The kitchen equipment and famous blue sign with Hebrew-style lettering were carted away when the Second Avenue Deli shut its doors in January, but the restaurant’s monument to Yiddish theater is staying — at least for now.
The Yiddish Walk of Fame, a double row of granite stars embedded in the sidewalk in front of the deli, will stay put, even as the owners of one of New York’s most celebrated Jewish restaurants consider reopening elsewhere.
“There’s nothing we can do,” longtime employee Karen Glasser said. “We can’t take it with us, and anyway, it belongs here.”
The Second Avenue Deli, opened in 1954 by Holocaust survivor Abe Lebewohl, was for decades a quintessential New York establishment known for its heart-clogging pastrami and dishes of half-sour pickles. But beyond the food, it also served up nostalgia for the Yiddish theaters that thrived on the surrounding stretch of Second Avenue during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Diners at the restaurant could eat in the “Molly Picon” room — named for one of Yiddish theater’s most celebrated comic performers — and tuck into their blintzes while surrounded by vintage posters from the star’s productions.
The Yiddish Walk of Fame, which is modeled after Hollywood Boulevard’s monument to the American stage and screen, was installed in 1984. More than 30 stars are honored, including such luminaries as Abraham Goldfaden, founder of New York’s first Yiddish theater, and actress Lillian Lux, who was known as the “Jewish Shiksa” because of her luxuriant blonde tresses.
Lebewohl was killed in 1996, and ownership of the deli passed to his brother, Jack. But the tradition of honoring luminaries on the Walk of Fame survived. For instance, longtime Yiddish actor Fyvush Finkel, who gained a whole new audience during the 1990s with his Emmy-winning turn as obnoxious lawyer Douglas Wambaugh on the television show “Picket Fences,” was added in 1997.
Now that the Second Avenue Deli has left its longtime home in New York’s East Village, the building’s owner, Jonis Realty, will ultimately decide the Walk of Fame’s fate. In New York City, property owners are
responsible for maintaining the sidewalks in front of their buildings, though according to Glasser, up until now the Second Avenue Deli has maintained the plaques.
In recent months, Jonis Realty and Jack Lebewohl have wrangled publicly over the firm’s decision to raise the restaurant’s rent — the move that ultimately led to its closing.
Lebewohl did not return calls from the Forward. Glasser, who has been his secretary for 18 years, said that Lebewohl has not discussed the fate of the Walk of Fame with managers at Jonis or with city officials.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization that works to protect historic sites in the East and West Village, has been calling for the site’s protection.
“Like most people, we just suddenly saw [the Second Avenue Deli] closed up,” said Andrew Berman, the group’s executive director. “My hope is that the property owner will maintain [the Walk of Fame and] not see it as a burden, but will really see it as a distinction of honor that will lend prestige and notoriety.”
According to Berman, a member of his staff was told by a Jonis employee that the firm would maintain the Walk of Fame. Berman later sent Jonis a letter thanking the company for the commitment.
However, when contacted by the Forward, a woman who answered the phone at Jonis Realty, who would not give her name, insisted that “there is no agreement” with Berman’s group. She added, “We’re keeping the sidewalk, but I don’t think we’re going to preserve it.” Additional inquiries by the Forward to Jonis were rejected.
Berman said it would be difficult to win any formal protection for the Walk of Fame. It lies just outside of the St. Mark’s Historic District, he said, but even if it fell within the landmarked area, it would not be protected because it is less than 30 years old.
“I also can assure you that there is no piece of sidewalk that is individually landmarked now,” Berman said, “which is not to say it’s impossible.”
According to Ted Timbers, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation, the proper permits for altering the sidewalk were never filed with the city.
In the case of stone sidewalk insets, Timbers said, “skid resistance might be a concern,” but he acknowledged that “we haven’t had an issue thus far in the last 20 years.” Timbers said he hoped the current owners would establish a maintenance agreement with the city.
On a recent windy weekend morning, pedestrians on Second Avenue scampered quickly over the granite plaques, seeming not to notice them. Several of the markers appeared to be worn down and were completely illegible.
Meanwhile, Glasser said that no decision has been made about the future of the Second Avenue Deli, which continues to receive calls every day from loyal fans.
“They want to know when we’re reopening,” she said, noting that many of the callers are “sick people looking for chicken soup.”