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Closing Chicago’s ‘Lox Box’

A Windy City Jewish tradition for 50 years—bagels and lox, delivered to your door—may soon disappear

Mimi Rosenbush
June 26, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock)

Jews in the Chicago area have long enjoyed a unique kind of Sunday brunch: bagels and lox delivered right to their doors once a year as part of annual Jewish fundraising campaigns. The “lox box,” as it’s known, is a local tradition, now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Containing brunch for a family of four, the original lox boxes distributed in Chicago in 1962—selling for $2.25—included cream cheese, an onion, orange juice, jellies, instant coffee, cream and sugar, a dessert, and, of course, bagels and lox. Proceeds benefited a local Jewish charity.

Today’s lox boxes have changed, often adding a tomato, cereal, herring, and—in the case of my own shul—a taffy apple; they also typically include a variety of tchotchkes that advertise local businesses. The price has gone up, of course, in some cases running $30. But proceeds still support local Jewish causes, now including synagogues, youth groups, and other communal organizations, as well as charities.

“You grow up in Chicago, thinking that lox box is a given,” said Henry Kalter, who has packed and delivered lox boxes since he got his driver’s license over 35 years ago. “It’s just a natural thing here, and a Chicago tradition.”

Tens of thousands of Jewish households around Chicago have received these annual deliveries over the past half-century. But if the history of the lox box is long, its future may be far shorter. As costs climb, volunteers become scarce, and local Jewish institutions shrink, merge, or close, the lox box may soon become a thing of the past.

The idea for Chicago’s lox boxes came from a Milwaukee B’nai Brith chapter that used them as a one-time fundraiser. In 1961, a young Jewish businessman brought the idea to Chicago’s newly formed Bobby Blechman Memorial Chapter of City of Hope—a research, treatment, and education center for life-threatening diseases, established by a group of Jewish couples in memory of their friends’ son, who died of cancer. (Based in Duarte, Calif., City of Hope was originally established in 1913 as the Jewish Consumptive Relief Association; while it continues to service critically ill patients of all backgrounds, many of its volunteers are Jewish.)

In 1962, the chapter’s members started going door-to-door, asking their mostly Jewish neighbors to buy lox boxes for $2.25. Adrienne Stern, who joined the group, along with her husband Chuck, at its inception, remembers the first sales. “We would knock on doors and say ‘lox box,’ and people thought we were stark-raving mad,” said Stern. “We explained that it was breakfast for four people in a box … and then they bought them.” In the first year, the chapter sold around 200 boxes. A year or two later, with a profitable fundraising structure in place, the group of volunteers trademarked the name “lox box” with the State of Illinois.

By 1967, this one chapter had sold 10,000 lox boxes. The Chicago Tribune marked the milestone by asking, “How many bagels, placed side by side, does it take to equal a line three miles long?” (The answer: “60,000 bagels and two tons of cream cheese,” or, in other words, the contents of those 10,000 boxes.) By 1971, the Bobby Blechman Memorial Chapter of City of Hope had sold over 26,000 lox boxes.

Stern remembered that at first in the 1960s and ’70s, their City of Hope chapter had two lox-box sales each year, in March and November, earning up to $6,000 in profit for the organization; Stern said the chapter made “on average, over a 50 percent profit” on the sales. “By the early 1970s, we had 72 cars on the street delivering,” said Stern. “Can you imagine? It was over 2,000 boxes for each sale.”

Seeing the popularity of this local fundraising technique, other Jewish charities and synagogues in Chicago started copying them with annual campaigns of their own, typically seeing profits of 20 percent to 40 percent. (City of Hope’s original twice-a-year effort had become a once-a-year effort by this point, and the other groups adopted lox boxes as an annual ritual.) The City of Hope chapter suggested that these interlopers use another name, like “nosh box,” but everyone wanted to use “lox box,” despite the trademark. A primary concern for City of Hope was quality control: Other organizations could produce an inferior product under the name “lox box,” making the original charity’s product less appealing. But the name stuck. “What are you going to do,” reflected Stern, “start suing other charities? We kept writing letters, but everybody used it anyhow.” A decade later, when the trademark came up for renewal, the chapter decided not to pursue the matter; it wasn’t worth going after the imitators.

Reform, Conservative, and Traditional synagogues, as well as youth groups, and chapters of such organizations as ORT, Na’amat, and Hadassah all joined the fun. In 1968, a chapter of the National Council of Synagogue Youth started selling lox boxes. Marc Feder, who was chapter president, recalled “pretty frantic teenagers dealing with smelly lox” in a rather complex operation. “I can still picture the form we used,” Feder remembered. “It read: ‘Still only $3.’ ”

Each organization set up a lox-box committee, chaired by a leader who rallied a cadre of volunteers to make sales, find vendors, negotiate prices, map out routes, assign delivery teams, store the food, supervise the packing, and distribute the finished boxes on delivery day. Word was typically spread via phone calls to an organization’s members, but anyone could buy a box—often as a gift for friends, relatives, and business associates.

