Lawyers risk it with a brisket as deli unwraps contest entries

The Web site is down. The ads are put away and the deli's deed has three new names.

But dozens of Shenson's contest entries remain, testaments of a dream that came true for only one.

Contestant Alan Steinberg could have been a contest winner, but decided the odds were too risky. Together with partners Jeff and Noah Kirshbaum, he bought the deli outright.

Surely others contemplated the same thing as they waited anxiously for word that their essay, song or poem and a $100 entry fee would win them future ownership of San Francisco's oldest kosher-style deli.

The sale effectively dashed visions of mandelbrot dancing in their heads.

Former owner Alexandra Allen returned all the entry fees, but in stacks of special-delivery envelopes, decorative folders and personal stationery lie the remains of deli dreams and gefilte fantasies.

Barry Orenstein of New York tapped out a pseudo-Shakespearean paean to delicatessens:

I know how to pickle, cure, and smoke pastrami from scratch,And put up sour tomatoes and kirbies by the batch.

But the bottom line is to have the Bubbas love my chopped liverAnd the key to financial success is to cater and deliver.

…But before you give this poem and its writer any `Oy Gevalts,'Remember, if chosen, I'll be schlepping to San Francisco with a tanker truck of chicken schmaltz!

Law partners Philip Lowenthal and Joel August of Hawaii wrote a ballad on the subject:

…The thirties were marked by the Great Depression,Shenson responded with the Great Delicatessen; The forties saw war, our boys had to fight; In the City on leave they'd drop in for a bite.

The fifties were filled with the rhetoric of Cold War; Shenson's still warmed us with knishes galore. In the sixties the flower children invaded the Haight; Shenson was ready with food with some weight….In the nineties we've seen stocks of prosperity; While at Shenson's they still slice lox with old-time dexterity.

To own a deli makes us all aquiver; We've always wanted to be purveyors of chopped liver….We know business, we know lawWe know bagels, and we know slaw. We can run Shenson's with schmaltz and daring;We can even throw in a little herring. It's a new business venture, but we're willing to risk it; 'cause we can do a lot with a little brisket.

Combining tradition with the future is truly our goal; If you want this for Shenson's please pick Phil and Joel.

Susan Unger of San Francisco wrote this schmaltzy ditty complete with gold-laminated score:

…My Papa said, "Why do you want to own a deli? We can't believe that this is happening to us. We always hoped one day that you'd become a doctor.Why did you have to choose this kind of mishegas?"

(chorus) I love to eat, I love to eat, I love to eat at Shenson's Deli…

My mama said, "Why do you want to own a deli?How can you do this to your father and to me?They used to say, `A woman's place is in the kitchen,'but did you have to take it quite so lit'rally?" (chorus)

The rabbi said…

You get the idea.

Not all the submissions were light-hearted. One contestant, for example, wrote about a troubled childhood and his mother's toil after his father abandoned the family:

He worked, drank and was adulterous. And when the divorce came, she ended up with the house and the two children…Her children turned out good and decent even after they dropped out of high school. Her daughter on welfare, living with gang members, earned a degree…Her home is in foreclosure for the last time…I think she would therefore be an excellent candidate [to win Shenson's] along with her two children. We will work very hard and to stay afloat during tough times…P.S. I could start paying back my student loans and get married — pronto!

Jonathan and Brian Shenson of Berkeley felt the deli should stay in the family even though they are only distantly related to one of the original owners, Aaron Shenson:

How did we come to learn about this contest? Well we were surfing the Internet, looking up our relatives…When we were younger, our parents took us to Shenson's Deli. After we ordered our food, we introduced ourselves to the gentleman behind the counter and took our picture under the sign. We were in awe — the Shenson family started this deli and it gave us an incredible amount of pride.

The brothers explained that they had wanted to run a business together ever since they shared a newspaper route as kids. Their business acumen, they said, is their recipe for success; Jonathan is an attorney with financial expertise and Brian is a marketing whiz.

But perhaps Gretchen "Chopped Liver" Spieler of San Francisco echoed best the feelings of local gastronomic Jews:

Shenson's is my spiritual home. In the presence of that pastrami, surrounded by bagels and pickles, I feel happiest. Many a broken heart was assuaged by a hefty turkey on rye and life's woes rehashed over mandelbrot and coffee.

Whenever I think of moving out of the Richmond [District], I can't bring myself to leave Shenson's. I want to own Shenson's because I love it.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.