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An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Project Coordinator: Rachel Bachrach

Kosher pizza, hat-shaped hatboxes, bike-a-thons, group flights to seminary, snoods… Who are the innovators behind these can’t-live-without elements of frum life today?

Monday, October 02, 2017

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Today communities are gauged by how many pizza stores they have, but back in the day, Chopsie Landsberg and Naftali Itzkowitz were trendsetters

S till Saying Cheese 

Zivia Reischer 

When Chopsie Landsberg opened Brooklyn’s first pizza shop, he never dreamed that frozen pizza would be the in-demand result half a century later

These days, when Jewish communities are classified by whether or not they have a pizza shop, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when even Brooklyn didn’t have kosher pizza. But that changed back in 1960, when childhood friends Chopsie Landsberg (pronounced Shabsy) and Naftali Itzkowitz dreamed up New York’s first chalav Yisrael pizza shop.

They didn’t know the first thing about pizza, though, so they devised an ingenuous plan. At the time, they were 19-year-olds, both employed at Golding Brothers’ Textiles in Manhattan, but Chopsie quit his job and apprenticed at a treif Italian pizza store in order to learn the business. Naftali, who had been earning a higher salary, continued to work for Golding and split his paycheck with Chopsie. After six months, they were ready to roll.

On opening day, when their first pizza store opened in Crown Heights, lines for their pizza stretched around the block. The National Jewish Post and Opinion (published in Indianapolis) carried the headline, “Strictly Kosher Pizzas Thrill and Fill Curious Yeshiva Students in Brooklyn.” The story included a photo of Naftali in a chef’s hat behind the counter, and the caption described him as debating with yeshivah students about the correct brachah to make on pizza. One woman remembers that opening day as a Yom Tov — for years she had watched her friends eating saucy, cheesy pizza, and now finally she could also have some. Chopsie kept the dough pareve, and women would come to the back of the store to buy the dough for challah, too.

It was a different era: A slice of pizza was 15 cents and came wrapped in plastic; if you bought a whole pie, you had to pay an extra 15 cents for the box. “People used to come in and ask for eight slices, individually wrapped, to avoid paying for the box,” remembers Arele Itzkowitz, Naftali’s son. “But everyone was really excited about it. There weren’t many conveniences then.”

There wasn’t even shredded cheese — Chopsie and Naftali shredded the cheese by hand. The store was originally called “Chopsie’s and Naftali’s Pizza,” but when Naftali left the business after a few months it became “Chopsie’s.” The families remained close, and their kids would gather in the store and line up assembly-line style to make pizza bagels. “I remember being nine years old and watching my father flip pizza pies in the air,” says Arele. “I thought he was Superman.”

The iconic Chopsie’s logo was designed to resemble Chopsie himself, described as “a quiet man with a gruff demeanor who made everyone feel like a good friend.” When people came to him for advice on how to open their own pizza stores, he didn’t hesitate to help them. He never saw them as competition, always reiterating that Hashem would give him whatever he needed.

The success of Chopsie’s dream didn’t stop him from pursuing his true passion. When the store moved from Crown Heights to Washington Heights near Yeshiva University, Chopsie would learn with the rebbeim whenever they were free. That was usually during recess, which was also Chopsie’s busiest time at the store — but even if he had no one to cover for him, he’d close up shop to learn Torah. If a kid who was supposed to be in class showed up in the pizza store, Chopsie refused to serve him.

“He would also take in ‘lost kids,’ ” his daughter Randi Zylberminc remembers. “He’d give them good food, give them good jobs, build them up, make them feel useful and important.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 680)

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