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."