?” he is greeted by Shloime and his older brother Yossi, who seem to recognize virtually everyone who steps into the store. “Yes,” the young man says. “This time I left my hat and jacket in a plastic bag in the back.” He then turns to me, explaining, “Last year, after I finished with the family Pesach order, I had to have my jacket dry-cleaned.”
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Oh, I live here in Crown Heights,” he says, then points to a series of white sheets of paper taped to the shelf behind the counter. “But I come here to get custom orders for my relatives and siblings in Miami, Chicago, Postville, and a few other places.’”
“Does your mother want the gefilte fish ground with the onions?” Yossi Raskin inquires.
“Just a second.” The young man pulls out his phone. “I’ll find out.”
A young yuppie in jeans accepts his bag of fresh tuna steak from Shloime Raskin. “I come here from Park Slope,” the customer — obviously a regular at the store — tells me. “It’s the best fish in the city and the prices are amazing.”
There’s plenty of Yiddish and Russian spoken here along with English, and Shloime informs me that you can hear French and Creole as well, the languages as varied as the customer base they have developed over the decades.
Mr. Raskin confides that the African-Americans who share the neighborhood have been loyal customers since he opened the store. “They trust me. They know if I say it’s wild caught and fresh, that’s what it is! Sometimes, if they can’t pay, I tell them to pay me next time — and they can’t believe it.”
No Money to Invest
Things weren’t always this bright for Berel Raskin. The gentle fishmonger with a smile recognized far beyond the borders of Crown Heights was born in Leningrad, one of four brothers. His father, Reb Aaron Leib, was a staunch Lubavitcher chassid who refused to bow to the dictates of Communism. Reb Aaron Leib was arrested many times, especially on Shabbos, because he was stringent not to carry on Shabbos and was unable to furnish his identity cards when asked. “It was almost like a ritual,” Berel remembers. “After Havdalah, my mother would go to the police station and bring my father his papers, so he could be released.”
Reb Aaron Leib used to attend clandestine minyanim in local Jews’ homes every Shabbos. In order to avoid the KGB, they would change locations every week. Berel, however, wasn’t so fortunate. He had to attend school on Shabbos. “My zeide would cry,” he says, “but I didn’t have a choice.”
On Yom Kippur, however, he refused to go to school. The next day, the teacher — a Jewish Communist — instructed young Berel to stand up before all 500 students in the school, and launched into a long tirade about the negligent student whose parents were “feeding him opium.”
The family eventually moved from Leningrad to Gorky, but conditions were no better. “I remember standing in line for hours just to get a piece of bread. And even then, we were hungry. My father died at 36, basically of starvation.” It was left to Berel’s mother, Doba Raiza, to somehow sustain herself and her four children, and she was determined to escape the chokehold of Mother Russia.
The family initially traveled to Poland, then Austria, and finally Paris. From there, Mrs. Raskin wrote to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rayatz, asking whether they should seek entry to Israel or to America. The Rebbe advised them to travel to America, and in 1953 they arrived in New York.
“The Joint helped us out at first,” Berel remembers. “They found us a place to live in Brownsville. That’s also where I found my first job, in a sweater business. Then I joined one of my brothers in his grocery store. But I wanted to branch out, to be my own boss. So I looked for some line of business that wouldn’t require a major investment — because I didn’t have any money to invest.”
Fish seemed like a good choice. As a product with a very quick turnover, it wouldn’t require major storage facilities or long-term investments before money came in. And since fresh fish isn’t processed, it wouldn’t require an extensive kashrus protocol — another money-saving measure.
A store on Kingston Avenue was available for rent. (Until today, the sign still lists the pre-area code phone number, beginning with “SL 6”). But the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “who was more like a father than a rebbe to me,” Berel says, “told me to add the words ‘with option to buy’ to my lease. This way I’d have the first right to buy it when the time came.”
And he was also assured of at least one loyal customer: The Rebbe’s home received a weekly fish order from Berel Raskin’s new store.
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