By Catherine Morrison
If Zabar’s closed I would have to leave the Upper West Side. Their cheese blintzes are my dietary staple. Not the ones in the Prepared Food Section, but the ones in the case perpendicular to the sushi. Cheese only, please. Are they as good as my mother’s? Almost.
Devotion to the store extends well beyond me; it is an ancillary home for countless customers on the Upper West Side. We know where everything is shelved or sliced. We expect the best, and we get it.
Lori Zabar’s posthumous memoir of her family and the store is a story about home in the truest sense of the word, told -– as the best stories are —- with love. Lori died three months to the day before this book was published, at the age of 67 from cancer, but friends say she worked on it to the end.
“It was important to Lori to capture the history of the family while it was still retrievable in texts or memories,” her dear friend Carol Loewenson told me. “Lori was a meticulous researcher, reviewing the proofs and checking the captions. She loved details, and how the details told the story.”
Lori begins in 1920 when her grandmother, Lilly, fled Ostropolia, the family’s home in “the Ukraine” to come to America. Lilly’s friend Rose Zabarka and her sister Ada found their way to New York City as well. Their brother Louis arrived in the winter of 1921. He never talked about what he had witnessed. Life began when he came to America.
Louis was offered a job in his cousin’s grocery store. Little or no investment was required to become a grocer. Shops with apartments above could be rented cheaply; goods could be acquired on credit. Overhead was low because family members worked long hours.
In 1927, Louis (now Zabar) married Lilly. A succession of stores followed in Brooklyn, each one larger than the last. And a succession of sons – Saul, Stanley and Eli.
THE UPPER WEST SIDE
When retail space became available on Broadway between 80th and 81st Street, Louis rented his first Manhattan store in 1934. The neighborhood was then relatively prosperous and largely Jewish. Over the years the prosperity pendulum of the Upper West Side swung up and down then up again.
An important decision for Zabar’s was to go “kosher-style” rather than strictly kosher. This meant that rabbinical supervision was unnecessary and meat and dairy could then be sold in the same store. The guiding principal was to buy high and sell at the lowest possible price. Zabar’s was famous for the quality of its smoked salmon. It was cold-smoked, soaked in a cold brine for one week and then smoked for 18-24 hours. When Stanley introduced hot-smoked salmon he stood next to the case encouraging customers to try it. That’s how I met Stanley. I couldn’t say No.
The war years were hard, bringing rationing, food shortages and the massacre of the remaining Ostropolia Jews. The Nazis killed 1.6 million Ukrainian Jews. In the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet Union began to allow Jews to leave and the remaining relatives of the extended Zabar family arrived in America, with a job at Zabar’s if they needed one.
The National Recession during the 70’s saw the decline of the Upper West Side. Budget cuts at the Sanitation Department, trash and litter piling up on the streets, drunks on Broadway’s pedestrian islands. Nonetheless, the family left Rego Park and moved to the Upper West Side in 1973, just around the corner from the store.
To this day, Lori’s family and her siblings live within a ten-block radius of the store. All the family’s commercial real estate investments are nearby. It was a buyers’ market in those years. Stanley spent seven years wooing his landlord and in 1978 was able to buy the Zabar building and the few remaining contiguous properties on the block.
Eli, after opening EAT and The Vinegar Factory on the Upper East Side, was the only one who moved to the far side of Central Park. Despite the gossip, striking out on his own did not erupt into a family rift. Lori dispels this long-held rumor.
In 1982, Lori’s life changed. She married Mark Mariscal, and headed the New York City Historic Preservation Fund, a revolving loan fund for historic property owners.
For Carol Loewenson, “Lori had a gift for friendship, and never lost track of anybody. She had time and energy for everyone. She was a larger-than-life person, her energy and interests were extraordinary, and her nature was joyous. She had so much to give to people.”
The Zabar family still spends much of summers at the Lake Mohegan Colony, a combination Jewish summer camp, anarchist colony, and refuge for elderly Communists. The family has houses there, and various members retreat every summer.
The fourth generation of Zabar’s are all involved in the store, with varying degrees of engagement. They are, for the most part, working there while sorting out the rest of their lives, according to Lori. They have been trained not to lose sight of what matters to the customers; to never underestimate the appeal of the bustling chaos; and to remain committed to Zabar’s early promise. All this in a world where most family businesses have disappeared.