Down there in vanishing East Baltimore, the big sign on the parking lot wall outside of Lenny’s Deli reads, “The Lombard Street Tradition Continues …”
But the sign’s now officially outdated. The tradition fades with this week’s news that Lenny’s on fabled Lombard Street is closing its doors.
Farewell, corned beef on rye. Farewell, hot dogs wrapped in bologna and hot mustard. Farewell, the big joint’s quarter-century history as Lenny’s, and before that a quarter-century as Jack’s Corned Beef of Lombard Street.
“It’s more than a place to work,” Jerome Dixon was saying at 5 o’clock closing time Wednesday. He’s a cook who’s worked at Lenny’s for the past five years. “You work at a place long enough, it becomes your home. The people we wait on, they become your family.”
That was always the key to Lombard Street during its long heyday as the spiritual home of Jewish Baltimore: it had the feel of extended family.
Across the first half of the 20th century, before the post-war exodus to suburbia, the Lombard Street area was home to about 10,000 Jews and three dozen synagogues.
The street was packed – not only with delis but secondhand clothing stores and public baths, street peddlers quoting Talmud, and a Depression-era flophouse.
Behind every deli counter was a pastrami slicer who was an amateur philosopher on the side. There was Tulkoff’s Horseradish and there was Stone’s Bakery, where you found the fresh bagel and babka and strudel and challah.
And there was Yankelove’s Poultry, the slayer of fresh chickens, who stood on the sidewalk with his handmade sign that proclaimed, “Chickens Killed While You Relax.”
Gone now, all gone.
Now the Jewish Museum of Maryland remains, and the two treasured synagogues, B’nai Israel and the Lloyd Street Synagogue.
And, as reminders of a time when Lombard Street had corned beef in its ozone and chicken fat hanging from its fingers, Attman’s Deli and Weiss’s Deli.
Most of the remaining Lenny’s employees will likely be moved to one of the other locations – on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills or the Horseshoe Casino downtown.
The Lombard Street location is owned by the Jewish Museum. For the rest of the year, the facility will be used by the nearby Helping Up Mission, whose location on nearby East Baltimore Street is undergoing renovations.
After that, plans are incomplete, though there has been talk in recent years of extending the Jewish Museum onto the deli’s property.
It’s a nice thought – a museum with the aroma of corned beef lingering in the atmosphere.
Top photo: Historic image of Lombard Street, early 20th Century
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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