In his collection of essays, The Lonely Days Were Sundays, Southern Jewish historian Eli Evans recounts how in his youth in Durham, North Carolina, Sundays meant his best friends spent much of their day in a place he couldn’t go: church. Well, he could have, I suppose, but Evans, like many Southern Jews, had to fend for himself on this Christian holy day. And though he adjusted, doing so nevertheless demonstrated to him that he and his friends had one fundamental difference—a difference that for some could cause unsettling conflict.
When I first came across Evans’s collection, I understood immediately what he meant, even though as a Southern half-Jew, I traveled a different path on the Sundays of my youth in Bessemer, Alabama. My mother dragged my brother and me out of bed early Sunday mornings, forced us into tight-fitting suits (with clip-on ties) and by 9:45, put us in place in our respective Sunday School classes at Bessemer’s First United Methodist Church. I had many friends in church, and though the Bible lessons left me cold, sitting with these friends was anything but lonely.
This early morning ritual was followed by the most important meal of the week: a Sunday lunch of rump roast or leg of lamb, seasonal vegetables and potatoes, and usually a home-made pound cake for dessert.
After lunch, some of my friends and I would play football in the front yard, or reenact war or Tarzan movies in the back alley. But when 3 p.m. arrived, whatever I was doing had to cease because I had to dress up again like a proper Southern boy, and travel with my family the fifteen miles to my grandmother’s apartment.
My Jewish grandmother.
Now, I loved my Ma Ma, and I loved spending time with my Dad at her place. Most of all, I loved stopping at the Jewish deli, Browdy’s, with its cramped aisles, strange and exotic food items with brand names I couldn’t pronounce, and with its butcher and deli counter, where I saw meats I never saw in the larger grocery stores my mother frequented. All of this made me think of something old-world European.
Every week, Dad ordered the same food for us all: fifty cents worth of Kosher bologna, the same for kosher salami; a half-pound of corned beef; a whole Kosher pickle; Kaiser rolls or twist bread (aka Challah); and either slaw or potato salad. Ma Ma already had chips—Golden Flake, Alabama football coach Bear Bryant’s sponsored favorite, and later, Charles Chips, after my beloved aunt married a Charles Chips driver.
However, as welcoming as this late-Sunday ritual was, it caused me to rebel in my adolescence when my church friends would gather on Sunday evening for Methodist Youth Fellowship. What I didn’t understand then was that the loneliness I felt in not being with my friends on Sunday night would be matched later on by my loneliness in not being with my family, after I begged and was granted permission to start attending MYF. Browdy’s quickly became a distant memory.
“As the holidays of Hanukkah approach, I am reminded of how my family began celebrating this ancient cultural festival of light, lighting our menora and hearing Pari-leh’s beautiful voice sing the blessing on each of the eight nights.”
I tell you this not to gain sympathy, but to explain why, when I discovered Greenville’s Greenfield’s Bagels and Deli almost twenty years ago, I felt like I had found home again.
Greenfield’s began on August 27, 1999, as a bagel and deli counter in the old Harris Teeter on Roper Mountain Road. A Jewish deli in Greenville? When I moved to Greenville in 1987, there were downtown sandwich shops like Maureen’s and The Red Baron. They were fine; Maureen’s had good tuna fish, and the Baron had a tasty potato salad. Neither, of course, was Kosher—not even remotely so. You could get corned beef in both, I think, but it wasn’t the same to me, as if anything from the present could ever replicate the past.
So when I walked into the old H-T, I didn’t expect my past to follow me. This place was squeaky clean—not a bad thing for a grocery—bright, shiny, and decidedly uncramped. But behind the deli counter, I recognized two women, smiling, and waiting to help me. By “recognized” I don’t mean that I knew them. What I mean is they could have emerged directly from the community Ma Ma lived in. I don’t know how to explain this any better, but when I heard their voices, I recognized something Southern-Jewish. I recognized family in Robin and Patti Greenfield.
For years, I thought they were sisters. But they were friends, not meeting until after Robin moved to Greenville from Miami Beach. I bought a dozen bagels (14 in a Greenfield’s dozen) that day, selecting some everything, some black Russians, a few sesame, and several egg bagels, my favorite. Of course I got a couple of tubs of “schmear,” smoked salmon and scallion, and vowed I’d be back when they ran out.
I’ve been going back now for the last twenty years.
Over that time, Robin and Patti moved the business to its current location in the Verdae Market plaza, originally the site of Beau’s Bagels. Eventually, Robin bought Patti out, an amicable split. Given the larger building, Greenfield’s could offer more deli items and a space for customers to eat and commune with like-minded smoked-meat lovers.
Greenfield’s is certified Kosher, under rabbinical supervision. Still, as Robin says, “You don’t have to be Jewish to like Jewish-style food.” The Jewish half of me, however, believes that being part of the tribe helps. But as I look around Greenfield’s, noticing who is eating a Reuben, who is noshing on whitefish salad, or who is smearing cream cheese and lox on an onion bagel, I know that Robin is wiser than I.
“We get our dough from New Jersey. We’re the only deli that boards that dough, proofs it for two days, and then completes the process by boiling and baking,” she assures me.
These days, sadly, I am gluten-intolerant. Yet Greenfield’s caters to those of us who are gastro-challenged. They stock gluten-free bagels from Sammi’s Bagels in Miami. Onion, cinnamon-raisin, plain, and mixed berry. So, while my wife still enjoys egg bagels in my honor, I get my Reuben on an onion bagel that is very close to what I used to love.
Greenfield’s offers a variety of other Jewish-origin foods like potato knish, chopped liver, brisket, sliced nova, Kosher hot dogs, and, of course, pastrami, corned beef, bologna, salami, and corned beef tongue, a true delicacy.
But please don’t forget Greenfield’s for breakfast: lox, onions and eggs, and, of course, bagels. Twenty years is a long time to serve in any food-related business. So I asked Robin what part of her business life she’s most proud of.
“It’s about family,” she says. “I feel like I’ve created my own Jewish Community Center here. But I’m not just talking about my customers; there are the kids I’ve given jobs to, some of them their first job.”
I understand. Twelve years ago, Robin gave my older daughter, Pari, her first job, delivering bagels at 6 a.m. on every Saturday and Sunday morning. “Pari-leh,” as Robin calls her, as if my daughter still works there—as if she is Robin’s darling niece or something.
To further combat my own loneliness, as the holidays of Hanukkah approach, I am reminded of how my family began celebrating this ancient cultural festival of light, lighting our menora and hearing Pari-leh’s beautiful voice sing the blessing on each of the eight nights. We started our family ritual at about the same time we discovered Greenfield’s. It’s never too late to discover who you are, who your family is. And to honor all those years of ritualized love.
Illustration by Timothy Banks. Visit Greenfield’s at these three Greenville locations: 101 Verdae Blvd, 206 E Coffee St, and 870 E Super Rd, greenfieldsbagelsanddeli.com. For more from Terry Barr, visit terrybarr.com.