It was Christmas morning, and like a lot of other Jewish Westsiders, Michael Schwartz and wife Tamara Bergman decided to have themselves a merry little deli.
As Bergman, 33, explained, last year she and her husband had driven all over town, trying to find a restaurant that was open. This year, they headed straight for Canter’s, the venerable restaurant and delicatessen in the heart of the Fairfax District, arguably Los Angeles’ most Jewish neighborhood. As Bergman said, “Fairfax is hopping, just like any other Tuesday.”
On a day when few stores and other public places are open, going to the deli has become a holiday ritual for many Jews. An order of whitefish is as good a way as any to escape the relentless presence of Christmas carols. (As one young man quipped, for Jews, caroling means visiting your Aunt Carol.) But what to do with the rest of the day? A lot of people would rather stand in line at the movies than watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and other Christmas fare on TV.
Christmas morning, Canter’s and other delis are haimish (that’s Yiddish for homey) havens for all those who decide eating a blintz would be a nice way to pass the time their Christian neighbors devote to tearing open presents.
As a result, Dec. 25 is Canter’s busiest holiday (Mother’s Day is runner-up). On a typical Christmas, manager Gary Canter reported over the mid-morning din, 10,000 people will come to the Fairfax Avenue noshery. They will consume 300 dozen bagels, 700 pounds of corned beef and 500 matzo balls, the latter, of course, floating in bowls of chicken soup.
For Schwartz and Bergman, the trip to Canter’s was part of a conscious effort to give their holidays a Jewish flavor, largely for son Phillip’s benefit.
Phillip is 3, just old enough to begin comparing Santa Claus and the Maccabees, the heroes of Hannukah. Like many Jewish parents before them, Schwartz and Bergman decided that, given Santa’s public-relations machine, the Maccabees could use a little help from their friends.
“This year our house was sort of aggressively Jewish,” said Schwartz, 32. The Hollywood family put a menorah in the window, decorated the house in traditional blue and silver and gave Phillip presents each of the eight nights of the Festival of Lights. Gifts included a train and a video featuring the Berenstain Bears.
Phillip seemed to think Canter’s was an excellent place to spend the morning, but Schwartz wasn’t sure what they would do next. “He’s kind of young for ‘The Godfather Part III,’ ” Phillip’s father noted.
Irene Cammorata was at Canter’s with friend Judith Davidovis. Cammorata’s son, Teddy, who is 9, was spending Christmas morning with her ex-husband. Teddy, who is Jewish, had asked his dad, who is not, to forget the Christmas tree this year--for environmental reasons. “He told his father he didn’t want to have a tree killed just to put some stuff on it,” Cammorata recounted.
Davidovis said she finds some Christians insensitive to the feelings of Jews at this time of year.
“It’s ironic,” Davidovis said. “Jesus was born a Jew. He died as a Jew. He never converted, and he never decorated a tree.”
The Arouestys and the Rosenfeldts had driven to Canter’s from West Hills in the San Fernando Valley. When she was growing up, Jackie Arouesty said, she had been the only Jew in a group of eight girlfriends, and she spent Christmas visiting each and every one of them. Over the years, she and her husband developed a Christmas Day tradition of their own.
“We go to the Jewish bookstores and buy Jewish books and records,” she said. “If we need a tallis (a prayer shawl), we do it Christmas Day.”
The Arouestys now share their holiday ritual with their friends, the Rosenfeldts. “Before she introduced us to Fairfax, we used to go to Frazier Park (near Tejon Pass) for the snow,” Helen Rosenfeldt said. “And on years we don’t go to a deli, we go to a Chinese restaurant,” Sam Arouesty said.
Jeanie Finkelstein, who lives in Encino, was at Canter’s with her family and their friends, the Mincs. She likes the idea of doing something Jewish on Christmas, even if it’s just eating lox. “Especially now, with everything that’s going on in the Middle East, you want to be a little more Jewish,” she said. “You feel the whole world’s against you.”
The Finkelsteins and the Mincs thought they would go see “The Godfather Part III” later in the day.
On Christmas afternoon, George and Eve Suranyi were queued up outside the Mann Criterion in Santa Monica with their son, Ed, who was visiting from Northern California.
The Suranyis, who are Jewish, were waiting to see “The Godfather Part III.” As to how they started the day, George Suranyi explained, “First we went to the deli . . . “