Business was slow at Cohen's Deli on Friday. Business these days is almost always slow.
"People call us every day to find out if we're still here," said Dorothy Butterfield, part-owner and manager of the Jewish delicatessen on East Anaheim Street.
So far the answer has been yes. But just barely. And probably not for long.
The fact is that Cohen's, a Long Beach institution in one form or another for the past 39 years, is about to go out of business. Changing demographics and values combined with a dispute between the establishment's founder and an influential group of rabbis is forcing the end of a local legend.
'A Very Big Loss'
"I don't feel right about it," said founder Leo Harmatz, 65. "It's a very big loss."
The legend began in 1946 when Harmatz and two of his brothers founded the kosher delicatessen/meat market in what was then an established Jewish neighborhood of Long Beach. "I was a butcher all my life," said Harmatz, who, like his brothers, came from New York City where Jewish delis are common.
In California, however, they were rare and business boomed.
In 1962, when the brothers went their separate ways, Harmatz retained title to the building and continued to operate the meat market from a counter inside the deli. The deli business was owned by a succession of people--including a man named Cohen who renamed it--until it was taken over in 1977 by the Garden Grove attorney and his family who still run it.
"I always liked and respected the place because it reminded me of the little deli in Spokane, Washington, where I grew up," said Kenneth Adler, who operates Cohen's with his wife, Maureen; sister-in-law, Jane Butterfield, and mother-in-law, Dorothy Butterfield.
Although Adler had been raised in a kosher home, he and his partners began serving non-kosher foods, he said, when they realized that 75% of their customers were Gentiles. They continued serving the Jewish-style sandwiches that many patrons swore couldn't be found anywhere else this side of New York or Chicago. And a few yards away, behind the meat counter, Harmatz continued cutting portions of what he said were strictly kosher meats.
In recent years, he said, he has been the only kosher butcher in Long Beach.
But outside the four walls of Cohen's Deli and meat market, times were changing.
Members of a once-thriving Jewish community, many of them one-time immigrants who had become part of the economic mainstream, were moving in great numbers to Orange County to escape what Harmatz called "deteriorating neighborhoods" increasingly occupied by poor Latinos and Asians.
Of those who stayed, some no longer observed kosher dietary laws. Others, according to local rabbis, went in the opposite direction by becoming part of the Chabad movement, which encourages stricter religious observation.
It was this growing spirit of Jewish traditionalism that gave rise to a series of phone calls in the early 1980s, which Harmatz says set the stage for the ultimate demise of Cohen's Deli.
Rabbi Yale B. Butler is executive editor of a weekly Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles called B'nai B'rith Messenger. As author of a regular column called The Kosher Konsumer, he had warned that unscrupulous butchers could make inordinate profits by duping the public into buying inexpensive non-kosher meats at higher kosher prices.
In 1982, he was called by two Long Beach rabbis, who knew him as a resource for kosher establishments, asking him to recommend a butcher in their area.
So Butler called Harmatz. And the result was a pitched battle that the butcher says ultimately drove him out of business.
At issue was whether he would submit to supervision by the Rabbinical Council of California, a group of 50 rabbis, including Butler, that for 35 years has maintained a widely distributed list of "certified" kosher butchers in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Butler said the supervision was necessary to ensure that the meat was cut according to Jewish law, which forbids the eating of certain portions; that it was properly soaked and salted to remove blood, which is considered unkosher, and that Harmatz's suppliers were among those known by the council to run kosher slaughterhouses.
But Harmatz saw the proposed supervision as an unwarranted intrusion. "It wasn't right," he said later. "For 39 years I've never had a blemish."
So the list of approved kosher butchers--which Butler says contains 17 entries or about 70% of the butchers claiming to be kosher in the two counties--went out without Harmatz's name. And though the butcher claims to be kosher, his business never recovered from what he now characterizes as a virtual boycott by the local rabbis and synagogues whose patronage had been his bread and butter.
'They Killed Us'
"They (the local rabbis) put the skids to us," he said. "They killed us."
The rabbis involved say the word boycott does not accurately describe what happened.
"We never said he's not kosher," explained Rabbi Shalom Podwell of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach. Although until five years ago his temple did business with Harmatz, Podwell said, "about that time I had a change of heart to realize that if there were supervised butchers available, perhaps it would be more proper to use them."
So although he has "every reason to believe that the owners of Cohen's are good, honest and sincere people," Podwell said, "we do encourage our people to use butchers that are under rabbinical supervision."
Harmatz persevered for a while and then gave up. "You can't fight the rabbis," he said.
Earlier this year he sold his meat market and the building to a Los Angeles entrepreneur named Soo Nam Kim. The owners of the deli business, who have a two-year lease on the space they rented from Harmatz, decided to follow suit. "We couldn't operate" without the butcher, Maureen Adler explained.
These days a visit to Cohen's can be a subdued affair. The meat market is already closed. And at the deli, which is expected to remain open only another 14 to 30 days, customers react with shock and sadness to news of the impending change.
"We'll be lost," said Dixie Abney of Anaheim, a regular Friday customer who characterizes the deli's Reuben sandwich as the best she's ever tasted. "I'm not looking forward to Fridays anymore."
Added Stu Shipko, a Long Beach physician there for an "industrial-strength" corned beef sandwich that, he said, reminds him of his Chicago upbringing: "I'm going to become a vegetarian."
Kim, a Korean immigrant who has lived in the United States for 20 years and said he speaks Spanish, has a plan for the site that many believe is bound to succeed. "I'm going to start a Mexican grocery market," he said. "There are so many Mexican people here."
Something will be missing, though. "The gallons of chicken soup that go out during flu season," said Dorothy Butterfield. "That's what they're going to miss. It's just a shame."