NOVEMBER 16, 2017 – It’s 11:30 on a Friday morning at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore health club, and a handful of men move toward a round table filled with lox, bagels, cream cheese, and herring.
“I got to admit the herring is out of this world,” says Harold Mindel, a retired banker from Lynn who fills his plate with herring, lox, a bagel, onions, tomatoes, and plain cream cheese before returning to eat with his friends.
Mindel and the 15 other men that arrive late Friday mornings to eat, schmooze, and relax call their repast “the Oneg.” Most of the men have been meeting and eating on Fridays since the building opened in Marblehead in the early 1970s. But the tradition goes back to the mid-1950s, when old-timers wound their way up the steps of the old JCC in Lynn and held court on Fridays in a locker room on the side of the gym.
Because so many of the men spend the winter in Florida, the Oneg is held these days from May through Thanksgiving. If there is a leader and a historian in the group, it is Kenny Sorkin, a former Camp Simchah director who grew up in Lynn. In the early 1970s, men like Bob Harris and Lennie Sogoloff – who ran the legendary jazz club Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike – used to shop on Friday mornings to put together the Oneg.
Now, Sorkin – who oversees the Oneg – has streamlined the process, and every week he assigns a different member of the group to pick up the tab for the food, which comes from Evan’s Deli in Marblehead.
Sorkin, who has spent much of his life working out and talking with friends at the JCCs in Lynn and Marblehead, says he runs the Oneg in memory of his late brother, Richard, who was one of the Friday morning regulars. “I do it for Richard, because he used to come up here and kibbitz,” says Sorkin.
Across from Sorkin, Herb Greenbaum alternately tells stories about the old JCC in Lynn as he marvels at the lox on his plate. “The only time I ever eat lox is when I’m up here, and it’s very traditional,” says Greenbaum, who grew up in Lynn, and is now 92.
Greenbaum remembers the old gatherings at the Lynn JCC as modest affairs. “It was a closet compared to this,” says the retired insurance man who has been a member of the JCC for 75 years. “It really began here. Guys just brought stuff. We even used to have booze here. I’m here for the camaraderie.”
So is David Levy, a retired medical doctor who grew up in Revere and comes on Fridays to work out and meet with old friends. Levy, who is 89, believes friendships are essential when you reach your golden years.
“It’s very important, especially when you get to my age; your friends are all dead, the people you grew up with. Every other day you hear of someone passing away. So this is almost like the old ‘Cheers’ bar; it’s nice to go somewhere where everyone knows you,” says Levy.
It’s nearing 12:30 and most of the lox is gone, along with the bagels and the cream cheese. Rabbi Michael Ragozin, who leads Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, pops in and strides toward the lox. “This is our soul food,” he pronounces, as a few men stand by and listen to his observations. “This is like a taste of Shabbat.”
A few men sit in comfy chairs in front of the room’s widescreen TV, and close their eyes. Meanwhile, Sorkin surveys the room and remembers that there’s still a birthday cake to give to Dave Kasoff. Sorkin lights a candle, and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” before Kasoff makes a quick wish and blows out the flame.
A few people rise and shake Kasoff’s hand; Sorkin goes about cleaning the rest of the room. By 1 o’clock, the room is quiet again and any untold stories will have to wait until the next Oneg.