Harold Shersky, 1919-2008

An homage to a friend, and an irreplaceable institution

If you didn't know Harold Shersky, you know somebody who did. Harold could perplex those simple-minded enough to believe there's such a thing as a typical Knoxvillian. A master of kosher cuisine and an observant Jew trusted with solemn rituals at Heska Amuna Synagogue, he was the son of a Russian refugee from the czar's terror. Some preferred to believe he was an immigrant himself, or at least an errant New Yorker. In fact, he was born just around the corner on old Vine Street, and, except for his time in the service during World War II, never lived anywhere but Knoxville. He was more Knoxvillian than most of us, and no one has ever made such a positive contribution to a city without budging from one place.

That place, as if you didn't know, was 131 South Gay Street, the unassuming two-story brick building wedged into a disparate block cut adrift from the rest of downtown. It was once a block of dirty windows and pawn shops; the Sterchi and the Emporium were big empty buildings that nobody could afford to tear down. On a Saturday 20 years ago, the whole of downtown could seem a bleak non-neighborhood of locked doors, like a Depression-era theme park that had gone broke.

Except for Harold's. You could walk down the middle of empty Gay Street until you got to 131, and you'd pull open the door and arrive in a small festival. Harold's on a Saturday was livelier than any place I know of today, too crowded for comfort except for the fact that these were mostly likeable folks, these lawyers and musicians and architects and gamblers and elderly Catholic widows and tattooed punkers who looked like they'd stayed up all night maybe just to breakfast at Harold's. And at Harold's you could ask for things I wish you could still find downtown, or anywhere: a big bagel with a slice of red onion and some fresh orange lox; eggs scrambled in artfully burnt bologna; later, maybe some matzo-ball soup, or a pastrami sandwich, or a Reuben on pumpernickel or knackwurst and white beans and a knish, with some beet horseradish, and a draft beer and, if you felt worthy, some cheesecake. I liked it so much, the food and the company, that I sometimes tarried through two meals.

Harold opened the place before Knoxville had television, but it thrived into the Internet age: Many who knew each other only by their chat-group monikers met each other in person at Harold's. That crowded room hatched more than one reformist plot.

Six days a week, 51 weeks a year, Harold worked behind the counter in his apron—though he loosened up some in later years, I remember when he wore a tie—smiling benignly, as if watching grandchildren play. His wife, Addie, was often there with him, more like a proud hostess than any sort of entrepreneur, along with Sam, Steve, Sandy, and others constantly in motion in the narrow aisle between the kitchen and the cash register. Harold got there by 5 a.m. every day to slice meat, and often didn't sit down until late afternoon. He'd ask about the health of the rest of downtown, about Market Square at lunchtime. He never got to see it; he was working.

He and Addie opened the place back in 1948, a week before Truman defeated Dewey. It had been a kosher-food place before, but the Sherskys made it an institution. It was a favorite stop for Senator Estes Kefauver, whose framed photograph hung behind the counter. Boxer Jack Dempsey came in more than once; TV celebrity Steve Allen stopped in once, challenging Harold's sensibilities with an order for a chopped-liver-and-lox sandwich. In Harold's early years, the deli was right across the street from WNOX's auditorium; Flatt and Scruggs, Chet Atkins, the Carter Sisters, and others dropped over to Harold's for an after-show meal. No kosher deli in the world had such an authentic country-music pedigree.

More important was what it was to Knoxville. The sincere mendicant knew Harold would give him a sandwich, and any politician who knew what he was doing knew that he could find some open minds, and maybe some votes, at 131 Gay Street. Knoxville boosters would take visitors there for the best one-stop primer on the diversity and potential of a complicated city, demonstrating civic assets that weren't always as apparent elsewhere. As Father Mankel said on Monday—and the fact a Catholic monsignor spoke at a Jewish funeral says something significant—Harold's interfaith inclusiveness prefigured Vatican II by 15 years.

Alternative-weekly reporters found it a swell place to conduct interviews, except for the hazard that they'd find themselves seated near a reporter for the daily.

I went to Harold's at least once a week and sat at the counter. On September 11, 2001, when the world seemed to be coming apart, I went there extra early. Harold's offered my first hope that maybe we could get through this.

When downtown Knoxville appeared moribund, Harold was the one who kept a candle in the window to show there were still people here who cared about the place. "I think it's gonna come back, I do," he'd say. "I'm just not sure I'll be here to see it."

He almost did. Addie died not quite five years ago, but Harold remained as the active proprietor of Harold's until he was 85 years old. It wasn't illness or voluntary retirement but a car wreck that ended his career, in early '05. His health declined thereafter, but he made appearances at two Sunday-afternoon kosher-food festivals in his honor at Heska Amuna, attended ably by his old staffers.

The once-desolate block where Harold's stood is now home to a couple hundred affluent people, some art galleries and boutiques, and a popular upscale sushi place. On a First Friday, there are sometimes more than a thousand people browsing by the deli's uncharacteristically empty windows, where a sympathetic developer has begun extensive renovations. Preserved, for the time being at least, is the mid-century aluminum facade with the large, welcoming word, HAROLD'S.