All the big Jewish events took place in the Covenant Club: bar mitzvah parties, weddings, charity dinners, and noted speakers. Private clubs were closed to Jews and the hotels lacked kosher kitchens. Built just before the war in 1940, it was an elegant place of curved minimally detailed mahogany panelling, glass oculi inscribed with Dufy-like figures, recessed lighting, and plenty of resident characters.
It sat atop Gershgol's Supermarket--reached by a grand stair from first street, or as my Dad did, park in the alley behind and enter through the kitchen. In the lobby there were several memorial tablets of WWII casualties. To the left a card room.
The club had begun life as a back-of-a-candy-store noontime cardgame. Sometime in the late '30's the "game" moved to rented quarters down the block and became the "Hey-Vov" Club. (The "Gimmel-Daled" Club already existed in Minneapolis. The Hebrew alphabet begins...aleph, beit, gimmel, daled, hey, vov....and that's all there was to it.) In addition to cards, there were a few pool tables. The wives brought food from home and served dinners. Crystal's kosher deli down the street sent up sandwiches for the boys at lunchtime.
High-stakes bridge and gin rummey were played. Al Weinberg, Uncle Nat's attorney, effected a down-home courtroom appearance and reduced many a jury to tears of sympathy for his clients (his summation during the condemnation hearing regarding the old Minnesota Woolen warehouse across from the McKay Barber Shop was legendary), but had a steel-trap legal mind and the mathematical intelligence of a first-rate cardplayer. He and his chum(p)s whiled away many an afternoon in the sedate confines of the card room, the bartender discreetly filling their glasses keeping the social machinery oiled.
For a time the real bookies, professional gamblers, and moonshine runners were blackballed to keep the place clean. As news of the holocaust filtered out, however, and all Jews realized they were in the same boat, the remaining barriers to membership fell away. In the early years slot machines financed club upkeep until reforming Gov. Youngdahl made them illegal; dues were $6.00 per year.
Everyone was there for big family and public events, despite deep political and religious divisions within the community. There had been a memorable fist fight in front of Adas Israel Synagogue one Shabbat over an issue of Israeli policy. Different synagogogues and community institutions represented different positions left, right, and center. But the Covenant Club was common ground.
The food was memorable and in my time managed and prepared by Mrs. Maxfield. A sandwich loaf made by cutting a loaf of bread spirally down its length to lay the bread out flat; slathering on both sides with a dilute cream cheese mixture; studded with olives, pimentoes, etc.; then rolled up again to be sliced in 3/4" slabs. It was delicious and has been impossible for me to duplicate. Exquisite little chocolate cakes as small as candies. Fried chicken and walleyed pike. Relish trays with scallions, celery, pickled peppers, and pickles. Squares of jello with floating pieces of fruit and a dollop of some mayonaissy stuff on top I always pushed aside.
During its first 15 years it was standing room only. On Saturday nights the line of waiting diners snaked out the lobby and down the stairs. In the next five years a number of alternatives became available, the community began to dwindle, and immediate seating was always possible. Towards the end a dinner at the Covenant Club was a kind of punishment held over the heads of misbehaving children. It closed shortly thereafter and was finally demolished to provide rooftop parking for the supermarket below.