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For deli owners, Jewish holiday food comes from their own menus

Robert Shuman with his mother, Rubylee, at Zaftigs Delicatessen in Brookline.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

NATICK — Rubylee Shuman is no longer her family’s Rosh Hashanah cook, yet she gets to enjoy all her old recipes. And that’s not because her grown children have assumed the holiday cooking chores. The food will come from her son Robert’s Zaftigs Delicatessen.

When the family celebrates on Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sundown on Sept. 24, her food, cooked by someone else, will be part of the spread. When Robert Shuman opened his Brookline deli in 1997 and, again, when he opened in Natick 3½ years ago, his inspiration for the traditional Ashkenazi-Jewish foods — chicken soup with matzo balls, brisket, noodle kugel, and chopped liver — came from his mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. Now, for the years when the 84-year-old matriarch hosts the Jewish New Year, she says, “I set the table and make pretty flower arrangements.” Robert provides the food. “I’m a very good reheater,” says Rubylee.


For Jewish restaurant owners, the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana, through Yom Kippur on Oct. 4, is the busiest time of year. Out their doors fly hundreds of briskets, roast chickens, gefilte fish balls, kugels and other puddings, and rugelach. It’s not surprising then, that their own holiday tables take a back seat to the preparation, cooking, and delivery of customer orders.

Familiar foods are what’s popular, says Lisa Rodman, owner and manager of Barry’s Village Deli in Waban, in business for over four decades. “When people who grew up here come home for the holidays, all they want are their old favorites,” she says.

Holiday orders keep growing as fewer hosts have the time (or desire) to cook the traditional meal, chicken soup to honey cake. “A customer might make a couple of items and rely on us for the rest,” says Rodman. People stop cooking as they get older and then there are the adult children who don’t know how to make the family recipes.


After working 12-hour days for weeks, Rodman and her husband, Arthur, will have a quiet Rosh Hashanah at home, dining on the deli’s matzo ball soup, tzimmes, and stuffed chicken breasts with orange sauce.

Rada Roda, co-owner of Brookline’s kosher Jerusalem Pita in Coolidge Corner, typically hosts the holiday with help from her husband, Baruch, and adds a variety of the restaurant’s Israeli salads to her table: Moroccan carrots, baba ganoush, and grated beets. “Kugels are not my thing,” says Roda, who was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and raised in Israel and New York.

Zaftigs Delicatessen’s kasha varnishkes. “We call it bows and groats,” says Rubylee.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Instead of gefilte fish, she simmers fish fillets with Tunisian spices in “lots of extra virgin olive oil to eat with challah.” For the main course, she might roast a chicken stuffed with rice, dried fruits, and chestnuts, a brisket or minute steak with mushroom-onion gravy, a Sephardic rice dish with vermicelli, and roasted root vegetables with garlic and herbs.

She admits to having a sweet tooth. “I would skip the whole meal and just get to dessert,” she says. Roda bakes apple pie with dried cranberries, orders her family’s favorite cookies from New York, and serves roast nuts, dried fruits, and peach preserves that she makes with her own backyard fruits.

As takeout orders pile up at Michael’s Deli, owner Steven Peljovich adds his family’s requests to the list. “My wife calls me and tells me what I need to bring home,” says the Brookline restaurateur. “But she makes her own brisket because she says I don’t make it as well as she does.” Growing up in the Cuban-Jewish section of Miami, Peljovich says his family’s eclectic Rosh Hashanah dinner used to include the Ashkenazi dishes of his ancestors, as well as the Cuban chicken and rice dish, arroz con pollo, rice and black beans, and fried yucca and plantain.


Cumin scented beet salad, Moroccan carrots, falafel, and pitas and laffa bread at Jerusalem Pita in Brookline. Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Rada Roda at Jerusalem Pita. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Most years now, he and his wife, Lori, host 30 or more guests. Their table features his mother’s stuffed cabbage, gefilte fish with his grandmother’s recipe for peppers, onions, garlic, and citrus juice spooned over the fish cakes, chopped liver, tzimmes, Auntie Bev’s noodle kugel, and brisket.

The Shuman holiday table will be similarly adorned, also with bowls of honey-glazed carrots and kasha varnishkes, a traditional mixture of roasted buckwheat and bow-tie pasta. “We call it bows and groats,” says Rubylee Shuman. Her son, who started keeping bees last spring, hopes to provide the honey for the ritual dipping of apples and challah, symbolizing hope for a sweet year.

Relying on food from his deli makes the holiday meal easy, says Robert. “There’s no reason not to at this point.”

Raiding your restaurant refrigerator is one of the perks of the job.

Barry’s Village Deli 6 Windsor Road, Waban, 617-527-9773

Brookline Pita 10 Pleasant St., Brookline, 617-739-2400

Michael’s Deli 256 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-3354


Zaftigs Delicatessen 335 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-975-0075, and 1298 Worcester St., Natick, 508-653-4442

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com.