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Skokie, Ill., Has Great Bagels — And An Even Better Story Behind Them

May 16, 2018

When my mother passed away in Sarasota, Fla., my sisters and I had 48 hours to pack up her condo and book it back to our hometown of Skokie, Ill., for her funeral. Embarking on a road trip together across six states, we could only fixate on one thing: Kaufman's bagels and trays for the shiva (the Jewish tradition of seven days of mourning after burial). When it came to our mother's shiva, my sisters and I held a long-standing promise to invest in the best bagels and trays at all cost.

There was just one problem: It was Passover, when Jews celebrate the great Exodus out of Egypt. As we careened toward our own personal Promised Land, we worried that Kaufman's, a famous 50-year-old kosher-style deli and Skokie institution on Dempster Street, would be closed for the holiday. After much begging and pleading over the phone, Kaufman's came through with its grand fish and deli meat trays featuring the finest Nova lox, thinly sliced corned beef, tuna salad, gefilte fish, chive cream cheese, herring, sturgeon, sable, egg salad, chopped liver, black olives and salty pickles.

But according to Jewish law, Jews are not allowed to eat bread over Passover in honor of those who fled Egypt before their bread could rise, so Kaufman's put the kibosh on bagels, much to our dismay. As grieving daughters, the need for bagels as a comfort food at our mom's shiva trumped any sort of allegiance to the Jewish laws of Passover. Suddenly, we had a bagel crisis on our hands.

Nearing Skokie limits, we put in a frantic call to New York Bagel & Bialy Corporation on Touhy Avenue, a Jewish delicatessen and bagel shop with locations in Skokie and neighboring Lincolnwood, and explained our situation. An assured voice on the line replied, "We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We never close. Never." My sisters and I breathed a collective sigh of relief, knowing that Skokie, "the world's largest village" just 15 minutes north of Chicago off the the Eden's Expressway, would not fail us as Chicagoland's ultimate spot for Jewish food.

Why Skokie? The town lives and breathes the story of Jewish survival, thanks to its history as a hub for Holocaust survivors in the post-World War II era. Kaufman's owner Bette Dworkin explains, "Kaufman's was started by a survivor [Maury Kaufman] and when my family bought it in '84, the bulk of the staff were survivors, with numbers on their arms [tattoos used as identification in Nazi concentration camps during WWII]. There was the largest per capita number of survivors in Skokie for any community in the country [...] Kaufman's was a hangout for survivors."

In the 1950s, Holocaust survivors arrived in Chicago seeking the embrace of an expanding and centuries-old Jewish community, with many settling in West Rogers Park. But the nearby suburb of Skokie, with relatively inexpensive plots, better schools, and a fast track to the city with the newly built Eden's Expressway in 1951 and the Chicago Transit Authority's "Skokie Swift" in 1964, attracted young Jewish families seeking more room and a better life.

Skokie synagogues sprouted alongside Jewish delis and quirky diners like Sam & Hy's and Barnum & Bagel on Dempster Street. In the late 1970s, when Nazis attempted to march in the predominantly Jewish suburb, Skokie became a hub of resistance against Nazi extremism. By the mid-'90s, when I was in high school, Jews made up nearly half of Skokie's population of approximately 80,000. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, an estimated 8,000 Holocaust survivors called Skokie home.

Robbie Scher, manager of New York Bagel & Bialy, takes immense pride in his shop's bagel legacy. "Back in 1962, there really weren't that many decent places for bagels. ... We've never been a kosher bakery, but what we do is a true New York bagel. A lot of people don't boil [bagels], they just bake it, but we boil, which gives it the shine, puffs it up and gives it that unique flavor with that crisp crust. It's just a good bagel, and that's what we do." Scher estimates that New York Bagel & Bialy easily produces 2 to 3 million bagels a year as one of the main wholesale bagel suppliers in the region.

Contrary to popular belief, it's more than just New York water that makes a bagel taste best. It's really just an undying commitment to the boiling process, and both Kaufman's and New York Bagel & Bialy honor it religiously.

Kaufman's owner Dworkin believes a good bagel is bound by ritual and process. Whether eaten warm out of the oven with a little butter, or toasted with a schmear of Nova lox, chive cream cheese, and thinly sliced onion, cucumber and tomato, a bagel "is not a bread doughnut!" as Dworkin notes. "It should be dense, it should be crusty, it should be chewy."

Dating back to 17th century Eastern Europe, the bagel has become synonymous with the story of Jewish struggle and survival itself. Representing the circle of life, the bagel embodies the mystic — and we simply don't know who we'd be without a warm bagel embrace during life's most sacred occasions, from bris (circumcision) to shiva.

Just like the Jewish people, the Skokie Jewish delis have had their trials.

From a 1980s salmonella scare and a 1990s union-busting case to a devastating fire in 2011, Kaufman's has had to reinvent itself against all odds. Rising from the ashes, Kaufman's now thrives as a robust sit-down delicatessen and bakery with delectable desserts and a huge menu of sandwiches, salads and Jewish comfort foods. Dworkin states proudly, "We're in the business of memories. Our biggest competitors? Memories of your grandmother's gefilte fish."

Simply put, Kaufman's and New York Bagel & Bialy thrive because "everybody loves a good bagel," Scher says. "Plain, Mishmosh, Onion, Poppy, Sesame, those are our best sellers. We have people who come in from really far away — Israel, France, Wisconsin — and when you walk in here, you know, you just feel at home."

Surrounded by memories of our mother at our family home in Skokie, the presence of bagels — yes, even at Passover — was a blessing and a comfort. Bagels nourished us as we stumbled through grief's country. And so we grieved together, praising Skokie for our soul food.

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