As the number of delis decline and newfangled ones embrace sustainability, of all things, a nostalgic look back at the heyday of a New York institution.
Growing up in Great Neck in the 1970s and ’80s, I listened eagerly to my mother and her cousin Marcia reminiscing about working Sunday evenings waiting tables and busing dishes in Kaufman’s Deli, which was Uncle Herbie’s place on Division Avenue in Williamsburg. I heard about the hustle and bustle, the interactions between the working class customers and the wise-cracking old Jewish waiters, the kibitzing at the deli counter with the jocular countermen in their paper hats. For a generation of secular Jews, Friday nights in the synagogue had turned into Sunday nights in the deli.
My wannabe-WASP Jewish parents had few formal connections to the Jewish community. They didn’t belong to a temple and didn’t give me a bar mitzvah. They took great pride in their knowledge of every hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant in nearby Queens. Yet on Sunday nights when my grandparents were visiting, my mother dispatched me around the corner to a Jewish deli on Middle Neck Road to pick up an unvarying order: a pound of roast beef, a pound of turkey, a dozen slices of seeded rye bread, a can of baked beans and a squat container of gravy. We prepared our own sandwiches around the kitchen table. When we took the first bite, we knew we were Jews. Before long, only crumbs remained on that table.
So the deli certainly played a role in my own Jewish upbringing. But what made it the food of the Jewish nation? Where did this food come from — was it really the food that my ancestors had eaten in Eastern Europe? And what was it about the deli as a gathering place for the Jewish community that made it about so much more than the food that was served there; in other words, how did the deli feed a deep sense of Jewish solidarity?
Delis were places of friendship, fellowship and good cheer. They were also a meeting ground where Jews of diverse social classes, countries of origin and levels of religious observance mingled. This helped to forge a more-or-less unified American Jewish “community” from a jumble of Jews from a dozen different countries in Eastern Europe.
At the height of the Great Depression, people waited on bread lines for a crust for their children. Inside the deli, the bread was sour, chewy rye studded with black caraway seeds. The countermen took the soft meat from the steam table and sliced it by hand, piling up the slices in the center of the bread as if building a monument on a town square. You dipped a little wooden paddle into a little glass jar and painted the bread with thick strokes of mustard. You opened wide and took a big, cavernous bite. The meat didn’t melt in your mouth — it crumbled into it, imploding into it, your teeth plowing through the fat and muscle, your taste buds slapping again and again into the sheer rosiness of it.
Pickled meats were a staple of Germanic food. Yet despite their ancestral roots in the Rhineland, Eastern Europeans did not sit around in the shtetl eating corned beef sandwiches. Nor, despite what David Sax claims in his recent book, “Save the Deli,” was deli food a significant part of immigrant Jewish life in New York. Just as immigrant Jews were still seen as different and exotic in the eyes of other Americans, deli food stood in sharp contrast to the whiteness and blandness of most “American” food. Deli meats were pungent, garlicky, odoriferous delicacies that marked Jews as different at a time when they were desperate to raise their children as real Americans.
It was the children of Jewish immigrants who made the deli their own. During the 1920s and ’30s, more than 40 percent of American Jews still lived in New York and the almost two million New York Jews comprised the city’s largest ethnic group. The corner kosher deli was on par with the synagogue as the cornerstone of Jewish life, with more than 1,500 kosher delis in New York alone, most in the teeming second generation Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Kosher sausage companies like Hebrew National and Zion Kosher cleverly took their names from the idea of Jewish peoplehood, helping to found the deli as a homeland for the Jewish soul.
The interwar Jewish deli was the equivalent of other ethnic “third places” like the Irish pub, the Italian social club or the African-American barbershop. The deli was the place to hear the latest gossip, to be set up on a date, to press the flesh with a politician who was seeking the Jewish vote. As one wide-eyed customer exhaled upon walking into the old Second Avenue Deli a few years ago, “Ahhh, I smell Judaism!”
Literary critic Alfred Kazin described growing up during the Depression in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, waiting breathlessly for the neon sign in the local kosher deli to be illuminated after the end of the Sabbath on Saturday night; when it was, the Jewish boys of the neighborhood felt that they had claimed their “rightful heritage.” A kosher deli under the El in the Bronx, Rabbi Philip Cohen recalled, exuded such “rich delicatessen aromas” that he “wanted to eat there more than Romeo wanted Juliet. My culture was calling out to me, beckoning me, seducing me like the Sirens to Odysseus.”
The ostentatiously overstuffed sandwiches served in non-kosher theater district delis made those delis the ultimate symbol of Jewish movement into the mainstream, in which most Jews remained loyal to ethnic forms of Jewish identity while jettisoning what they viewed as cumbersome religious observances. These delis catered to stars and wannabe stars alike; the Stage Deli was itself a platform for Jews to dramatize their “arrival” in American society. Harpo Marx enjoyed coming back to New York because, he said, he had “two homes-away-from-home, Lindy’s or Reuben’s.” In these delis, he exulted, “I was back with my own people, who spoke my language, with my accent.”
Miami Beach, which some considered a sixth borough of New York, and Los Angeles, where Jews became kings of the motion picture industry, took the deli sandwich to new heights. Jews measured their status in society by both how well and how much they could eat. In a capitalistic culture that glorified excess, the towering deli sandwich became a potent symbol of the American Dream.
Before long, deli food was viewed almost like life itself. A deli owner in Boston told me that elderly Jews come to her deli for their last meal. “They’re practically on respirators,” she whispered, “but they want that last taste of deli before they die.” Writer Jonathan Rosen similarly recalled that his grandmother’s last wish was for deli food. “The great German poet Goethe,” Rosen noted, “wished on his deathbed for ‘more light.’ My grandmother wished for pastrami.”
The anthropologist Roger Abrahams has remarked that holidays and life cycle events in America are marked by things that blow up or release their contents — wrapped presents, fireworks on the Fourth of July, the stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving, the piñata at birthday parties, the “ticker tape” parade when a sports team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl. Add the bursting-at-the-seams deli sandwich to the list. The cartoonish sandwich has been a staple of pop culture, climaxing in the notorious fake orgasm scene in Katz’s Deli in Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally.”
Just as rapidly as second-generation Jews fell in love with the deli sandwich, however, their baby boomer children rejected it in favor of healthier foods, more international foods, more gourmet foods. (Even delis today in Berkeley, Calif., and other places focus on sustainability and artisanal food sourcing.)
Jews dispersed into white bread suburbs that lit up for Christmas like department store displays. They traded down-at the heel, sawdust strewn, street corner delis for gleaming chrome suburban diners with large parking lots. They jumped into the national craze for health and fitness, and they dropped with a thud what New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller dismissed contemptuously as the “gastronomic barbells” of Eastern European Jewish food.
Nowadays, pastrami (or something called pastrami, which bears little relation, either in the cut of beef or the way that it is spiced and smoked, to authentic Jewish pastrami) sandwiches can be purchased in every Subway and Quiznos franchise in the land. Jewish deli meats are rapidly going the way of the bagel, losing their moorings in Judaism as they drift ever outward into the mainstream of American society. Will the deli — or Jewish life in this country — ever be the same?
Ted Merwin is The Jewish Week’s theater critic. He is a Jewish studies professor and Hillel director at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of an American Icon.”