A gentle rivalry surfaced among the different groups. Fern Katz, who chaired the annual lox-box campaign for Skokie’s Congregation Kol Emeth for over 20 years, said, “Our lox box was the most unusual, because I put in candy bars and got donations of make-up, costume jewelry, and cologne. One of my girlfriends still wears her lox-box jewelry!” Only the best items went into Kol Emeth’s lox box, she said: “The product we put in was quality. There was no junk. You couldn’t beat our product.”

Like Chicago hot dog aficionados, who never allow ketchup on their dogs, lox-box lovers take an absolute stand as to what goes in a proper lox box. For example, tomatoes, a staple today, were verboten in the originals. “We never put tomatoes [pronounced “tahmaytahs”] in. We always resisted. Why? We could never guarantee that they would be firm tomatoes. We were so serious about it,” Stern said with a laugh, “and we couldn’t guarantee top quality in winter.”

Sue Winokur, who has been part of lox-box operations for Na’amat and Hadassah for the past 30 years, wouldn’t dream of making a lox box without a cucumber. “That’s what they serve on a restaurant lox platter,” she said, “so that’s what we put in our lox box.” But when the vegetable market offers the cucumbers at no cost, an inadvertent zucchini may make its way into the box.

Sometimes, lox-box reasoning defies logic, but that’s part of its charm. Harvey Redfern, president of the men’s club at Congregation Beth Shalom in suburban Northbrook, describes the mock sparring at an annual pre-lox-box meeting, coining it The Great Herring Debate. “Most people don’t eat herring, and the average cost is high at $2 a jar,” he said. “So, in our men’s club, it’s the standard joke that every year we will question whether we’re putting herring in the box or not. But we all know that we are going to include it … even though no one eats it.”

Never up for even simulated debate is the lox itself: Every lox box must include lox. Anyone who worked on a lox box into the 1980s remembers the days before pre-packaged lox, when lox came in sheets, the way it is delivered to delis and fishmongers. Lox-box volunteers delicately separated the lox, weighed out a quarter-pound per box on postal scales, and wrapped it by hand. Stern recalls that “it was net-caught fish, and the fish would beat themselves up, so there were black marks on the fish. I would go with a knife and cut out the black marks because the fish had to look pristine, so I was called the mohel.”

Every organization has a favorite disaster story about lox boxes: running to grocery stores in the middle of the night to supplement short food supplies or, in one instance, the unexpected delivery of poppy seed bagels that upon closer scrutiny revealed tiny moving ants. Stern recalls the time a Los Angeles-based lox distributor canceled its shipment at the last minute. Stern found another distributor and stayed up all night trying to track down the airline that was shipping her lox. “Finally, at three in the morning, I got a call from the airlines: ‘Mrs. Stern we’ve got your fish. They are marked to go to an aquarium store on Devon Avenue,’ ” she recalled. She told the airline: “No, I don’t want live fish; I want dead fish!” (The dead fish finally arrived in time to be packed by a small army of frantically assembled volunteers.)

Aaron Shafter, who has coordinated several recent lox-box sales in my shul, Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation A.G. Beth Israel, suggested that the real fun of a lox box is discovering what’s inside. “Getting a lox box,” he said, “is sort of like being a kid with a box of Cracker Jacks.” And like a box of Cracker Jacks, a lox box has contained more than food in recent years. Magnets, pens, note pads, and sticky notes advertising real-estate agents, banks, mortgage brokers, CPAs, and insurance agents are standard. Stern, still a purist, insists that the original lox boxers would never stoop to include tchotchkes: “They are stupid things mostly from funeral homes—very depressing.” The City of Hope mavens insisted that advertising cheapened the lox box. “In fact,” Stern explained, “we had one guy who was a TV repair man. When he was delivering our boxes, he slipped his card in. We were furious at him.”

But one would be hard pressed today to find a Chicago area lox box without tchotchkes: a calculator, a dollar bill donated by a bank, a Beanie Baby, a bottle opener, a thermos, an emery board, even a portable hazmat suit in a Ziploc bag, and yes, a calendar from a funeral home. My own shul includes a plastic rain bonnet, folded like origami into a neat plastic sleeve advertising a now defunct bank—the perfect item for the Friday trek to the beauty shop, circa 1965, when our moms and grandmothers went for their weekly bouffant shellacking.

The lox box endures as a Chicago tradition, even though the name itself has become a misnomer: It still contains a lox breakfast, but it rarely comes in a box; today’s lox box comes in a large shopping bag, which until a few years ago also included a Sunday newspaper. But despite its ongoing popularity in certain fundraising circles, the numbers of lox boxes in the Chicago area is in decline. At my own shul, for instance, lox-box sales have decreased in step with its declining and aging membership. Shafter explained that while it continues to be one of the ways the synagogue raises money, “for our shul, lox box is not the fundraiser in any way, shape, or form.”

