In 30 years of writing obits, I have never phoned a bereaved family and been asked to come over the house to talk as they sit shiva, or observe the weeklong mourning period.
Yet when the daughters of the deceased made the request Monday, I immediately agreed. This was no ordinary man, after all, but Mr. Arnold Loeb, owner of the Romanian Kosher Sausage Co. at Touhy and Clark.
Yes, I had already eaten lunch, I thought ruefully, driving over. A mistake. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine the spread: The corned beef. The pastrami. The salami. The tubs of chopped liver. Romanian chopped liver. Shivas are normally awash in food. But this. Perhaps, our business complete, I could assemble a heaping plate to take home. Would that be bad form?
Daughters Katharine Loeb and Karen Levin met me and took seats on mourning chairs, with the widow, Lynne Loeb. Orthodox Jews in mourning cover mirrors in the house — you aren’t supposed to think of yourself. They sit shiva on special low chairs, a symbolic returning to earth. (Job 2:13: “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights ... for they saw that his suffering was very great.”)
For all the shivas I’ve attended, I’d never noticed the chairs. Nor picked up on another tradition. I looked at the bare table and made a remark about cold cuts. Chutzpa.
“The tradition is, people are supposed to bring us food and serve us,” Katharine explained, good-naturedly. “It’s their turn to feed us.”
Ah, I thought.
Arnold Loeb’s father, Eugene Loeb started the business in Bucharest, Romania, making sausages in his mother’s kitchen.
“Much to her dismay at times,” Karen said.
The Loeb family survived World War II intact — Romanian Jews fared far better than Jews in, say, Poland. In 1946 the family moved, first to the Dominican Republic, sending their only child ahead to Chicago, where he had uncles.
Arnold Loeb, 83, who died Feb. 27 of pancreatic cancer, went to the Illinois Institute of Technology and became an electrical engineer.
“He maintained his interest in electrical engineering and obtained a patent on a wind energy invention he created,” said Katharine. “I remember flying kites with him. I was little and didn’t realize it was part of a science experiment.”
His father Eugene followed his son to Chicago and began Romanian Sausage on Kedzie near Lawrence in 1957. Arnold eventually joined the business. When not working, he attended synagogue religiously.
“He always started his day at shuel, every morning, seven days a week,” said Lynne, who married Arnold in 2009 (his first wife, Betty, passed away in 2003). “That’s how he started his day. Generally there was someone who couldn’t get there otherwise. He made sure he got there. And if we went out of town, he would network to make sure someone picked up that person.”
She said that, for her husband, doing good works is the definition of being Jewish.
“His description of an Orthodox Jew is: ‘Before someone has to ask for help, see that they need it first,’” she said. “‘Meet their needs before they have to ask.’ He lived that.”
Arnold Loeb was scholarly, but not severe.
“He loved jokes — one of his favorite things, hearing jokes,” said Katharine. “He enjoyed that so much. He always had a joke ready.”
That was a relief — I told the family my intentions: not a traditional obituary, but a column with prominent mention of deli meat. They didn’t object.
What always impressed me about Romanian are the stern warning signs posted before holidays, urging people to place their orders in time or face the unthinkable disaster of not having the delicacies their guests expect.
“He was strict with people because he didn’t want to disappoint them when it was too late to get what they needed.” said Karen.
Most cities in the country are not blessed with a source of really good kosher meat, and shopping at Romanian, I seem to always be behind somebody from Des Moines spending $500.
“People come and tell stories about the person who died,” said Katharine. “A consistent theme are people at Chicago O’Hare bringing Romanian products to relatives and friends. All the TSA agents know the products. They say, ‘Is this Romanian?’’’
“My husband told me that TSA agents have come to the store, wanting to see what is this special product people are taking all over the place,” said Karen. “They came there to buy some.”
With Arnold Loeb’s passing, Karen’s husband Richard Levin, who has worked in the business since 1980, now runs the place, and her son-in-law Daniel Klein is the 4th generation.
Romanian was closed Friday for the funeral and under certain Talmudic interpretations should have remained closed this week too.
“There’s an issue with doing business during the shiva period,” said Katharine. “But the rabbi determined that because it’s such a fixture in the community ...”
Not only for customers, but the 20 employees who need to get paid. A way was found: selling the business during the shiva week, symbolically, to Rabbi Zev Cohen.
Leaving the house of mourning, I had an inspiration. Jews will sometimes make a contribution in the name of the departed. I drove a mile east on Touhy, until the familiar sans-serif steel sign came into sight. I was greeted by the antique coolers, the aqua brick. I put a pound of garlic hotdogs and a kishke in my basket and stood before the counter. It took a moment for one of the six men busily cutting meat and other tasks while speaking several languages to snap to the fact that somebody was ready to order. But one did, and a half pound pastrami was secured. Plus a rye bread because it was right there, by the cashier. I told her I was glad they are open despite Arnold Loeb’s passing.
“Did you know him?” she asked.
No, I said. What was he like?
“He donated a lot of money to charities,” she said.
What was he like as a boss?
“A nice man.”