A butcher, a baker, a … restaurateur?

A butcher, a baker, a … restaurateur?

Sam and Edythe Zaro last fall, when he was 93 and she was 91. Jerry Zaro

“If you can talk with crowds and keep
your virtue,

Or walking with Kings – nor lose the
common touch…

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a man,
my son.”

If, by Rudyard Kipling

When Sam Zaro of Fort Lee died at nearly 95 on July 17, it marked the end of a quintessentially American
Jewish life.

It was a life that spanned almost all of the 20th century and reached well into this one, ranged from Poland through Newark and the Bronx to Bergen County, indirectly from World War I directly through World War II. It includes such New York-area institutions as Zaro’s Bakery – the family business that defined his adolescence – and Beefsteak Charlie’s – the 72-restaurant chain he founded.

It is a story of toughness and of love; of children and grandchildren who mourn his death but feel even more strongly blessed by his life. It is the story of a man who so inspired his grandchildren that one of them not only read Rudyard Kipling because of him – how many thirtysomethings have heard of that once-eminent Victorian poet? – but quotes him for the glimpses he sees there of his Yiddish-inflected grandfather.

It’s a story about moxie.

Zaro was born in Lublin, Poland, in 1919, the second of four children in a desperately poor family. His father, Joseph, who had fought for the Poles in World War I – and had shrapnel in his leg for the rest of his life to show for it – left for America when Sam was about 6. Five years later he had amassed enough money to have his family join him.

The family settled in Newark. The Zaros were a poor family in a poor neighborhood; the family had a business, but it barely supported them. The business, a bakery, was called Zaro’s; the family name was Zarobchyck, but that was a time “when you would name your store with your surname, and it’s quite a long surname,” Sam Zaro’s son, Jerry, said. “So they used only the first four letters.” Eventually, the informal change was made legal.

Sam was put to work at the bakery immediately. It wasn’t until a neighbor saw him sitting in the bakery folding boxes and told his mother that he belonged in school that he was given any formal education. As so many children do, he learned English quickly and thoroughly, with no accent except the local one. By the time he was old enough for eighth grade, though, he was out of school again, this time for good. His parents needed him to work.

When World War II began, Sam and his older brother, Willie, went to the recruitment office to talk about enlisting. It was before the draft had begun, and the understanding was that if one son from a family were to enlist, the others would remain home to help support the family once the draft was under way. “Willie said that he should be the one to be drafted, because he was older,” Sam’s grandson, Adam Glazer, said. The two brothers went home to discuss their decision with the family. “But Sam said, ‘Listen, Willie, I left something at the office. I should go back and get it. I’ll meet you at home.'” He had forgotten nothing at the office; instead, he went back and signed enlistment papers, sparing his brother. “He volunteered partially because he was so proud of his country, he knew it was a just war, and he wanted to make a contribution,” Zaro’s grandson said. “But he also knew that the family needed Willie in the bakery. Willie actually could bake. Sam couldn’t, so he was more expendable.”

Sam Zaro, who became a sergeant, was in the Acorn division of the 87th Infantry, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, “and proudly wore an American flag lapel pin for the rest of his life,” Jerry Zaro said.

After the war, Sam Zaro came home but stayed with the bakery for only a short time; then it was not big enough to support the entire family. (Now, of course, that has changed. Zaro’s is a big and successful chain.)

He had “a very sunny disposition and was a very friendly guy,” his son said. “Those were the perfect tools for retail.”

Sam Zaro had married Edythe Soifer in 1944; her father owned a slaughterhouse in Newark, so a move from bread to meat was logical. Zaro opened a kosher butcher shop, called Zaro’s Meat Market, on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx.

“He was immediately successful,” his son reported. “Even though he went on to much greater heights in business, he always remembered those days as his happiest, because it was then that he knew that he’d be successful.”

Sam Zaro moved from one butcher shop to create a wholesale meat company called Holiday Meats, which sold to supermarkets; from there he went on to found the General Meat Company, which “ended up being the largest meat company in all of New York; they served hotels and restaurants,” Jerry Zaro said. From there, it was on to Beefsteak Charlie’s.

“So much for formal education,” Zaro said.

In 1954, the family – Edythe, Sam, Jerry, and his sister, Linda Wallberg – moved to Teaneck, which then “was like Ozzie and Harriet’s town,” Zaro said. “It was like the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ town.

“It was a happy little town, a great place to grow up. It was a middle-class town, and it was mixed – Jews, blacks, Italians. Everybody got along.” The Zaros belonged to the Teaneck Jewish Center.

In the mid-70s, with their children out of the house, Sam and Edythe moved to Fort Lee. They had five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. “They adored him, and he adored them,” his son said.

These are the broad outlines of a life – an obviously successful one – but they leave out the character. Sam Zaro, everyone who talks about him agrees, had charisma, an outsized personality, a tough exterior, and an extraordinary interior sweetness that affected other people’s lives.

