Religion & Jewish Life | Sports

In the shadow of Wrigley, Chicago’s newest kosher deli pitches cured meats and good deeds

An exhibit at the Jewish baseball museum at Milt's Extra Innings in Chicago. At left is deli worker Zahava Auerbach. (Ellen Braunstein)

CHICAGO (JTA) — Baseball gloves and caricatures of famous ballplayers adorn the walls of Milt’s Extra Innings — no surprise for a deli that’s a short drive from Wrigley Field, the fabled home of the Chicago Cubs.

But look closely and the picture becomes a little more unexpected: The memorabilia on the walls celebrate Jewish greats and not-so-greats like Sandy Koufax, Philadelphia Athletics first baseman Lou Limmer, and the catcher and sometimes spy Moe Berg. And there among the collection of bobbleheads, right next to former catcher Brad Ausmus, is Moses — that Moses — gripping a set of tablets.

The latest addition to the redevelopment of the neighborhoods around Wrigley is a kosher deli that is a celebration of Jews and America’s pastime — as well as a place where Jewish adults with intellectual disabilities can find meaningful work experience.

Restaurateur and real estate investor Jeff Aeder recently opened Milt’s Extra Innings next door to his kosher Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed, which for five years has donated all profits to Jewish causes. Milt’s Extra Innings will follow suit, donating all profits to Keshet, a Jewish agency serving children and adults with intellectual challenges in the Chicago area.

The owner of a 5,000-piece collection of Jewish baseball memorabilia, Aeder is showcasing a small fraction of artifacts that celebrate 170 Jews who have played in the major leagues. A mural timeline on a wall tracks the history of Jews in the sport from 1860 until today. Among the framed collectibles near the deli counter are a jersey worn by Koufax from 1963, his best year, Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg’s game-used bat and a mitt used by Berg.

“Baseball is a great metaphor for the Jewish experience in America,” Aeder said of his niche Jewish Baseball Museum, where his entire collection lives, for the moment, online. The website includes a quote from author Jonathan Eig saying that in baseball, like Judaism, members of a “tribe … pass along a collective sense of identity — where we come from and who we are.”

“We’re telling the story of Jews in America through baseball,” Aeder said.

Extra Innings branches away from the barbecue fare next door by offering fresh meat sandwiches, prepared salads and side dishes. The deli, offering catering and takeout, is small, seating only 14. The deli fare ranges from soups to schnitzel to whitefish salad and sweet potato salad. The workers cure their own meats and sell them in vacuum-sealed pouches. A Shabbat menu offers traditional fare like cholent and chicken.

Extra Innings was a response to customers, general manager Stephen Kriesler said.

“Our customers appreciated a kosher restaurant but wanted more than barbecue,” he said. “For almost four years we thought about what other foods we could do. Then the restaurant next door left and the space became available.”

Most of the deli workers at Extra Innings are associated with Keshet and its GADOL program — Giving Adults Daily Opportunities for Living. They have an intellectual disability but are high functioning, Kriesler said.

Overseen by a job coach, “They can hold a job, learn tasks, be able to communicate with people, and help prepare and serve the food,” he said.

Deli worker Shmuel Emanuel, 24, describes his work as fun.

“I like making the sandwiches and working with my co-workers,” he said.

Debbie Harris, Keshet’s director of adult programming, said, “We are excited to bring together people of all abilities to work side by side and create a new community. Most of all, we are grateful to Jeff for his incredible vision and are so pleased to be his partner in this new endeavor.”

Aeder views the deli as a partnership between the community and the restaurants.

“Hiring primarily special needs adults to work in the restaurant, we’ve given them an opportunity to live a fulfilling life,” he said.

The neighboring kosher-certified restaurants are not in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, so the clientele is diverse, Aeder said.

“We created something for all of us to be proud of. The success of it is dependent on the community viewing it as their own,” he said. “And I think that the patrons gain something from the experience of interacting with each other.”

Redevelopment around Wrigley Field includes a new five-story headquarters for the Cubs, a seven-story hotel, a new residential and retail complex, and an annex to the famed park that will include retail and restaurant space.

It doesn’t hurt that the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 — ending a historic 107-season drought — and made it to the National League Championship Series this year.

“I’m a huge Cubs fan,” Aeder said, “and being able to throw that into the equation was great.”