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Kizerman and Feigenbaum
January/February 2015

"I’ve lots of regulars but maybe the strangest are two guys, Harold Kizerman and Morrie Feigenbaum." (illustrations by Ellie Foreman-Peck)

Some people, including maybe even my kids, probably consider me a flop. I lasted less than a year in college, at Drake in Iowa, and went into the family business, the only member of the third generation in our family to do so. My older brother Arnie is a successful dentist, specialising in root canals. Carol, my younger sister, is a partner in the family-law firm of Levin, Feldman, and Engel. After working 14 years at Rappaport's, our family's delicatessen, some say the last authentic one in Chicago, on Broadway two blocks north of Belmont, I took over the business after my dad died, and have been running it ever since, a total of 32 years in all.

Started by our grandfather and featuring my grandmother's soup and fish recipes, Rappaport's was originally on Kedzie, just off Lawrence. Following the migration of the Jews northward across Chicago, the deli moved under my dad's management to West Rogers Park, at the corner of California and Devon. When the Jews in West Rogers Park moved again, this time mostly to the northern suburbs, and Indians and Pakistanis moved in along with a community of ultra-Orthodox, who consider most of the food I serve treyf, I moved the restaurant to its present location. We're not setting the world on fire, but we do a steady business. Steady enough to have sent my two girls to college — Naomi to Miami of Ohio, Sheryl to Dennison, also in Ohio — and to keep a condo in Boca Raton, where Bobby, my late wife, who died of cervical cancer three years ago, used to stay through most of the winter. I've been thinking about unloading the Boca place, since I myself can't get away for more than a week or so at a time. You run a restaurant, you need to be on the premises: greeting people, kicking ass, worrying. Believe me, I know.

I've never regretted going into the family business. My brother stands there all day, jabbing away at dead nerves in people's mouths, my sister further inflames angry women to get the most out of men they once loved. In running a good deli I'm providing a service. People come into my place with clear and specific wants, and I'm able to satisfy them. We won't include here those occasional mumzers who dedicate themselves to giving my waitresses and me a hard time.

To accommodate diet-conscious women customers, I've had to add "The Liter Side" to my menu, which is mostly salads and egg-white omelettes. My dad used to say that the only green thing allowed in a Jewish deli should be a dill pickle. Cholesterol is another big worry. The other day a woman asks me if there is any cholesterol in our pastrami. It was all I could do not to tell her she shouldn't worry, we've managed to trap all the cholesterol between the fat and the grease. She ordered a Caesar salad. Chiefly, though, people come in for the old Jewish staples: the soups (mushroom-barley, chicken matzoball and kreplach, cold borscht, lentil, split pea), the brisket and corned-beef and salami, the white fish and flounder, the cheese cake and strudels and rugelach.

The people left who enjoy these things, who grew up on them, are no longer kids. Some days I look around at my customers and feel I'm not running a restaurant but a nursing home. I've had to keep the aisles wide to allow for customers on walkers. I've got a number of elderly men and women, regulars, coming in with Filipina caregivers. Also men who eat wearing caps that show they fought in World War Two. Occasionally they'll bring in their grandchildren, or, more accurately, their grandchildren will bring them in.

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