In New York City, is anything more ordinary than a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup? And yet, next week when a small sukkah is built on the Bronx sidewalk outside Delicious on Lydig, the servings will be as sacred as Abraham’s meal for the angels.
Next week, the Ushpizin, the holy biblical guests of the sukkah — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David and Joseph — will be greeted with verses of mystical welcoming by Mike Warum, 65, the Hungarian-born proprietor: “Be seated exalted guests, be seated in the shade of the Holy One.” If the exalted ones were not visitors from the Other World, Warum, with his tzitzis stringing out of his belt, would serve them his famous soups, his fish platters, his kugels and cakes. His 11-seat kosher café on Lydig Avenue in Pelham Parkway is the very last kosher café in the Bronx, outside of Riverdale, east of the Broadway elevated.
Precisely because the holy guests are from the Other World, Warum might confess to them that he’s in trouble. He might have to close. The ledger doesn’t balance. He owes the landlord $20,000. Some weeks Warum takes home less money than his part-time dishwasher.
Warum pleads, in his soft Hungarian accent, “We can’t say anything bad about the landlord. He has been patient. Any landlord, after a few months, will pull the rug. He’s entitled to his rent. The [Jewish] Community Council [of Pelham Parkway], along with the Young Israel [of Pelham Parkway, the strongest shul in the area] came up with some kind of a financing arrangement. We have a little time, but the clock is ticking.”
An online fundraising drive, “Support Delicious On Lydig!” was started on the “gofundme” site (www.gofundme.com/d940c8). The JCC of Pelham Parkway will take responsibility for the donations, with 85 percent to go to back rent, and 15 percent “to get someone on board to help with long-term business planning.” Hoping to raise $30,000, as of Oct. 1, after nearly a month, a total of $142 has been raised from five donors.
Other kosher cafes have failed here before. David Edelstein, executive director of the council, says that Pelham Parkway once had “more than 25 kosher shops, butchers, bakeries, cafes, and when the last one closed [around three years ago] we just made a decision that we can’t let this” neighborhood lose its only kosher destination, he said. “So we advertised for someone who could take it over,” and found Warum. The council, he explained, was only doing what Ys and JCCs were doing around the country: maintaining an in-house kosher cafeteria as the only one in communities with dwindling Jewish populations.
As in “Nighthawks,” Hopper’s famous painting of several isolated people at a diner’s counter, even the most modest “food joint” can be a transcendent destination for the solitary, a community touchstone, all the more for Jews looking for rugelach and tea, a taste of Shabbos, or a weeknight dinner.
This Jewish neighborhood has outlived its obituaries. Two or three shuls are doing reasonably well, and after 20 years of people moving out, people are moving in — “eight [families] in the last year and a half,” says Edelstein. “They’d like to know they can get kosher pizza or a falafel like in any normal Jewish neighborhood.” This café is “a necessary service,” for those who like “a Jewish place where Shalom TV will be playing, and you might see a lantsman [a familiar Jewish face from ‘the old country’] as opposed to sitting with strangers.”
The council has helped Delicious on Lydig get catering jobs for holiday events sponsored by the Bronx Borough president’s office, along with its other catering work for local nursing homes, or providing the kiddush at a shul.
After morning davening, several old friends, among them a retired teacher, plumber, a city worker, come to the café and talk politics over breakfast. A rabbi drops in and “Some days I drive him to work,” says Warum. “I try to help people.”
A yeshivish real estate manager comes in for an egg roll. Two young teenagers from the nearby Yeshiva Gedolah of the Bronx, a boarding yeshiva with less than 10 students, come in for pizza and fries. Poor Jews come in and request smaller portions, if it will cost less. Those who have run out of cash before their next check come in, ask that their lunch be put on a tab that is more likely to be paid by the Ushpizin than by anyone else.
A problem, Warum says, is that many of the elderly kosher customers have a hard time coming down out of their apartments. “The very old, they don’t eat so much anymore,” he said. “They’ll spend $5, $6, you know? I deliver for less money than it costs me. I lose money on that. That’s more or less what we do here. We give our heart for the people of the neighborhood.” But heart doesn’t pay the rent.
An older blonde woman named Marilyn, who must have been beautiful in the sweet long ago when she went to Morris High School, comes in, pushing her shopping cart. Someone jokes about being old. “I’m 29-plus,” Marilyn laughs, though she’s lived in Pelham Parkway 55 years. May you live to 120, she’s told. She laughs more, “If I have the koyach [the strength] to live that long!” She says she comes to “Mike’s because he’s the only kosher store. The food is good. Why would I be coming all these years if the food wasn't good? And I like Mike. He’s adorable. But I don’t want to his wife to hear that. Or maybe she should, and get jealous! And not only is he adorable, he’s so accommodating. Whatever I want, if he doesn’t have, he’ll get for me.”
She departs with a hearty New Year’s blessing, “ah gezunt yuhr!”
In the late afternoon an autumnal chill flows through Lydig Avenue — a strip of pawn shops, Chinese take-out, liquor stores, and a pharmacy with Cyrillic lettering on its awning. “I’ve become attached to the neighborhood,” says Warum quietly, near the counter. “It’s a real Jewish place. You hear Yiddish. An older man comes in, he was in a concentration camp, we talk. At night someone comes to pick up leftovers.” Late on Friday afternoons, “before Shabbos, we’ll give away.”
A poem was tacked to the café wall about a rebbe, none other than Warum: “Der Lydiger rebbe is a gevaldig [great] mentch. He will also guarantee you a fantastic lunch. … Don’t mess with the rebbe unless you’re quite clever. The legend of the Lydiger rebbe will remain forever.”
But Delicious on Lydig, how long can the café remain?