On a crisp fall day in the early 2000s, I walk from synagogue with my family down the street in Brookline, Massachusetts, to our favorite deli, Zaftigs, for what I can still recall to be the perfect Yom Kippur break fast.
Upon entering our go-to deli, we are greeted by a large portrait; a painting of a full-figured woman in red, with a hand on her hip and a subtle smirk. I think of her as the “zaftig lady” and am glad her Rubenesque figure watches over us as we stuff our recently-fasted faces with latkes, smoked fish and pickled tomatoes.
Established in 1997 (or “5757” as the deli states on its website) Zaftigs quickly became one of the most popular Jewish delis in Boston, serving up dishes that still remain their most popular, including their famous “loaded latkes” (latkes with smoked salmon, dill and sour cream) along with house-made rugelach, bialys, babka and macaroons. Since its Brookline debut, the restaurant has also opened a location in Natick, MA.
“Our most popular item is chicken soup,” owner Robert Shuman tells me. “The recipe was created by my grandmother, Nanny Fanny; in fact she’s the woman in the red dress in our portrait.”
Zaftig is a Yiddish-derived word that entered the English language during the mid-1800s, commonly used to describe a “plump” or buxom woman. It stems from the word, zaftik, which means “juicy” or “succulent,” an extension of zaft, meaning “juice” or “sap.”
Zaftig is not simply an adjective, but also a cultural signifier; a celebration of the proud and curvy matriarchs that have provided generations-worth of stick-to-your-bones Jewish comfort food to their families and others who have entered their powerful orbits. Zaftigs Deli has honed in on this potent sentiment and to this day, their restaurant is adorned with portraits of joyful, buxom ladies.
“In 1997, I went down to NYC to take a look at the deli scene,” Shuman tells me. “I wanted to open up a contemporary Jewish eatery in Boston that could appeal to the masses. The backbone of our deli is chicken soup and knishes. I sent my kids to college from the amount of soup we’ve sold over the years. We’re a scratch kitchen, everything is homemade. Judaism, to me, is a history of people and food. Food is love.”
When I ask Shuman how he came up with the the name of the restaurant, he tells me, “I love the images the word Zaftig conjures up: an overstuffed sandwich, a baby’s thigh, a Rubensesque woman; Zaftig is life!”
Outside Zaftigs there is a mural on the side of the building, that was painted by a community arts center years ago, Shuman tells me. Featuring Nanny Fanny in her signature red dress, along with other Boston community members, the mural is a clear celebration of the years of camaraderie this restaurant has brought forth.
I recently brought some old camp friends to Zaftigs for a proper feast of latkes and blintzes after we all had attended an unofficial singles party the night before (this is all extremely Jewish, I know). The restaurant was filled with the Sunday ambiance of laughter and joyful kibitzing. Severs presented food wearing shirts that said “knish me” and “almost kosher.”
The meal brought me right back to break fast with my family and how glad I felt to not only be eating in a restaurant where I could indulge in my favorite foods, but where I was encouraged to flaunt that “zaftig” indulgence — just like the proud Nanny Fanny, smirking in her red dress, above me.