The past 59 years have been interesting for Benny Cukier. The Goldbergs’ Deli owner has run Comicons and the Northwest Flower and Garden Show, been an announcer for the LA Lazers soccer team, studied to be an Orthodox rabbi, worked on Kibbutz Yavneh, and played Santa at Nordstrom. “I’ve done a lot of things in my life that have been ‘fantasy’ things,” he says.
A recent heart attack and kidney failure — which confines him to a home dialysis machine three hours a day — haven’t slowed him down. In fact, he treats his health like a business, closing the margins and cutting the fat, literally. Cukier may be growing Goldbergs’, but he won’t touch the food. He’s lost 250 pounds and counting, determined to roll back years of unhealthy living.
Cukier (pronounced “Sooker”) attributes his discipline and business acumen to his father, Max. “My dad was a really strong-willed, tough guy,” he says. “Five of us lived in a one-bedroom apartment, we had a van, and he used to go to swap meets. Eventually he became the largest importer of crystal and porcelain in the US. He was self-made, a man who was all about his children.”
His parents, Max and Miriam Cukier, went to Italy and then America after fighting beside the Bielski brothers during World War II — a story made famous by the film Defiance. Cukier recalls producers interviewing his father for hours. “The tank that blew everything up in the movie — my dad was the one who blew up the tank.” His mother was his lookout during missions, and they are the couple that gets married in the forest, Cukier says. Both Max and Miriam’s families — Max had four brothers and two sisters and Miriam had five sisters — joined the underground during the war. Both lost their entire families, except for one of Max’s brothers, who also survived. “The bad thing about Defiance was that my dad never got to see it,” Cukier says. By the time the film came out in 2008, his father’s dementia was severe. In 2011 he passed away.
Cukier joined his father in business as a child, and as a young adult founded Group Travel Associates, which organizes trade shows. Eight years ago he left his native land of Los Angeles to follow his new wife, Peggy, to Seattle, and three years ago he took over the struggling Factoria deli, ruthlessly turning it into a more profitable business, becoming majority owner, and opening an outlet in the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. He brought his son, Jason, into the business, and together they make the only two Jews out of 47 Goldbergs’ employees — though the investors are mostly Jewish men. “There’s a lot of men who just want a Jewish deli around,” he says.
Cukier’s parents were raised in religious homes and passed on strong Jewish identities to their children. They visited Israel numerous times — including during the Six-Day War — and took the kids to Auschwitz and Majdanek to see where other relatives had vanished.
“It was all about Judaism,” Cukier says. “I’m not gonna say I lost it, but I didn’t carry it out after I left home.” That almost wasn’t the case. While at Bnei Akiva camp in Philadelphia in the 1960s, “I met a girl who lived in Chicago,” he says. “How was I going to get to Chicago?” So Cukier enrolled in the Hebrew Theological Seminary in Skokie, Illinois. For the first year he kept up with the girl — “until my dad met her, then all hell broke loose.” By the second year he was a practicing Orthodox Jew, with his intention set on being a rabbi. “I had the payes and the long black coat and the tsitsis,” he recalls. “I was not an Orthodox person, but I was really willing to become one.” That all ended when Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik caught him cooking non-kosher Polish sausages in the dormitory. That was his first strike. The second, Cukier says, stays off the record.
So when Cukier applied for a seasonal Santa job at Nordstrom a few years ago, the woman in charge of hiring was intrigued. “It was the first interview in my life,” Cukier says. “The application said ‘education,’ so I put ‘Skokie Yeshiva.’ And what you wanted to be: ‘rabbi.’ And job you’re interested in: ‘Santa Claus.’ I knew nothing of the reindeer, I knew nothing of Santa Claus.” Cukier didn’t expect to get the job — hundreds of men apply to be Santa — but they loved him. And bonus: he could work Christmas Eve. “The first year was great,” he says. “The second year was still okay. The third year was dreadful. It started taking a toll.” But he got it out of his system. “I just looked at it as a job and to make people happy.”
Cukier’s health conditions don’t stop him from thinking about his business future, even though he knows he should be slowing down. “That’s my determination,” he says. “When I decide to do it, get out of my way. Get out of my way.”