Ashke­naz Deli, from the Dig­i­tal Research Library of Illi­nois His­to­ry (drloi​hjour​nal​.blogspot​.com)

When I was ten years old my par­ents would often take me and my broth­ers and sis­ter to Ashke­naz Del­i­catessen in Chica­go. It was quite a place, famous for its corned beef, fried kre­plach, and fresh blue­ber­ry blintzes, a land­mark for authen­tic Jew­ish food that dat­ed back to 1910, when Russ­ian immi­grants George and Ada Ashke­naz first opened their doors to the Jews liv­ing in and around Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

What I remem­ber most about the deli is the pow­er­ful aro­mas that wrapped around you like a warm blan­ket when you stepped in the door: gar­lic, corned beef, pas­tra­mi, chopped liv­er, and dill pick­les. I always ordered a humon­gous corned beef and chopped liv­er sand­wich. What a delight it was try­ing to fin­ish it. My dad had a plate of the fried kre­plach; my moth­er had the matzah ball soup. She would offer each of us a bite. The matzah ball was as warm as her smile.

The Ashke­naz Deli seemed to pro­vide com­fort and pro­tec­tion against an unpre­dictable world. Sit­ting among the clat­ter­ing of dish­es and the famil­iar rhythms of the bois­ter­ous, accent­ed con­ver­sa­tions, the deli gave our fam­i­ly a point of con­nec­tion. For my broth­ers and sis­ter, my mom and dad and grand­par­ents — good Jew­ish food was some­thing we all enjoyed. We would argue sports and pol­i­tics as we devoured the del­i­ca­cies on our plates.

There was always a crush of cus­tomers fight­ing to get into line next to the glow­ing meat counter. It was quite a sight watch­ing old Jew­ish ladies elbow­ing their way to the counter to place their orders, each with her own strat­e­gy to cut in front of the line. Of course, each one of them had a loaf of Jew­ish rye tucked under her arm when she left.

The three or four counter men kept up a con­stant stream of chat­ter as they sliced corned beef, pas­tra­mi, and sala­mi, their voic­es loud above the hum of the meat slicer. One of the men behind the counter was the own­er. His bald head glis­tened in the flu­o­res­cent lights, and his thick black frame glass­es made his eyes huge as he mon­i­tored every move­ment in his deli. Like a flash he would scur­ry to a table to urge the bus­boys to move faster so he could seat the cus­tomers form­ing a line at the door.

There were three old men who always sat at a small table in the back. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They appeared as three char­ac­ters out of an Isaac. Bashe­vis. Singer sto­ry. While we wait­ed in line to occu­py the next avail­able table, I stud­ied their every move­ment. They were always lost in con­ver­sa­tion, and they rarely looked up. They were imper­vi­ous to the clat­ter. Some­times I could hear snip­pets of their ani­mat­ed exchanges. Once I heard them dis­cuss their now defunct shul, and I learned that one of the men was a rab­bi, the oth­er a retired can­tor. The third old man remained a mys­tery. In the win­ter, all three were wrapped in heavy coats. Once in a while they would pep­per their dis­cus­sion with Yid­dish words, which I didn’t under­stand. With each new bit of infor­ma­tion I gath­ered I became more and more intrigued. One of the men was a real kvetch. His com­plaints were usu­al­ly accen­tu­at­ed with quick, ner­vous hand ges­tures. He com­plained about any­thing: the weath­er, the slow ser­vice, the noisy crowd. The oth­er two men, obvi­ous­ly used to their friend’s con­stant grous­ing, ignored it. It was fun­ny to watch them.

I have thought about these old men for the last six­ty years. I didn’t want to let go of them. I made them part of my fam­i­ly. Why did they have such an impact on me, a ten-year-old boy? I don’t know. Over the years, my mem­o­ry of them has fad­ed. Their faces have van­ished, the sound of their voic­es has grown weak­er and less dis­tinct. I grew wor­ried that these three old men would dis­ap­pear entire­ly, that their sto­ries and their lives would be lost. I wrote a sto­ry called Who’s the Old Crone?” in order to call them back into exis­tence, as vivid and col­or­ful as they were six­ty years ago, even if they now live only on the page. I hope the mem­o­ry of the deli and the three old men stays alive in the heart of any­one who reads Who’s the Old Crone?” Is my retelling of their sto­ry accu­rate? Well, it’s my sto­ry, and I am stick­ing to it!

