I found out about the closing of Yitz’s Delicatessen, which has been a staple of Toronto’s Jewish community for decades, on the way home from the cemetery, where I had just buried my best friend’s mother. Turning my phone back on after the funeral, I received a flurry of texts and emails about the news, which had broken an hour or so before. Right as I was responding to an inquiry from the CBC to come on the radio and talk about it, I got a call from Yitz’s owner, Barry Silver.
Silver was returning my message from the day before, regarding my catering order for the shivah. We briefly talked about the closure before we got down to business, debating the right mix of corned beef, pastrami and tongue, the right ratio of rye to challah and just how many knishes 15 people would eat, plus an appropriately Jewish amount of excess (in mourning, the only certainty is calories). I thanked Silver, wished him luck, hung up and let the news sink in.
As the author of a book about Jewish delis, I have visited more than 200 worldwide. I have sampled their specialties, learned their histories and become close friends with many of their owners. I have sliced pastrami at Katz’s in New York, been inside the holy of holies in Montreal’s Schwartz’s, broken bread with Larry King at Nate n’ Al’s and sampled goose sausage at Maison David in Paris.
But Yitz’s was my deli. It was the first one I went to, before I can even remember, and the one my parents took me to every week. It was where my mother bought the salami, corned beef and challah for my lunchbox, the deli where they picked up provisions for visitor’s day at summer camp and the place we went to straight from the airport when we came home from a trip.
We would go there after skiing on Sundays for those impossibly dense matzah balls in their dark broth, or after Friday night services at Holy Blossom, where my voice, still raw from a Shalom Rav solo in the youth choir, would be soothed by a cold mug of cream soda and Yitz’s puffy little French fries.
Yitz Penciner (a.k.a., Mr. Yitz) was there to greet us, whenever we pushed those salami-shaped door handles to enter the fragrant, bustling world he had build. He had giant, powerful hands and he’d dig those big paws into a vat of sunflower seeds and deposit them into the hands of my brother and I, who accepted them with glee, even though we didn’t eat sunflower seeds.
His wife, Bernice Penciner (a.k.a, Mrs. Yitz), would come up with her beaming smile and a stack of menus shaped like sandwiches, leading us to a table where we’d marvel at the old comics and posters, which I can describe in detail to this day.
I have witnessed countless delicatessens close over the years, from the legendary (Stage and Carnegie in New York, Rascal House in Miami), to the local gems (Moishe’s Pippik in San Francisco) and, of course, those right in my own backyard (Toronto’s Switzer’s, Coleman’s, Caplansky’s and Katz’s, Montreal’s Ben’s and the Brown Derby). But Yitz’s was mine, and the loss I feel leaves a hole in my heart (and gut) that won’t ever heal.
I spoke to Yitz Penciner many times after he sold the deli, I attended his funeral and I continue to see Bernice to this day (her warmth has only increased). They taught me to love deli, and that a deli could love the people it served. From them, I learned that a delicatessen is more than just a place that serves sandwiches and soup. It’s the fabric of a community, a place to celebrate and commiserate, to feed the body and the soul, to laugh and to cry.
I thought of that recently, when my friend requested the same carrot soup at his mother’s shivah that I’d brought him when his son was born. Cradle to grave, with a side of mustard.