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Make room for new

On Harvard Street, Jewish traditions stand up to change

By Hinda Mandell
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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When you shop the Jewish retail stores and kosher establishments of Brookline’s Harvard Street, you enter a world of superlatives.

The Butcherie’s automated phone greeting welcomes customers to “New England’s largest kosher market.” A few steps away, the owner of the Israel Book Shop, Eli Dovek, describes his bibliophile’s paradise as the largest purveyor of Jewish books in New England. And Rubin’s Kosher Restaurant Delicatessen is known as the oldest kosher deli in New England — “definitely the oldest around here,” according to owner Allen Gellerman, who’s related to the cofounders of the Butcherie.

So when change comes to this cluster of close-knit and long-established Jewish shops, word gets around quickly.

The news in this part of Brookline is twofold: Grape Leaves, a marketplace following the stricter glatt kosher rules, has made its debut on Harvard Street. And Lev Friedman, owner of Kolbo Fine Judaica — a “Jewish-quality Tiffany’s,” according to customer and Chestnut Hill resident Rena Olshansky — plans to retire after nearly 30 years behind the counter.

Before he moves on, Friedman said, he intends to find a buyer for the store. While there have been “some nibbles and at least two bites” by local parties interested in buying Kolbo, the Newton resident made clear that “it’s a long way from a bite to a deal.”

The impending change has at least one longtime customer a bit on edge.

“I just hope he finds somebody wonderful to buy it. Otherwise it will be a huge loss for the community,” said Susan Farber, a psychotherapist from Newton who’s been shopping at Kolbo since it opened in 1978. “He has no competition in the area, in my mind.”

Friedman, 60, began working at Kolbo in 1984 when the store was 750 square feet and mostly sold ceramics by Jewish-American artists.

Back then, the naysayers told Friedman and Kolbo founder Billy Mencow that a business limited to selling Judaica would never make it. People equated the Jewish-themed objects with “grandma’s tchotchkes,” according to Friedman.

A common customer refrain, he said, was “I don’t know how you guys stay in business.”

Yet over time Kolbo introduced an expanded view of Judaica, offering candlesticks, plates for Seder feasts at Passover, and ritual wine glasses that were artistic and cutting edge in design. “We had to educate people that it was OK to have these beautiful objects in their homes,” he said.

And that’s exactly the mission of Kolbo: beautifying good deeds, according to Friedman. “The whole idea of the store is if you’re going to have a Seder, why not have a beautiful Seder plate to beautify your table?”

In 1997 Friedman became the owner of Kolbo, which means “everything’s inside” in Hebrew. Today, the renovated store is 3,000 square feet. It features works from all over the world by numerous artists that Kolbo helped develop and promote. And the ritual objects are no longer limited to ceramics. Designs incorporate handblown glass, silver, and other metals.

So what does retirement look like for this veteran proprietor?

“It’s really an open book and a mystery,” said Friedman. However, it’s likely that music will continue to play a prominent role for the singer, songwriter, and guitarist.

In 2008, he released a CD, “Breathing Still,” and is at work on another recording he hopes to release by year’s end.

For Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, executive director of Hillel Foundation at Tufts University, a visit to Kolbo is second only to a visit to the Holy Land. “If I can’t go to Jerusalem I go to Kolbo,” said Summit, 60, of Newton.

Kolbo is one stop in a network of stores — among them the falafel joint Rami’s and Kupel’s Bakery, both kosher establishments — that turn Harvard Street into a Jewish destination, he said. “I tell my students all the time. If you want to understand Jewish Boston, take a field trip to Harvard Street. Go have lunch at Rubin’s.”

Now, they can also grab a bite at Grape Leaves Gourmet Glatt Kosher Meat & Fine Foods, the new butcher and takeout establishment opened by Brookline brothers Morris and Joe Naggar. Morris Naggar said their store helps fill a niche with gourmet kosher food.

Their inspiration was bringing to Brookline the gourmet standard of kosher establishments in Miami and Brooklyn, N.Y., he said. “Boutique” and “gourmet” are the guiding principles at Grape Leaves, where the core product is meat processed under glatt kosher requirements.

The opening of Grape Leaves continues the long tradition of kosher butchers on Harvard Street, according to Leonid Naimark, cofounder of the Brookline-based Ahla Food Tours.

Naimark, whose company offers excursions to Jewish- and Russian-cuisine hotspots, said there were six kosher butchers on Harvard Street in the 1960s. There are now two, with the addition of Grape Leaves. While Jews have moved in and out of Brookline since 1914, the overall population has stayed pretty constant, according to Naimark, 44., There are about 27,000 Jews living in his hometown today, he said.

At Grape Leaves, Naggar said he sees a demand for glatt kosher meat. In addition to fresh cuts, the market’s offerings include prepared meatloaf, brisket, Buffalo wings, and ribs. Its aesthetic is “new with an Old World feel to it,” said Naggar, 49. The décor features a tin ceiling and stained hardwood floors with a high-shellac finish.

While his shop may be the new kid on the block, Naggar said, he is excited about making his mark among the old guard of stores.

“If they’re all in a cluster there’s a synergy. They help promote one another.”

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