What fol­lows is an excerpt show­ing how I reimag­ined the three old men of the Ashke­naz Deli, cir­ca 1960:

And what a group they were: Rab­bi Fid­dle­man, an intense and pre­cise man who was prone to fits of iras­ci­bil­i­ty, with imp­ish, sparkling eyes and per­fect­ly formed ears that seemed a gift from the Almighty him­self. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, as some­times hap­pens in this life, when the Pow­ers That Be decide to have a laugh at our expense, some­one pays a dear price. In this case, it was the rab­bi who was the butt of the heav­en­ly joke — Fiddleman’s ears were all show, only the left one retained any acu­ity, which forced him to cock his head awk­ward­ly to the right and thrust his left ear for­ward to hear a word any­one said. Many of his for­mer con­gre­gants sur­mised that this dif­fi­cult and tax­ing maneu­ver account­ed for the rabbi’s peri­od­ic crank­i­ness. Rab­bi Fid­dle­man was a schol­ar of the old school; he was exact­ing in his appli­ca­tion of Jew­ish law but ren­dered his opin­ions with a just and kind heart. Thus, his judg­ments, as well as his advice, which he dis­pensed lib­er­al­ly, were accept­ed by his fol­low­ers with­out grum­bling. The rab­bi always wore a silk kip­pah atop his close­ly cropped gray hair and tzitz­it under his dusty jack­et and held court each day in Schwartzman’s with his two fol­low­ers — Pin­cus Eisen­berg and Mendel Nachman.

Eisen­berg, Rab­bi Fiddleman’s loy­al sex­ton for over fifty years, could always be found at Fiddleman’s left shoul­der. This gave Eisen­berg unfet­tered access to the rabbi’s best, only half-deaf ear, which he filled with a con­tin­u­ous series of com­plaints. Pinkus was nick­named the Kvetch, a moniker he earned when he was just a tod­dler in Brasov, Roma­nia. The then col­icky Pinkus, named after his father’s father accord­ing to tra­di­tion, was descend­ed from a long and dis­tin­guished line of rab­bini­cal schol­ars and, con­sid­ered a child prodi­gy by his dot­ing par­ents, was expect­ed to sur­pass the accom­plish­ments of his eru­dite pre­de­ces­sors. One morn­ing, the tod­dler Pinkus, still at his mother’s breast at a year and a half, was observ­ing the world from his cra­dle and exhibit­ing ear­ly, tell­tale signs of his life­long cyn­i­cism — a fur­rowed brow and pierc­ing stare. It was from this cra­dle that Pinkus uttered his first words. As the sto­ry goes, Pinkus, on that cold, drea­ry morn­ing, was hold­ing his ample bel­ly and groan­ing from his crib, mak­ing every effort to per­suade his fraz­zled moth­er to come and feed him. But, dis­tract­ed by her many house­hold duties, she took longer than usu­al to respond to the increas­ing­ly hun­gry and impa­tient Pinkus. Final­ly, her hands free, the har­ried moth­er approached with lov­ing, out­stretched arms to gath­er up the now apoplec­tic child. Pinkus fur­rowed his brow, puck­ered his pudgy lips, and moaned his very first words to his aston­ished and proud moth­er, Oy vey … what took so long?” And the Kvetch was born.

For the next eighty plus years, com­plaints rolled off his tongue: There’s not enough onion in my chopped liv­er,” he would wail at Schwartz­man as he devoured great quan­ti­ties of the spe­cial recipe. What, no heat … it’s so cold,” he would snif­fle to any­one close at hand as he shiv­ered in his seat with his fedo­ra pulled down to his ears, his over­coat col­lar turned up, and his gold-rimmed pince-nez perched on the tip of his red, drip­ping nose.“The borscht … not enough cream,” he would belch after gulp­ing prodi­gious quan­ti­ties of the chilled soup, and so on. It was said the brainy Eisen­berg could kvetch flu­ent­ly in sev­en lan­guages. That the rab­bi still befriend­ed the touchy sex­ton and endured with a stiff upper lip Eisenberg’s grous­ing over the many years was tes­ti­mo­ny to Rab­bi Fiddleman’s patience, his unbend­ing faith in a Supreme Pow­er, and, most impor­tant­ly, his ever-increas­ing deafness.

