Personal Essay as Homage: Rubin’s Deli, 1928-2016

by Alisa Wolf

RubinsDeliIn 2010, Agni Online published my essay “Lokshen Kugel.” It was an homage to Rubin’s kosher deli in Brookline, Massachusetts and my great aunt, Bessie Cohen, who worked in the kitchen there for most of her adult life. I haven’t eaten at Rubin’s in more than a decade. But when it closed its doors for good on Friday, August 5, 2016, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that I will never order a Rubin’s pastrami sandwich again.

The deli opened in 1928 (or 1927, by some news accounts). It featured a corned beef sandwich for 15 cents, and, for 25 cents, on Thursday and Friday only, “Ho-Made Gefilte Fish.” That typo from a menu posted on the deli’s Facebook page must have been fixed—and the menu updated repeatedly—by the time my father started bringing my sister and me there in the 1960s. But there was still corned beef and gefilte fish, English spoken with a Yiddish lilt, and jokes whose sensibility I didn’t get. In all these ways Rubin’s was an exotic locale that did as much to form my ideas about the old world—namely Vilnia, Lithuania, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries —as my Nana’s Shabbos candles and gooey taiglach did.

RubinsMenu croppedI had plenty of colorful details to draw on for my essay. But I didn’t want Auntie Bessie to come off as a caricature. The family already regarded her as something of an oddball. The adults couldn’t resist making jokes behind her back about the way she doted on her husband, feeding him a special diet that seemed to consist entirely of milk, spinach, and toast, and the well-known fact that he wore a truss under his shirt and vest to keep his hernia from popping out. I laughed too.

But Auntie Bessie and Uncle Irving were both there for me when I was floundering in my early twenties. No matter when I dropped by their Brookline apartment, they welcomed me. Uncle Irving took an interest in my various jobs and political opinions, while Auntie Bessie warmed up a meal for me in the kitchen. I protested that I wasn’t hungry, but I always ate.

I struggled to do justice to Auntie Bessie on the page. I wanted to show how strange she seemed to me when I was a kid but also how vital my connection to her was. Yet so much about Auntie Bessie lent itself to stereotype. The whole Jewish food motif is practically a cliché. The “oy veys” and Jewish guilt—Auntie Bessie embodied them all. But she was also a real person. Someone I loved.

In this essay, caricature came first. Only after prodding the broad outlines did the nuances come out. I worked on many drafts, especially of the first paragraph. I wanted to ground Auntie Bessie in a particular time and place, to show her in her element. The rhythm of our meals at the deli, the tone of the adult conversation, how the food looked and tasted—getting these details right seemed essential to conveying Auntie Bessie as a fully realized character and myself as a flawed narrator whose view was decidedly objective.

Because the original deli moved in 1981 to roomier digs down the street, I couldn’t go back there to check the accuracy of my memories. But the essay wasn’t about a building, or even a way of life. It was, I discovered, about my uneasiness with the Jewish culture I was born into, which worked against a deep desire to connect with it. This ambivalence underlies the relationship between the character I called “Auntie Bessie” and the character based on me. It’s there in the way I flaunt my knowledge of the Yiddish term for noodle pudding—lokshen kugel—only to crave pizza and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese when Auntie Bessie serves her traditional dishes. It’s in the way my frizzy curls and olive skin reflect the shtetl culture embodied by Rubin’s, which on the one hand gives me a sense of belonging there and on the other, feeds my jealousy of my blonde, straight-haired sister. It’s in the tension between my fantasy of a close traditional family, exemplified by the older generation of Rubins, and the dissolution of my own family, as my parents find new partners after their divorce and my sister moves away. It’s in the way I show up at Auntie Bessie’s door in my disheveled, “hippie chick gone ’80s punk” outfit, none too happy with myself and just a little worried about how she’ll view me. But when she answers my ring, I get what I came for: a greeting and embrace that convey how glad she is to see me, no matter what state I’m in.

Toward the end of her life, I got to know Auntie Bessie better, as one adult to another. One of the regrets she shared with me was that she never had kids. Who, she wondered, would say the Jewish prayer of remembrance—the Kaddish—for her when she died? In the essay, I hold her hand and mourn my own road not taken. Because by now I know that I’m not going to be a traditional Jewish housewife—a baleboste—and mother. But because of Auntie Bessie’s example and unwavering love, it’s okay.

I can’t say how Auntie Bessie actually felt when these scenes occurred in real life. I depicted her as honestly as I could. I can only hope I’ve done her justice. Or at the very least, that in employing her to bring clarity to my own questions about who I once was and the choices I once made, I’ve drawn her in all her complex humanity, not as a caricature.

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AlisaWolf_May Alisa Wolf’s work has appeared in Agni Online, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

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