This story first appeared in the Pioneer Press in Skokie on December 6, 2013. JUF News has been given permission to republish it.
year is 1963, and Skokie, like much of America, is thriving and growing.
The post-war housing boom is still in full throes. Old Orchard has been open a
mere six years. New commercial establishments are popping up block after block
on Dempster Street and Skokie Boulevard, Skokie’s burgeoning new commercial
is a time of innocence and boundless optimism. A youthful President Kennedy and
his Queen, Jackie, still reign, but our world is about to change.
is home to a large Jewish population steeped in values and fueled by
unfathomable suffering and centuries of oppression. Sensitivity and
empathy abound, and yet in the midst of liberal, Democratic North Skokie’s most
dynamic street, Dempster, stands a monument to another people’s stereotypes and
pain. That symbol lay in the seemingly benign figure gracing “Aunt Jemima’s
Restaurant.” Skokie and America’s evolution beginning in 1963, and
continuing in the present are embodied by a black “mammy” smiling down on us
and from the sign on 4700 W. Dempster Street. But whether it was naivety
or gross insensitivity, the shackles of the past were coming off and we were on
our way to a more tolerant world. Skokie was becoming a more open and
progressive place. A bigger tent was in the offing.
property commonly known as the Barnum and Bagel site is a place of change and
transformation that started as a concept; an image from another age, and
evolved in ways that mirrored the changes in this magical village and revealed
our openness to progress and acceptance. The late ‘60s and ‘70s may have seen
protests and turmoil all around us, but the former Aunt Jemima’s was then the
classic coffee house of our youth, the Gold Coin. Be it Sunday brunch or late
nights with your buddies, it was as comfortable as an old shoe and sometimes the
food tasted nearly the same. Jewish Skokie flocked there and Skokie
‘80s and ‘90s saw the beginning of changing demographics as an influx of Asians
came to Skokie in search of “the better life” that other groups had already
found there. Skokie was in transition and the population began to
shrink. The changes were hardly noticeable at a place that was our shrine
– Barnum and Bagel. Our alta cocker
fathers ruled at breakfast; Sunday was for lox and bagels; and lunch was for
“blue-haired bubbies” and their daughters and grandkids.
more than 20 years Barnum and Bagel – with decorating out of a Stephen King
horror movie – graced our world, and reminded us that all was well and comfortable
within its four walls. The food may have been mediocre (except for the
soups of course), the service fair – but it was home. You knew half the
restaurant on any visit, and somebody in your party was always related to
someone else in the joint. In many ways it was a time warp that reminded us of
a lost era, even as our world was changing in ways profound and mundane.
As Skokie entered the “aughts” we were becoming a beautiful rainbow that
conjured awe and glee in many and fear in others.
are a different place than the Skokie I grew up in, and nowhere is that more
evident than the Barnum and Bagel location. It closed in 2008 and deteriorated
over the years, but now, like Skokie itself, is emerging into a period of
rebirth – a renaissance if you will. The tent formerly known as Barnum and
Bagel will come down soon as we begin a new era.
a wonderful man, and his son, Hazem, the longtime owners of Pita Inn, the
sumptuous Middle Eastern restaurant, are the exquisitely logical successors to
the late Leo Osher and his son Michael who greeted patrons like long lost
relatives for decades at Barnum. Fallal and Hazem will carry on the ancient
tradition of Abraham, Ibrahim, Leo and Michael as they welcome Skokie and the
world into their new Pita Inn home in 2014.
Aunt Jemima to the Gold Coin to Barnum and Bagel and now the Pita Inn, 4700 W.
Dempster Street is our time capsule, a place that embodies our history and
progression as a society. It, like Skokie itself, has always been, and
will always be, a place where neighbors and strangers can share a meal – and
King, a Skokie treasure, and our unofficial historian, no longer owns 4700 W.
Dempster, but he along with his late father Armond helped transform Skokie in
the post-war era. Neither Neil nor, I, your humble author, live in Skokie
anymore. Neil resides on the lake on the near north side, and I dwell in
some leafy “quiche-eating” suburb further north. But we are both “Skokie
boys” at our core, with roots that stretch from Touhy to Old Orchard and values
learned in the parks, schools and restaurants that served us well. You can
take the boy out of Skokie, but you can’t take Skokie out of the boy. Nothing
is static in life except our memories. No matter where we are, or what
we’re doing in our minds eye, Skokie is our Camelot – then, now and