By Thomas Breen
WESTVILLE–Three days before Passover, a longtime customer of Westville Kosher Market called Rachel Hamenachem in a panic. Her husband, a celebrated Yale professor, had just died. Now she needed enough food to feed 100 people who would be coming to her house for the shiva.
So Hamenachem and her husband Yuval stayed up all night cooking. The co-owners of the decades-old Upper Westville market made sure their customer, and friend, got what she needed in time for the week-long ritual mourning.
The customer apologized again and again for such short notice so close to the holidays, Rachel remembered during an interview behind the market’s checkout counter on Tuesday afternoon, May 14. She waved her friend’s concerns away. People don’t die at convenient times, she said. One has no control over that.
And when you run a community-based kosher market like hers, emergency shiva and wedding and bar and bat mitzvah orders are simply part of the job.
For 34 years, Westville Kosher Market’s business hasn’t simply sold lamb chops and Israeli hummus. It has also provided a social and culinary lifeline for New Haven’s Jewish community.
“That’s what you do,” Rachel Hamenachem said. “Those are the stories of Westville Kosher Market.”
Now that lifeline is disappearing. At the end of May, after over three decades of building community on the west side of town through kosher chicken schnitzel and fresh spinach knishes and imported Israeli crackers and homemade eggplant salad, Westville Kosher Market at 95 Amity Rd. is closing its doors for good. Its final day open will be May 31.
Rachel and Yuval, who founded the New Haven market in 1985, are retiring. They plan to visit family in Israel for several months before returning to their home in Bethany.
The Jewish community is preparing its own shiva.
“This loss already aches in our community,” Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven CEO Judy Alperin told the New Haven Independent. “As people learned the news, I saw shock and disappointment. Our community isn’t just losing an important and necessary component that supports kosher observance, but a place that has been a home away from home for many as Yuval and Rachel were part of so many life-cycle events and holiday celebrations.”
The federation hosted a community meeting recently to discuss possible responses.
“Personally,” Halperin said, “I will be in knish withdrawal for the foreseeable future.”
As customers trickled in and out of the store on, still in a mild state of shock that the sole remaining kosher market in town will be shuttering, the Hamenachems explained why they’re deciding to close up shop now.
They cited four main reasons:
• New Haven’s Jewish community, and in particular the subset that keeps kosher, has gotten smaller and smaller over the decades as people pass away or move out of town, to the eastern suburbs or out of state.
• Vegetarian and vegan diets have become increasingly popular among a younger generation of Jews, who eat less meat than their parents and grandparents.
• Large grocery store chains like Stop & Shop and Costco have increased their own kosher sections, providing tough price competition for mom-and-pop markets like Westville.
• The burgeoning phenomenon of online grocery shopping has made going to a small community market like Westville inconvenient for customers who expect door-to-door delivery.
“It’s the right time for us,” Rachel said. She said the couple has tried many times to sell the store over the years, but to no avail. Now the long hours and dwindling, if loyal, customer base have made keeping the store open increasingly difficult.
When she and Yuval first opened Westville Kosher Market, originally on Litchfield Turnpike, shortly before they moved the market to its current location in an Amity Road shopping plaza, the neighborhood still had a Jewish-owned bakery and other similar establishments.
“When you lose those kinds of things,” she said, “it’s very hard to live a Jewish life.”
Even as the community it serves has gotten smaller, she said, the market’s relationship with its customers has always and continues to transcend the merely transactional.
“I Have Only Good Stuff To Say”
Born, raised, and married in Israel, Rachel and Yuval moved to New York City in the early 1980s to open a small kosher deli called Deli Glatt on Fulton Street and Broadway near the World Trade Center. Yuval already had some experience running a deli in his hometown of Jerusalem, and Rachel came from a family of market owners and butchers.
They opened shop in New Haven five years later after Rachel’s brother, who was living in the city at the time, encouraged the two to come to the Elm City and set up a kosher market to replace the city’s recently departed Crown Market. Kosher delis in Bridgeport and Stamford also closed at around that time, Yuval said, and so the store had steady business not just from New Haven, but from throughout the state.
Since then, they’ve become a fixture of New Haven’s Jewish community, with Yuval manning the butcher shop and prepared foods counter at the back of the store and Rachel helming the checkout near the store’s entrance.
“We know four generation of customers here,” she said. “From birth to bar mitzvah, from weddings to babies. It’s just awesome. I have only good stuff to say” about the people who have come through the market’s doors over the past three decades.
Standing alongside a framed New York Times write-up on the market from 2010, Rachel remembered one such customer life-saving experience a few years ago, right before Rosh Hashanah, when a young couple Rachel didn’t know ran into the store and asked to buy a wedding cake.
She didn’t have a cake available for sale, so she asked the couple to come back in a few hours to give her time to bake one.
No, the couple replied. We need a cake right now. My mother is dying, the young woman said, and the couple wanted to hold the ceremony ASAP. Rachel rushed to the store’s refrigerator, found a chocolate ice cream cake, and asked for 10 minutes to decorate it. Nope, the couple replied. The bride’s brother could do the assembling. They needed the cake and whatever toppings Rachel could sell them right now.
So Rachel gave them the cake and the toppings, free of charge, and wished them well.
A few months later, an older man came into the store and thanked Rachel for treating his daughter so well the day of her wedding. Her mother died later that same day, he said, but not before the wedding had taken place. He gave Rachel a picture of the happy couple, on their wedding day, all smiles, eating the chocolate ice cream cake.
That’s what being a community market is all about, Rachel said.
“A Really Big Loss”
Other customers in the store on Monday attested to the critical importance that the market has played in New Haven Jewish life since the mid-1980s.
“For people who keep kosher, you can’t replace it,” said Rachel Light, who was shopping for beef and knishes with her daughter Ramona. She said she has been a regular at Westville Kosher Market since moving to New Haven in 2002, and that she doesn’t know where she’s going to go now that the store plans to close.
“It’s always been a place to run into friends,” she said. “It’s a community.” She recalled that, when she first told Ramona that the market would be closing, her daughter threw her hands in the air and said, “But what are we gonna do about knishes!”
Miriam Jochelman Peled agreed. Now living just outside of Morristown, New Jersey, Peled said she grew up in the area, and routinely comes back to visit her parents’ burial spots. She said she remembers well just how important the store was to her parents when they were still alive, and to her when she still lived in the city.
“For the Jewish community,” she said, “it’s a really big loss.”
The community is invited to the Westville Kosher Market closing day celebration on Friday, May 31, at the store loacted at 95 Amity Road.
This article is reprinted with permission from New Haven Independent (newhavenindependent.com).