The third, and no less col­or­ful, mem­ber of the break­fast club was Mendel Nach­man. A notably small man, Nach­man had a long, pres­ti­gious career as can­tor at the Roman­ian syn­a­gogue. Because of his pow­er­ful and per­fect­ly pitched voice, at one time Nach­man was men­tioned in the same breath as the great Yos­se­le Rosen­blatt. How can such a small man have such a pow­er­ful voice?” every­one asked after hear­ing the diminu­tive Nach­man sing. Such a big voice com­ing from such a small man is proof the Almighty graced Nach­man with a spe­cial bless­ing,” was the obvi­ous answer.

On fes­ti­vals and hol­i­days, Jews from every part of the city packed into every avail­able cor­ner of the shul to hear the mas­ter and sat trans­fixed as they lis­tened with tight­ly closed eyes, absorb­ing the rich bari­tone com­ing from the resplen­dent Nach­man. His pow­er­ful voice would spill into the street, and any­one who hap­pened by was drawn into the over­crowd­ed syn­a­gogue to see for them­selves who brought forth such music. As he sang, Nachman’s face glowed like a Sab­bath can­dle. Women in par­tic­u­lar sin­gled out the bach­e­lor Nach­man for effu­sive praise and lis­tened to his songs with noth­ing short of rapture.

But now Nachman’s light was extin­guished, and he sat depressed each morn­ing in Schwartzman’s, rarely utter­ing a sound. The mas­ter of song had become mute. What hap­pened to the cantor?

Nachman’s grad­ual decline began almost two years before the syn­a­gogue was closed. After fifty years of pro­fes­sion­al singing, he began to strug­gle to hit the high notes, notes that before he had found with ease. At first, Nach­man shrugged it off and attrib­uted his dif­fi­cul­ty to the onset of a cold. After all, didn’t the Fes­ti­val of Lights arrive at a time of the year when every­one was cough­ing and sneez­ing?” he reas­sured him­self while sip­ping gal­lons of hot tea, gar­gling glass after glass of salt water, and wrap­ping his neck with warm tow­els to soothe his throat. The hope that his prob­lem was tem­po­rary, that it would be only a mat­ter of time, just a few days real­ly, before he would be at his best once again, gave Nach­man some com­fort. But then, much to his hor­ror, he found that he strug­gled to hold notes. His breath­ing, once con­trolled and deep, the source of his pow­er­ful sound, now felt errat­ic and shal­low. His once rich­ly lay­ered voice was shrill and thin as parch­ment. This decline left him despon­dent. The cantor’s con­fi­dence melt­ed away like ice in spring.

Over the next sev­er­al months, things for Nach­man went from bad to worse. As his voice dimin­ished week by week, Nach­man became more and more des­per­ate. He spent his days in his small, rich­ly fur­nished apart­ment pac­ing with wor­ry and prac­tic­ing for hours. But no mat­ter the amount of prac­tice, he con­tin­ued his steady decline. Then, one day, Miss Hep­en­heimer, the dried-up old bit­ty who lived two doors down, rapped on his door. The old lady, with a bony, mas­cu­line face and a low, coarse voice to match, imme­di­ate­ly lit into Nach­man, bran­dish­ing two knit­ting nee­dles and snarling about the off-key war­bling” that grat­ed on her nerves, mak­ing the short time she had left in this life a liv­ing hell. Nach­man, too stunned to respond, stood mute in the door­way hold­ing his teacup, his throat swathed in warm tow­els, until the old woman wea­ried and, after one last men­ac­ing shake of a knit­ting nee­dle, took her leave.

Everyone’s a crit­ic,” he mut­tered to himself.