Serving Up Food With Attitude

He may be one of the last of a famous breed, but Cliff Fyman, who has worked at Sardi’s for almost two decades, is that beloved icon of New York culture: the Jewish waiter.

A published poet and an accomplished visual artist, Fyman says that a blue-collar job is one that enables him “not to take my job home with me.” He tried bartending, but found that he had to talk too much with the customers and consequently had “no more words left for poetry.”

There was precious little poetry in most of the working-class occupations that Jews used to fill in New York, jobs that ranged from driving cabs to selling fruits and vegetables, from operating elevators to fighting crime. As the Jewish population in New York has declined from a fourth of the city’s population in the mid-20th century to only about an eighth today, and as many of the Jews who remain have moved into the middle and upper classes, the Jewish waiter has become an endangered species. With its long hours, low wages and lack of prestige, waiting on tables is no longer seen by most Jews as a viable career path.

The most noticeable decline in Jewish waiters is in delis and other restaurants with a heavily Jewish clientele — places where the food just does not taste the same unless it is served by a wisecracking, domineering Jewish waiter. In describing a visit to Katz’s, food historian and cookbook author Lorna Sass once wrote, “the most memorable flavor enhancer for a hot pastrami sandwich is not the mustard but the kibitzing and schmaltz that come with a 60-year old Jewish waiter who shuffles on tired feet, wears grease-smudged glasses, and barks in your ear with a strong Yiddish accent.” The waiter, she noted, told you where to sit, what to order and when to leave.

The short-tempered, sarcastic waiter expressed the resentment, always bubbling above the surface like the froth on a glass of celery tonic, that the Jewish laborer felt for those who were starting to put on airs. He was always ready with an off-hand, cynical remark that cut the customer down to size like a tailor taking a few expert swipes at a garment. He may have shuffled and trembled as he brought your bowl of soup to the table, but the expert delivery of his one-liners was straight out of the Yiddish theater, vaudeville, and burlesque. He had likely honed his skills in the Catskills hotels, by working alongside comedians like Henny Youngman, Alan King and Buddy Hackett as they gathered material for their acts by waiting tables and dancing with unattached guests.

Jack Kugelmass, who teaches courses in Jewish humor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, had an uncle-in-law who worked as a waiter at a vegetarian restaurant on the Lower East Side. Even though the uncle ended up making a fortune in the stock market, he continued working there for many years. “He saw it as a calling rather than something that was beneath him,” Kugelmass reflected.

Given the symbolic importance of meat for Jewish immigrants, for whom it represented the bounty of America and the attainment of the American Dream, the waiter had a lot of power — at least until he set your overstuffed deli sandwich on the table. When Diane Kassner transferred your matzah ball soup from a steaming tin cup into your bowl at the Second Avenue Deli, mumbling “I’ll be the pourer; you’ll be the richer,” you discerned deep shades of sadness and regret in her tone.

Garry Wilbur grew up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His family patronized the famous Zei Mar Deli on Brighton Beach Avenue. “The waiters were very cranky,” he recalled. “Their shirts were soiled. You could tell that they were down on their luck. You knew that they were Jewish by the way that they looked and talked and kibitzed.” When the Zei Mar began to slide toward its inevitable end in the late 1970s, a daughter of one of the owners tried gamely to jumpstart a singing career by warbling operatic arias, show tunes and Yiddish melodies to the customers as she served them their sandwiches.

Like the waiters in the gourmet restaurants of Paris, who treated their customers with ill-disguised contempt, Jewish waiters acted as if the customer was there for their sake, rather than the other way around. As Alan Richman has put it, “The French waiter utilized his sneer to emphasize the superiority of his national cuisine, while the Jewish waiter was only letting you know that his soul was suffering, to say nothing of his feet.” Little wonder that a contemptuous counterman at Katz’s named Krinsky was described by road food gurus Jane and Michael Stern as engaging in a “Kabuki-like routine of dramatic sighs and eye-rolling that makes it clear he can barely live through another moment of your benightedness.”

Waiters often stayed for decades, becoming veritable fixtures of the places in which they worked. Many of the waiters at Ratner’s, the late lamented dairy restaurant on Delancey Street, worked there into their 80s and 90s. Perhaps the most famous old-style Jewish waiter was Louis Schwartz, a waiter in the Sixth Avenue Delicatessen during the Second World War, who sold millions of dollars worth of war bonds to his delicatessen customers. Or perhaps it was Jack Sirota, a six-foot tall waiter who worked at the Carnegie Deli for more than four decades; he was once photographed for an ad that showed a classically-overstuffed sandwich, with a caption that read, “Not all the skyscrapers in NYC are made of glass and marble.”

The interaction with the waiter is so much a part of the experience in eating in such places that even as Jewish waiters have been almost entirely replaced by waiters of widely varying ethnicities, these new servers have often tried to masquerade as their predecessors. According to David Sax, author of the forthcoming book, “Save the Deli,” waiters from such far-flung places as Egypt, China and Mexico have “taken on the role with aplomb. These waiters learn the shtick and the banter that’s passed down almost like Talmudic knowledge.”

Yet as the cost of eating in Jewish restaurants has skyrocketed — a soup and sandwich at the Stage Deli can set you back almost $20 — few customers want to be insulted by their server as part of the experience of dining out. When Jeremy Lebewohl trained the new crop of waiters for the recent, much ballyhooed reopening of the Second Avenue Deli, he advised them to try to gauge how each customer expected to be treated. “You need to figure out whether or not they will appreciate a snappy remark,” he said. A customer today who does not get the joke may broadcast his gripes on the Internet.

Fyman, the server at Sardi’s, calls himself simply a “waiter who happens to be Jewish.” He spends most of his free time writing, drawing and studying Jewish texts in his apartment in the East Village. He rides to work on a bicycle and is “refreshed by being in such a social place, with the interesting conversations that go on all night.” He describes Sardi’s as a “very Jewish restaurant” since so many of the customers are secular Jews, both from New York and from out of town, who are dining before or after a trip to the theater. This makes Sardi’s a restaurant that “looks formal, but is actually a big, friendly cafeteria.”

Rather than keep the different parts of his life separate, Fyman merges them by using his work experiences as a springboard for his art. Many of his poems have been inspired by the polyphony of voices that he hears in the restaurant. And some of his drawings and oils — he studied oil painting for a year at the National Academy of Design — are images of the dishwashing areas and the places where waiters sleep when they are off duty.

“I’m not romanticizing any aspect of the labor,” Fyman explains. “I’m just interested in trying to convey the experience of what it’s like to work at Sardi’s.” His art seems to fall right in with a place in which caricatures of entertainers adorn the walls, enveloping the waiters and customers alike in an atmosphere of celebrity. But at the end of the day, he is still a waiter with a job to do, which may include stopping a customer who is heading to a table occupied by a star who does not wish to be disturbed. And while Fyman says that he enjoys getting to know the customers, there is a limit to how much he can share their experience. “I keep kosher,” he declares. “I don’t eat the food.” 

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and is the author of “In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture” (Rutgers). He is completing an illustrated book on the history of the Jewish delicatessen, “Homeland for the Jewish Soul: The Jewish Deli in New York.” 

PULL QUOTE: ‘Like the waiters in the gourmet restaurants of Paris, who treated their customers with ill-disguised contempt, Jewish waiters acted as if the customer was there for their sake, rather than the other way around.’