It's Christmas Eve and Paddy Kelly is on his
way home from work at the Post Office. He stops at Rosen's Deli and orders a
brisket of beef sandwich on pumpernickel rye with a smear of horseradish and a
"new" kosher pickle on the side.
Ever since he came from Ireland to Chicago
years ago, Paddy has preferred the "new" kosher pickle to the standard kosher
pickle because it's crunchier, he says. It's more like a cucumber, he told his
wife, because it isn't cured as long as the standard kosher pickle. He loves
the sound as he bites into one, a sound he magnifies whenever he brings his
wife to Rosen's. Maggie Kelly likes the new pickle but doesn't like the sound
of Paddy chomping on it in public.
"I'll take a potato latke, too, Sol," Paddy
says to Mr. Rosen, the proprietor of the deli and eldest son of a rabbi killed
at the Treblinka Concentration Camp by the Nazis during World War II. Sol was
the only survivor in his family. His parents and four siblings were gassed at
Treblinka. At 76 Sol has now almost come to grips with the murders except on
Jewish holidays when everything about the Treblinka camp dashes back into his
mind. If it weren't for the American soldiers getting there on time, he would
have gone to the gas chamber as well.
"You want coffee now Paddy?" Sol says,
stationed in his white apron at the big silver urn, cup in hand. The apron is a
patchwork of all the condiments Sol has dispensed during his long day. Mustard
stains are particularly hard to get out, according to Mrs. Rosen, a tiny woman,
who reminds Sol of that whenever she's behind the counter helping out.
"Coffee later, Sol, with a piece of
cheesecake. No dinner tonight. Maggie's not feeling well. I'll eat here and
take noodle soup to go. I hope she'll feel better in the morning. She'd never
forgive herself if she's too sick to go to Mass on Christmas Day."
It's always quiet on Christmas Eve at Rosen's
Deli but this time it's quieter than usual. Two regulars, Ruben Cohen and Ruben
Goldberg, are the only other customers They are sitting on their usual thrones
at the counter, with an empty throne between them, facing each other in almost
matching fedoras and arguing as always about the definition of certain Yiddish
Cohen and Goldberg have been arguing about the
fine points - and not so fine points - of the Yiddish language for years with
no sign of detente. Right now, the argument is over whether "kunilemel" and
"shmendreck" are Yiddish synonyms - or not. Ruben Cohen says it's worse to be
called a shmendreck than a kunilemel and Ruben Goldberg maintains that is not
"They're both the same, Cohen!" Goldberg
proclaims, prior to a slurp of coffee.
"Are you telling me you'd just as soon be
called a shmendreck as a kunilemel," Cohen yells at Goldberg.
If a selection had to be made, Goldberg would
probably be judged the scholar of the two in that he usually completes the
crossword puzzle in the Chicago Sun-Times in half an hour. Cohen, on the other
hand, is currently a cab driver with a degree in accounting. He's between jobs,
which is usually the case for Ruben Cohen, and he hasn't got time for crossword
puzzles. But he'll do your taxes accurately for a lot less than H&R
"Time is money," Cohen says to Goldberg as he
heads for the door. "I got no time for crossword puzzles on Christmas Eve. I'll
be getting quite a few fares for Midnight Mass. It's tough for the old-timers
to walk a few blocks. Ask Kelly over there. He'll tell you that's the
Paddy Kelly, in the meantime, is lost in
thought as he finishes his cheesecake and coffee and walks up to pay his tab at
the front of the store. Once again Sol is there wrestling with his ancient
register. Some days it works and some days it doesn't. Sol shakes it at least
three times before putting in a call to the repairman. On Christmas Eve, the
charge would be higher and it's high enough, Sol says, on regular days.
"How's Mrs. Rosen, Sol?," Paddy asks. "Haven't
seen her in weeks."
"Cancer, Paddy," Sol says. "They operate next
week. Things don't look good. The docs say everything depends on what they
find. Up until now she's had good health for a woman her age."
Paddy has no idea what to say. He knows
Minerva Rosen better than Sol. Years ago it was Minerva Rosen who handed him
his first new pickle. And then she gave him his first knish. Two days after
that, she brought over his first steaming bowl of sweet and sour cabbage soup.
Paddy had eaten a lot of cabbage in Ireland
but nothing as delicious as Mrs. Rosen's sweet and sour cabbage soup. He always
comes in for a bowl on St. Patrick's Day before heading to the party at the
Knights of Columbus Hall.
The Rosens cater that event every year. For
weeks afterward arguments continue among the guests, most of them immigrants
from Ireland, as to which corned beef is better--Rosen's kosher corned beef or
the version they ate on holidays back in Ireland, provided their families could
afford it. Otherwise they ate boiled cabbage and potatoes with a piece of pork
tossed in for flavoring.
Paddy has always preferred Rosen's corned beef
but he would never risk his life by saying so in front of the other
"Sol, at church tomorrow, Maggie and I will
pray hard for Mrs. Rosen. I hope to God the surgery works. Sometimes praying is
all that anyone can do."
"I know," Sol says as the register finally
springs open. "You have a good Christmas, Paddy, and we'll see what the doctors
say next week. The best to you and Maggie."