2011-04-21 / 15 Minutes

Chabad center and David’s deli provide food of faith and healing

BY MARY JANE FINE


Top: The deli is open just to members of the Chabad, but to join one only has to make a token donation, says Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui. Above and below left: Pickles and corned beef are standard offerings at David’s Eastside Deli. The eight days of Passover are busy for the chefs, helpers and Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui and his wife Chani. Top: The deli is open just to members of the Chabad, but to join one only has to make a token donation, says Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui. Above and below left: Pickles and corned beef are standard offerings at David’s Eastside Deli. The eight days of Passover are busy for the chefs, helpers and Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui and his wife Chani. Around the corner from the faux New York street signs (Delancey, Canal and Essex), past the five foil-covered aluminum roasting pans (a brisket in each), beyond the quartet of gleaming Blodgett ovens (empty at the moment), David’s Eastside Deli is in full pre- Passover mode.

A giant stock pot sits full-to-therim with sliced carrots, white potatoes and chunks of beef. A plateful of lamb shank bones rests on a countertop. A row of cut sweet potatoes lies ready to be transformed into kugel.

The days leading up to Pesach are busy ones for Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui and his wife Chani. This is a countdown day to the week-long holiday that began at sundown on April 18 and recalls the flight from Egypt and freedom from slavery for the Jews.


COURTESY PHOTOS COURTESY PHOTOS “The food is important,” says Chani Ezagui, who oversees the kitchen operation here in the basement of the Chabad Lubavitch Palm Beach in North Palm Beach. “It’s about good memories, and it helps people connect with the past. That’s what holidays are all about.”

David’s Eastside Deli has its own memory connections. It was named for Chani’s Uncle David and for New York City’s Lower East Side, which was home to thousands of working-class Jewish immigrants, beginning in the mid-19th century. For a year and a half, the Deli had a storefront in PGA Commons. “It was a phenomenal development in the community at the time,” the rabbi says, “but it just didn’t work out, for the very simple reason, there just wasn’t enough business.”

In its present location, the Deli serves a specific clientele — and a higher

purpose than merely filling bellies with knishes and blintzes and corned beef on rye. “It’s not a store for everybody,” Rabbi Ezagui says. “It’s not open to the public. Just members of the Chabad. But we don’t make it difficult to become a member, just a token donation to the center.” It is also a place that reminds Jews of who they are and why their identity matters. “It serves the purpose of strengthening awareness,” he says. “Part of our overall mission is to make available Judaism to the general Jewish public.”

Passover, Pesach in Yiddish, is a good time for that. The Jewish holidays, the Jewish holy days, are often the days when less-observant Jews seek to reconnect with their faith. “The run-ofthe mill Jews, when a holiday comes,

they get a little excited,” Rabbi Ezagui says. “There’s a big problem over here. While the Jewish population is relatively strong, the affiliation is very, very weak. We would like to see the leadership do something about that. There is a weakness of Jewish awareness and affiliation. That’s our role.”

If the rabbi and his wife are distressed that their fellow Jews are less observant than they might wish, it is not something they express openly. Critical judgment is not their role. The Center’s Web site puts it this way: “Chabad does not recognize the labels of Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew — period. We have gotten too carried away with the adjectives — the noun is universal — Jew. We have one Torah, we are one People. . .”

Schlomo and Chani Ezagui established the Chabad Center in 1987, when they came to northern Palm Beach County from Brooklyn, N.Y. A few years ago, when the rabbi opened David’s Eastside Deli in PGA Commons, it was a different enterprise.

“In the Commons, it was a store to make money,” the rabbi says. “There is nothing else kosher in this entire, huge area.” He gestures with both arms to encompass North Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter and Juno Beach. Around him in the Chabad’s library are books whose spines bear Hebrew lettering, encyclopedias and histories and religious tomes. And here, in English, is Maurice Lamm’s “Becoming a Jew” and Pamela Reeves’ “Ellis Island” Gateway to the American Dream” and the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Now, the Deli occupies its portion of the Chabad. In these days before Passover, and during the holiday week, the Deli’s ice-cream-parlor chrome-back chairs are lined up in two neat rows, its pedestal tables burdened with cartons full of wire whisks and spatulas and slotted spoons and ladles, with napkins for Passover with Star-of-David prints. The faux-wood floor tiles are polished to a high gloss. The focus is on Passover orders, the chefs and their helpers working, says the rabbi’s wife, round the clock.

The most frequent request just now: matzo ball soup. But also tzimmis and brisket and chopped liver and gefilte fish and matzo-apple kugel. The whole megilah.

Oh, and there’s this: hand-baked matzoh. From Israel. From the Ukraine. The rabbi and his wife give the matzoh away, no charge, to anyone who doesn’t have matzoh for Passover. “It’s very, very special,” Chani Ezagui says. “It’s the food of faith, the food of healing. Because whatever you do spiritually, it has an effect physically. There’s a connection between the spiritual and the physical.

“The matzoh is flat. It represents humility. The matzoh has nothing in it. It’s not about ‘me,’ it’s about something else. God can only dwell in someone humble . . .When we put away ourselves and rely on God, only then can we go forward.”

So, yes, this is a serious time and a serious place. But it is not a place without humor. One has only to click on DavidsEastSideDeli.com to know that: background music from the CD “Mickey Katz’s Greatest Shticks.” Yes, THAT Mickey Katz, the comedian, the song-parody guy, the — who knew? — father of Joel Grey. So, there on the Web site, Katz is singing “16 Tons” to the tune of the Tennessee Ernie Ford version, but with its own very Katzian lyrics:

“Oh, I went to woyk in a delicatessen Far draysik toler [for $30] and plenty to fresn [gorge] The balebast [head cook] promised me a real gedila [glory/ honor] Instead of gedila I catched me a kila [hernia].” The days of Passover end early next week — a seven-day observance for some, eight days for others — and the Deli will return to its tables-and-chairs self. Until then, the rabbi and his wife will continue handing out the very, very special matzoh and offering their wish to every visitor, “Have a Happy Passover. Be Well.” ¦

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