Navy analyst and restaurant owner Sybil Klein died of respiratory failure at Jefferson Abington Hospital on Dec. 13. She was 86.
Klein and husband Robert Klein owned and operated a coffee shop at Presidential City Apartments on City Avenue, where the couple lived shortly after their 1956 marriage, and later, The Pantry near Rittenhouse Square. Though usually the family cook and purveyor of Jewish apple cake, brisket and matzah balls at gatherings for the holidays, Klein worked in the front of the house at her luncheonettes, warmly greeting customers.
After her husband’s death in 1969, Klein became a Navy analyst at what is now the Naval Supply Systems Command, Weapons System Support in Northeast Philadelphia, where she worked until she retired at age 75. She was a volunteer greeter at Jeanes Hospital, now part of Temple University Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia.
Despite her occupational pivot, Klein continued her practice of cooking and caring for others, becoming the office mother and grandmother at her Navy analyst job. She remembered every co-worker’s birthday and gave them baked goods and would sprinkle Yiddish phrases into her conversations with colleagues, despite being one of the few Jews in the office. She was particularly fond of those born in 1959, the year she became a mother.
Upon her retirement, her colleagues gifted her a book of “Sybilisms,” filled with phonetically spelled-out Yiddish words (“kenahora” was a favorite) and phrases she frequently used.
“She educated the people in her office as to what a Jewish person is like,” said son Michael Klein. “She was a good soul.”
Klein passed down her love of food and hospitality: Michael Klein is a longtime food writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and granddaughter Rachel Klein is the chef behind Miss Rachel’s Pantry, a South Philadelphia vegan restaurant named after Klein’s Center City luncheonette.
“I learned from her that you can feed people to show them how much you care about them,” Rachel Klein said.
Born in the Wynnefield neighborhood of West Philadelphia in 1936, Klein was a lifelong Philadelphian. Her father, Solomon Matthews, was a bus driver, and her mother, Florence Matthews, was a homemaker. Though the family wasn’t very religious, they tried to keep kosher and gathered for holiday meals.
“Food is a really great common denominator.…It’s a magnet; it brought everybody together,” said Michael Klein.
Klein graduated Overbrook High School in 1954, where she had met her husband two years prior, both of them in the school’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”
Klein was fond of her high school years and organized her class’ reunions. She enjoyed the social aspect and close-knit community she kept in her childhood: Klein lived five blocks away from her elementary school, and after meeting her husband, who lived six blocks from her, the couple moved across the street from Klein’s parents and later to a house two blocks away.
When Robert Klein died, Klein was 32 years old and raising three children: Michael, Alan and Diane, who died earlier. Despite becoming a widow, Klein was an “eternal optimist,” according to Alan Klein.
“I went away to college, I thought we were wealthy. She just always figured out a way to hide everything from us, and just put a big smile on her face and make it work,” he said. “I later found out that she didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. But I never knew that. We never went hungry.”
After her husband’s death, Klein made a point to speak about Robert Klein to her children, saying, “That was a Robert Klein joke,” after saying something funny, Michael Klein remembered.
Klein extended her love to her eight grandchildren. When Rachel Klein went vegetarian and later vegan at a young age, Klein would make a vegetarian version of her usual chicken-based matzah ball soup.
“There wasn’t anything for me to eat at her shiva, which was telling of her not being there,” Rachel Klein said. “Because she always wanted to make sure that everyone was accommodated, and that everybody felt welcome.”
When the Phillies were playing in the National League Championship Series and World Series, Klein would watch the games to be able to recount them with her grandson, an avid fan.
“She did it just to keep up with him,” Michael Klein said.
Klein was a fan of Hallmark movies and took Yiddish classes in her 60s at what is now KleinLife. She talked to her children and grandchildren multiple times a week, and made it a point to meet with former coworkers for lunch, even shortly before her death.
“She was an open book,” Michael Klein said. “She had no secrets. She had no filter…She could have a conversation with a rock.”
Klein is survived by her two sons, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.