At Wrigley Field, Orthodox vendors are striking out

Orthodox at wrigley image
A cotton candy vendor roaming the Wrigley Field stands in 1994.

Wrigley Field just celebrated its 100th anniversary, but Orthodox Jewish vendors who sell food and drinks in the stands are becoming part of its past. 

Twenty years ago, it wasn't unusual to have some 25 Orthodox vendors working the stands; a prayer minyan used to take place in the stands before or after games. Even the late Rabbi Moshe Kushner vended in his youth.

Vending was seen as an ideal summer job for observant teens. The ballpark is a short ride from Orthodox neighborhoods, joining the union was easy, and you could make a decent amount of money in just four hours' work. Vendors could choose their hours- perfect both for Sabbath observers and teens uninterested in a regular job. Plus, there was the baseball.

"I went to high school at Ida Crown, and it was just like a rite of passage there," said Jon Blumberg, 41, an investment fund manager who vended for five or six summers beginning in 1989. "Once you were… no longer were going to camp or didn't want to be a counselor, it was just what guys did."

"I'm a huge Cubs fan. I love baseball. I love Wrigley Field," David Porush, 40, a lawyer who vended starting at 16, said. "If you were a very big fan like me, I'd make $30 or $40 and then sit down to watch the game."

Danny Altschul, now a partner at the accounting firm McGladrey, credits his five years of vending with helping pay for college, his wedding and the down payment on his house; he could make up to $300 on a good day. Now, the number of Orthodox vendors has shrunk to just four or five, plus about an equal number of older full-timers, according to Joe Bulgatz, an Orthodox Jew in his 50s who has been vending at Wrigley since 2004.

Seniors at the two Orthodox high schools that served as the main feeders - Ida Crown and Skokie Yeshiva - told JTA through an administrator that students aren't becoming vendors anymore. It isn't as lucrative as it once was, the rising number of night games makes the job less suitable for teens and the setting isn't that compelling to young people. "Between the Cubs' performance and the economy… it's not worth it,'" he said.

Orthodox Jews can't work on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, which cuts out about a quarter of the games. Many won't sell hot dogs for fear of unwittingly selling non-kosher meat to a Jew. And on Passover, they cannot handle beer - often the most lucrative product - because it's chametz (leavened). 

"I'd like to think we're getting our reward in the next world," Porush said. "I've seen lots of heartache as a Cubs fan, and I think it is parallel to being a God-fearing Jew. We live through difficult times and all we can say is, 'Next year in Jerusalem.' A Cubs fan is always saying, 'Wait till next year.'"

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