His son has stories about his father.

“He was a phenomenal dancer,” he said. “One day, when he was a teenager, he went to the YMHA in Newark, where he heard there was a dance.

“A woman stops him, and asks if he’s a member. He says no. She says you have to be a member to go to the dance, and he was absolutely embarrassed and crestfallen. It was three dollars for an annual membership, but he didn’t have a quarter.

“This woman said, ‘If you ever get the money, will you bring it to us?’ and he said that he would.

“He went to the dance, and for many weeks he saved every penny and brought it to the Y, and for the rest of his life he was a major donor there.” At one point, he became president of the Y when it was in Hackensack.

He also was an active philanthropist with the precursor agency to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, among many other institutions, both local and national.

Another story is set during his adolescence. “A union guy comes into the bakery and threatens his father, telling him that he had to hire another union guy,” Zaro said. “He couldn’t afford to do that – he couldn’t even afford for his kids to go to school because they had to work. He cried, and my father saw it.

“My father jumped over two or three baking tables and threw this guy up against the wall, and then threw him out into the street.

“The next day, the union leader’s nephew – who happened to be a gigantic guy, and a prizefighter – came to square things up with my father, who was a rough guy, but not as big. My father said to this guy, ‘Look, nobody threatens my father. Not even you.’ He put a finger on this guy’s chest.

“The end of the story was not only was there not a fight, but the big guy said, ‘I really like your moxie. I have a sister – I’d like you to take her out.”

Zaro told another story about his father, at the other end of his life. “He met President Bill Clinton on Ellis Island at a fundraiser, and he said, ‘Mr. President, I have been in this place two times in my life. Once was when I arrived in this country – and now, when I am standing with the president.'” The wonder and sheer improbability of that moment was not lost on him.

Sam Zaro believed strongly in giving back, and in the inherent dignity of all people, no matter where they were on the social scale. “He would give respect to everyone,” Glazer said.

“He lived in a building with 200 apartments, and periodically he would leave a cigar in his mailbox, because he happened to know that his mailman liked to smoke cigars.

“How many people in a building that big take the time to know their mailmen? How many would be happy to know that he liked cigars? And how many would bother thinking of giving him one like that?

“Nice guys sometimes finish first.”

Zaro’s cardiologist, Dr. Nate Lebowitz of Demarest, found himself moved by Zaro in a way that he rarely is moved by patients. “You never heard him say anything negative about anyone,” Lebowitz said. “Everything was always wonderful.”

And that positive worldview was not nurtured in passivity. “He was so much larger than life,” Lebowitz said.

“He was truly interested in you. In everyone he talked to. He got to know you as an individual.”

He drank vodka and tonics; he gambled for high stakes; he told stories; he used language perhaps more picturesque than could be reported in this newspaper. He started his butcher shop because “in the boat coming back from Europe he was in a high-stakes game – craps or cards – in 1949, and he won what was then a huge amount of money. He used it to buy his first shop.”

His business flourished not despite but because he was a nice guy. “He was so nice to everyone, all the other businesses in the neighborhood – didn’t matter if they were Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican,” Lebowitz said. “He’d say, if they were having a hard time making their rent, ‘Let me help you. I don’t want you to close.’ He got to know every customer individually; he’d say, ‘Mrs. Epstein, you don’t want this cut. Let me cut this specially for you.'”

This, Lebowitz said, was not patter. It was for real. That’s why “his business grew to the point where he had to have more space, and then more and more. He opened another one and another one, until eventually he controlled half the beef in the United States.

“He definitely had chutzpah,” Lebowitz said. “He was definitely a gambler. At one point he was felt to have had one of the best gin games in the country.”

Steve Rothman of Englewood, a lawyer and onetime Englewood mayor who represented New Jersey’s ninth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997 to this year, has known Sam Zaro all his life; the Zaros and his parents were friends for 60 years.

“All the stories about his warmth, his huge personality, his generosity of spirit, his kindness, his tremendous feeling for the little guy, and his extraordinary work ethic – they’re all true,” Rothman said. “He really was that guy.”

“He was my Obi-Wan Kenobi,” his grandson said, referring to a beloved character from the Star Wars universe. “My mentor, my best friend, my hero.

“He was a John Wayne kind of guy, noble, strong, didn’t use a lot of words – he was communicative, but not flowery. he was straightforward and honest and noble and forthright. He was cool.”

It is Adam Glazer who quotes Rudyard Kipling in describing his grandfather. “My grandfather embodied ‘If,'” he said. “He could walk with kings and still be a common person.”

In an apartment building as big as Zaro’s in Fort Lee, sometimes people die, and then their bodies must be removed. Normally, they are taken down discreetly in the service elevator. “But the doorman blocked the service elevator,” Glazer said. “He said, ‘No. Sam Zaro goes out the front door.'”

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