Ruth Wilensky, matriarch behind iconic Montreal Jewish deli, dies at 98

Despite having taken her retirement in recent years, Wilensky remained the face of the Montreal institution, largely unchanged since it moved to its current location in 1952.

Wilensky is survived by her 4 children and their spouses; a funeral will be held Sunday

Ruth and Moe Wilensky working behind the counter at Wilensky's. (Submitted by the Wilensky family/Museum of Jewish Montreal)

Ruth Wilensky ran Wilensky's Light Lunch, the famous deli founded by her late husband's family, the way it ought to be run — her way.

"Most people know that my mother definitely had her way of doing things, and you knew about it if you didn't do things the same way," her daughter Sharon Wilensky said.

Ruth Wilensky died Friday. She was 98.

Wilensky presided over the iconic Mile End Jewish deli, long after her husband, Moe, died in 1984.

The restaurant was founded in 1932 and is known for its pressed kaiser roll sandwich with all-beef salami and bologna, with mandatory mustard, called the Wilensky Special.

Despite retiring in 2012, Wilensky remained the face of the Montreal institution. 

It was largely unchanged since moving a block in 1952, from the corner of Fairmount Avenue and Saint-Urbain Street, to Fairmount and Clark Street.

Hard worker and devoted mother

Wilensky was known for upholding tradition at the little resto and would often be seen behind the counter.

"She was a very hard worker and a very devoted mother," Sharon said, adding Wilensky didn't only watch her five children grow up, but her customers as well.

Ruth Wilensky celebrated the 85th anniversary of Wilensky's Light Lunch last spring. (CBC)

"The restaurant is threaded through all of our lives, so it was a very big part of it for her and she worked there until she was 93," she said.

Sharon and her brother, Asher, have managed the restaurant for the past few years. Asher's daughter, Alisa, and two longtime employees also work there.    

"We're close," Sharon said of the family, composed of five children — one of whom, Bernard, died in 2000.

"We might have had some conflicts over the years, but we never stopped talking and it's a credit to our parents, to how they brought us up."

'A wonderful, wonderful marriage'

Work was a staple in Ruth's life, her daughter said, starting with when she lost her father at a young age and began working in factories until she met Moe.

The couple met on a blind date set up by friends and married soon after, Moe eight years Ruth's senior. 

"My father would always joke — if you saw pictures of my mother, she was always a beautiful lady —  but he would say that he married her because he felt sorry for her," Sharon said, laughing. "They had a wonderful, wonderful marriage."

Ruth Wilensky with her first-born son, Saul, in 1944 in front of Wilensky's on the corner of Saint-Urbain St. and Fairmount Ave., before it moved to its current location in 1952. (Submitted by the Wilensky family/Museum of Jewish Montreal)

​Ian Harrison, the current editor of Montreal-based food magazine, Ricardo, and the founder of Eater Montreal, said he'll always remember what it felt like to visit Wilensky's as a child.

The deli is known for its green window frames and door, and stripped-down interior with nine stools lining the deli's counter.

"There was something very comforting about it," Harrison said, noting that he grew up in a Jewish family and now lives nearby. He recalled Ruth, behind the counter, emanating a "vibrant energy" and poking fun at young customers.

The deli has been shown on Anthony Bourdain's show, Parts Unknown, and is a prominent setting of Mordecai Richler's book, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

A New York City restaurant called Mile End Deli serves a sandwich, similar to Wilensky's Special, named after Ruth Wilensky. Its menu states that it will cost you 10 cents extra to order it without mustard.​

Wilensky's is located in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood and was founded in 1932. (Shawn Goldwater/Commons)

Though Wilensky's legacy and fame extend beyond Montreal's borders, Ruth kept out of the limelight, Harrison said.

"Ruth was a constant presence, and as matriarchs do, they sort of hold things together. And sometimes they do it without much fanfare, but they're the bedrock of the family business," he said. "I think that's what Ruth was."

Wilensky's will go on

Sharon says she and her family will observe the Jewish week of mourning, but the plan is to open up again by next weekend and to keep things as they are.

"You know, you open up again, just like we did after my father passed away, and my brother, and you keep going," she said.

Condolences from a tight-knit community of customers are already bringing comfort, she added.

Ruth Wilensky is survived by her four children, their spouses, her grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Her funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Paperman & Sons, 3888 Jean-Talon Street West. 

And for customers, she lives on in Wilensky's traditions. On the wall above the menu in the small deli is a poem on a faded sign:

"When ordering a Special, you should know a thing or two. They are always served with mustard, they are never cut in two. Don't ask us why, just understand that this is nothing new. This is the way it's been since 1932."