Posts Tagged 'Delicatessen'

The Deli Man

This is to remind you that the Yahrzeit of Morris Rothenberg will be observed on March 22, 2019.

The letter startled me as I had forgotten that my father had died in March. The letter went on to say that the annual Yahrzeit commemorates his death and commands me to say the Kaddish prayer, light a twenty-four-hour candle, and make a contribution to a worthy cause.

The Yiddish word Yahrzeit, of German origin, literally means anniversary time. I have no trouble pinpointing the year of my father’s death since it was in the same year that the Chicago Bears last won the Super Bowl. Perhaps their hapless attempts and failures since then are merely god’s little joke that perpetuates my ability to remember his passing. The Bears will, I’m sure, graciously continue their incompetent streak until I’m gone from this earth. Something to root for.

My father escaped the pogroms of the Soviet Union, fled to the promised land and worked hard to provide for his family. Never well-to-do, he did what was needed without complaint. He savored the little pleasures that were to him miraculous, given what he had known back in his Ukrainian shtetl.

His first job in Chicago was as a “puller.” Barely knowing any English, he would stand outside a men’s Maxwell Street clothing store and shout at passersby, “Hey, come in, good deal.” His attempts at “pulling” men into the store were sometimes accompanied by the removal of the unsuspecting man’s hat and tossing it through the open door into the store. My dad was small, and I’m surprised he survived that affront without at least a black eye. I guess he did whatever was needed to make a buck.

By the time I arrived in our crowded Albany Park apartment, Morris was in the deli business. First as a counter man at the Purity Delicatessen on Chicago’s Lawrence Avenue. The Purity was anything but. His stories about its cleanliness and treatment of customers would not survive today’s health department inspections. My favorite anecdotes involved clever ways of freeing up tables from those who had overstayed their welcome. A rat’s demise caused by a fall into the deep fat fryer was no reason to change the already overburdened oil.

By the time I was five or six, he had partnered with two other deli-tested guys, Ben and Morrie. They bought Oberman’s Delicatessen on Howard Street near the “L” and sold corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw and potato salad prepared by my mother, and other Jewish delights that make a deli a deli. They had no employees, regularly enlisted their wives’ help, and worked long hours.

Each of the three partners had one day off every week and every third Sunday. For as long as I can remember, Wednesday was my dad’s day off. Since I was in school on Wednesdays, my only extended time with him occurred every third Sunday. Much of that valuable time was spent lying next to my dad on a day bed in the dining room listening to Sunday afternoon radio programs.

We listened to Nick Carter, Master Detective. Then on to The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and created by Dashiell Hammett for the Maltese Falcon. And, my favorite, The Shadow with its chill provoking opening lines spoken by Frank Readick, Jr. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow may have known many things, but I remember little, other than the warmth of my father’s body and his hand on my shoulder. It was enough to permanently etch the memory of Sunday afternoons in my mind.

Gifts were not big on our agenda. Birthdays often passed with little notice. An exception occurred in my ninth year. My father came home on the first day of Chanukah with a large cardboard box. In it was a potpourri of toys, all used. An electric train took center stage, even though it had but one car and only enough tracks to complete a small circle. I watched the train circumnavigate the circle a thousand times. There were also two toy telegraph sending units that did nothing but click when you depressed the key. Because it had the Morse Code imprinted on the housing, I learned how to send an SOS. No one came to my rescue; but I didn’t need rescuing from anything, especially from my father.

Not schooled in any formal way, he wrote beautifully. He added up columns of numbers with lightning speed on the brown paper bags that Oberman’s customers took home laden with their corned beef, rye bread and dill pickles. He was an accomplished card player who fancied four-handed pinochle and ten-cent poker. He wasn’t a pushover. He never spanked me, and I never heard him fight with my mother who he loved dearly for nearly sixty years. I owe my own generosity, honesty and work ethic to him. Not because of what he said but because of what he did.

He suffered the ravages of old age including macular degeneration. I’d watch him sit sideways at the TV, viewing his beloved White Sox through the corner of his eye. Baseball was the only sport played slowly enough to allow him to reasonably focus on the images on the screen.

I missed my flight back to Los Angeles that day in 1986 when I overstayed my time in his hospital room. I kissed him good-bye. It was the last time I saw him.

I will celebrate his Yahrzeit next week by remembering what he did for me and for others. And by remembering how much I loved him. He was truly a mensch for all ages.


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