Simcha Leibovich, a Romanian Jew and a Holocaust survivor, died in Montreal on Dec. 5, 2005, but his legacy as a legendary pickle maker lives on.
For close to 40 years, Leibovich, the proprietor of Simcha’s Fruit Market at 3953 St. Laurent Blvd., plied his trade, satisfying the palates of gourmets and gourmands alike.
Leibovich is brought back to life, at least fleetingly, in Posthumous Pickle Party, a cinematic ode to him scheduled to be broadcast by Vision TV on Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 11 p.m.
In this poignant documentary, a group of his customers converges on Leibovich’s shuttered shop to reminisce about this unobtrusive man and to sample the last remaining batch of his aromatic pickles.
The film is supplemented by clips of Leibovich and his beloved wife, Fanny, who predeceased him.
As his niece, Anne Avram, recalls, her uncle arrived in Montreal after working on a ship. He and Fanny, whom he married late in life, opened a shop at the old Rachel Market in the late 1950s and relocated to St. Laurent, two blocks away, in 1966. A tireless worker, Leibovich was at his store seven days a week and never took a vacation, probably because he and Fanny were childless. “Work is good,” he says. “It’s healthy.”
One day, about a year after his wife’s death, he failed to appear at his shop. Having taken ill, he checked himself into a hospital. He was 75 when he passed away. His niece says he was tired and wanted to sell the store.
According to a young man who appears in the film, Simcha’s Fruit Market, a bare-bones operation devoid of flash or glitter, was the last vestige of Jewish St. Laurent. This is a misleading observation, but Leibovich was certainly a throwback to the days when St. Laurent was still known as St. Lawrence Blvd.
His wife, in file footage from the late 1990s, observes that Jewish merchants on St. Laurent have been supplanted by Italian, Portuguese and Spanish shopkeepers.
“We remained,” she says.
But as the first minutes of Posthumous Pickle Party unreel, Simcha’s Fruit Market remains closed, abandoned to the elements. At this point, Leibovich’s army of customers, spearheaded by musician Josh Dolgin and food critic Barry Lazar, move in.
To their surprise and delight, they stumble upon barrels of pickles slathered in brine and pickled cabbage that Leibovich left behind.
“This is a serious dill pickle,” Lazar states, savouring the taste. “For a foodie, this is an amazing feeling.”
“I see the fields of Romania,” intones Dolgin as he bites into a pickle.
Someone else offers the reflective commentary that this pickle-tasting party is akin to walking “a fine line between archeology and desecration.”
In the end, the leftover pickles are sent to a deli across the street and to a soup kitchen for the homeless. In the soup kitchen, a Vietnamese Canadian employee who normally hates pickles is persuaded to try one. “Very good,” she says, a big smile creasing her face.
Unfortunately, no one else will ever be able to eat a Leibovich pickle. Simcha took the recipe to his grave. But Posthumous Pickle Party leaves us with a tantalizing impression of what might have been had he still been alive and making irrepressible pickles.