The world’s most famous lox slicer faces life as a celebrity
“You’re the guy that slices lox!” she screamed as I passed her on my way to the garage after a day’s work at Zabar’s.
She was very excited. “Did you see it?” she asked.
“See what?” I said.
“You’re on my phone; come here and I’ll show you.”
Earlier that day, shortly after I arrived at work, I had received a text from Scott Goldshine, general manager at Zabar’s, telling me that he had received a request from NewYorkNico, a well-known instagrammer, who wanted to interview me. Instagram is something that I’d heard of, but was totally unfamiliar with. However, it seemed to me that this could be an opportunity to learn more about social media, which I find overwhelming.
I walked over to the girl. “Here you are!” she said as she fiddled with her phone. “Take a look.”
And there I was, on her phone, doing the interview that had taken place only a few short hours earlier. We looked at it together.
Amazing, I thought.
“I have to go; I’ll check it out on my phone when I get home,” I said.
Shortly after I arrived home, I received a text from my granddaughter, Robin; she had seen the interview on her phone. She was very familiar with Nico, said he was very famous and that it was exciting that he interviewed me. Her text included a link to the interview along with comments from the many viewers who watched it. I decided to check out some of the comments to get an idea of what goes on with this instagram thing. Why would people watch it? Why would they comment on it?
There were more than 50,000 hits and comments galore. I was astonished. The names they were calling me: “a legend,” “a national treasure,” “inspirational.” “The GOAT of lox” (whatever that means). One viewer said that I was sharper than the knife I used to slice lox, but the comment that I loved the most, which flew off the page of the phone into my mind’s eye, was the one by “ Stevebe2” who said, “He’s my dad!”
This whole new phase of me in the world started with an article called “Lox of Love,” which appeared in the April 24 edition of The New York Post. It dealt with my return to work after a yearlong furlough from Zabar’s, during the COVID-19 lockdown. Apparently, there appears to be some interest out there in the story of a 91 year old returning to work. Things started happening to me that had never happened before. For example:
I received a letter from the president of a San Francisco law firm, who had read about me and enclosed a copy of his son’s seven-page bar mitzvah speech, which made several references to Moses and lox.
“I want my son to understand how wonderful it is to be able to enjoy what one does each day — whether you are young or an elder,” the letter’s author said, further referencing my love and dedication to my craft and how that is a great learning experience for his son.
A few days later, I received an envelope in the mail containing a copy of the Post article, a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and a request that I autograph the article and return it. Being somewhat suspicious by nature, I felt a bit uncomfortable with putting my signature on the article, so I just wrote “Best, Len.”
On June 4, I received an email from a man whose grandfather owned an appetizing store in New York in the early 1900s. It included an offer to give me the very knife his grandfather used to slice lox back then. He felt that if he didn’t give the knife to someone like me it would wind up in the garbage heap after he died. I thanked him for the offer, which I politely declined and suggested that perhaps he could find a family member for whom the knife would have some meaning.
And then, I received an email from a prominent New Yorker, who has written five books, three of which made The New York Times best-seller list, asking whether it would be OK for him and his cousin to visit me at Zabar’s.
Then, there was a series of video interviews: Fox News, The New York Times, NewYorkNico, the Instagrammer and CBS all wanted their turn with “The Lox Whisperer,” one of my many new names. CBS was the best of the interviews, I thought, particularly since it was my fourth interview and I had become sufficiently relaxed.
CBS actually sent a staff interviewer and photographer to my house and shot video of our morning departure. Another CBS crew filmed my arrival at the garage and my short walk across Broadway to Zabar’s.
I was interviewed by Anthony Mason on the street outside of Zabar’s. I liked him. We talked a bit before the interview, while the crew was setting things up. By the time the interview started, this tall, good-looking, friendly, master interviewer had me just where he wanted me — relaxed, comfortable in the interview setting, ready and more than willing to answer his questions. One of the comments I made was that it was very important for older people to stay in the mix.
Apparently, the phrase “Stay in the mix” was recognized as good advice in order to live a better life in one’s latter years; it seems to have caught on out there.
The New York Times interview, however, was looking for more than a story of an old lox slicer returning to work. They have been talking to people to chronicle how each of the interviewees was affected by COVID-19.
One morning, in the middle of a slice, I was informed that a 94-year-old woman from Denver was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. One of my co-workers took over my customer and I picked up the phone. The woman told me that she read the Post article and saw me on TV and just wanted to let me know that she admired me for returning to work at my age and was compelled to tell me so. We spoke about living to 100 and joked about the possibly meeting up when and if that happened.
One afternoon, a man approached the lox counter, asked for a pound each of Nova and scotch salmon and said that he had something personal he wanted to discuss with me. He told me about his wife, Jamie Press, a cabaret singer who would be doing a cabaret show called “RETIRE!! WHO’S GOT TIME????” The show will be a tribute to singers, songwriters, performers, lyricist, composers and wonderful people who are over 65 years old and still out in the world doing exciting things. Later that day she sent me an email, asking if I would honor her by coming, as her guest, to a performance in October. Things like this have never happened to me before and it took a bit of quiet time before I was able to respond to her email and accept her invitation.
And then I received an email from the Forward, informing me that I had just won a first prize from the American Jewish Press Association for a piece I had written titled “The Unkindest Cut — Last Call for a Jewish Lox Slicer.”
So, what’s next? Will there be a next? Has my 15 minutes of fame come to an abrupt halt or will General Douglas MacArthur prove to be right when he said, “ Old lox slicers never die, they just fade away?”
I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
Len Berk is the Forward’s lox columnist. You can find him on Thursdays behind the lox counter at Zabar’s.