The same is true across Chicago, even though the region’s Jewish population is increasing. According to the Jewish United Fund’s 2010 Metropolitan Chicago Jewish Population Study, Chicago’s Jewish population has increased to 291,800 from 270,500 in 2000. However, the Chicago Jewish Star points out that the survey’s healthy number includes areas far from Chicago’s city core, which is home to the area’s older, established synagogues. In 2010, the paper ran a cover story about “non-Orthodox attrition,” reporting that a half-dozen Chicago-area synagogues were closing, merging, or moving. These changes reflect the aging of mostly Conservative and Traditional shuls, where lox-box fundraisers once thrived.

Orthodox synagogues are flourishing in the area, as the same Star article explains, but these congregations—as well as Orthodox day schools and yeshivas—are looking at larger-scale, more lucrative fundraisers, not labor-intensive, one-house-at-a-time lox-box campaigns. Today, these organizations are planning sporting events, concerts, and Chinese auctions to bring in funds.

Efrem Popel has chaired the Chinese auction at Beis Medrash Mikor Hachaim for about 10 years. He described this event as “a glorified raffle, which has raised as much as $30,000.” Popel sees no place for lox boxes with the younger crowd at his Orthodox shul: “The lox and bagel breakfast is of the previous generations,” he said. “It’s just not a draw for us. Our crowd would rather buy cookies, cake, and a Starbucks coffee on a Sunday morning.”

Fewer synagogues and organizations coordinate lox-box fundraisers. Costs are up. Sales are down. It’s harder than ever to find volunteers to pack and deliver the boxes. And the target audience is shrinking, and aging. To Stern, lox boxes that sell for over $25 are just too expensive for most people: “The cost of food has almost doubled, and many vendors can no longer provide free products,” she said. “It’s pitiful that some synagogues sell so few lox boxes. Why even bother?”

Still, Redfern suggests that lox boxes are worth the time and effort. Congregation Beth Shalom is one of the three largest Conservative synagogues in the area, with over 1,200 families. In March 2011, its men’s club sold a whopping 1,400 lox boxes, including over 500 that were donated to the poor. “Our lox box sales net a 30 percent profit and make the difference between having money and not having money,” said Redfern. “Without it, we couldn’t do scholarships, go to conventions, or bring in a speaker for a Holocaust program.”

When Redfern explains lox-box fundraisers at the annual National Federation of Jewish Men’s Club meeting, people from most regions haven’t the vaguest idea what he’s talking about; although similar campaigns exist elsewhere, the lox box holds a unique place in Chicago’s Jewish history. When Redfern explains that lox boxes can bring in a profit of between 20 percent and 40 percent, people pay attention.

But if larger congregations like Redfern’s Congregation Beth Shalom can maintain healthy lox-box fundraisers, the declining membershp and continued closures of many of Chicago’s non-Orthodox synagogues would seem to indicate that lox boxes are on the way out.

At the campaign’s peak in the 1990s, Congregation Kol Emeth sold 650 lox boxes a year. Fern Katz remembers: “They sold for around $18, and we had a 50 percent profit. But we have an older congregation; we didn’t have the drivers and runners. So, we ended lox box in around 2006.” In the end, she explained, “it was difficult to get people to work—numbers of sales had dropped to half, costs were up, and we didn’t want to charge more than $20.”

Manpower is a huge issue. Sandra Silverglade was an active participant in her Ilana Na’amat chapter’s lox box—one of the first Na’amat chapters to do one. “We stopped selling lox boxes about 15 years ago, because our babies had grown and women went to work,” she explained. “It made more sense for us to write a check to Israel and not do tedious work to sell a product.”

Silverglade laments the loss of camaraderie that accompanied the end of their Na’amat lox-box operation. “It was a way of bringing women together, a group thing. We’re less unified now,” she admitted. “Lox boxes created a closeness, a friendship, where we would help each other. We delivered packages and raised funds—and we had a blast!”

For the past several years, the sisterhood of Congregation Ezras Israel, a traditional synagogue on Chicago’s North Side, has considered ending its lox box. In the 1970s and ’80s, Ezras Israel packed around 1,500 people in three High Holiday services. Today, it is an aging shul of approximately 270 member units. Its lox box sales peaked at 500 boxes in the mid 1990s; they hope to sell 150 boxes this fall. Doris Rosenberg, 90, who chairs the sisterhood’s lox-box committee, explained: “Last year we netted around $2,700, a small percentage of our synagogue’s overall operating budget. But it helps.” Even the sisterhood’s indefatigable Pearl Glotzer, who sells 40 boxes on her own, cannot counterbalance the trend of lower sales. Glotzer acknowledged: “A number of people have passed away, so we lose out on those sales.” The synagogue may eliminate delivery routes, but it will keep the tradition alive, for now.

Tradition is at the heart of the lox-box culture, and people who love to do lox boxes insist that when their shuls merge or die, lox boxes will be the last thing to go. As Harvey Gold, executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom put it, “We’re going to sell lox boxes until we run out of lox.”

Mimi Rosenbush teaches English composition and grammar at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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