Trendy Israeli Eateries Grab the Spotlight as New York's Traditional Jewish Restaurants Die Out

Old-fashioned Jewish delis are going out of business one after the other, their fatty, meaty menus outmoded by a modern yen for healthier food more typical of Israel's Mediterranean diet.

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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Old fashioned Jewish-style roast beef
Old fashioned Jewish-style roast beef.Credit: Photostock Israel / Photolibrary
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

The staff of Glaser’s Bake Shop have seen it all. Manhattan has grown, American presidents have come and gone, as have wars, economic crises and successes. Everything. But after 116 years in business — and its claim to the title of oldest still-operating bakery in New York — the renowned establishment closed its doors a few weeks ago. During a visit to Glaser’s you could feel the march of history of New York, but in particular the decline and fall of one of the city’s most symbolic sites..

A long line of customers waited patiently for their last chance to taste its black-and-white cookie, another declining iconic New York pastry.

The owners said they were the inventors of the cookie that became a Big Apple classic. But we are not dealing with just a cookie here. Glaser’s baked goods were once considered the city’s finest. On my last visit I tasted wonderful cinnamon buns.

Glaser's bake shop's classic black and white cookies

The caraway cookies here had a very particular and unique taste. I tried the kitchen-sink cookies, too, named for the proverbial everything- but they are said to include — in their case, both dark and white chocolate, walnuts and even potato chips.

Another insane cake that was ahead of its time – before the lavish cakes that have spread on Instagram – is the Earthquake Cake, a mashup between chocolate cake and super-rich cheese cake. It was a shame to miss out on the strudel, cupcakes, cream puffs, doughnuts, muffins, turnovers and Danish pastries.

At Glaser’s, everything was big and very sweet. It had no nuances of taste, exactly what New Yorkers loved for generations – and then stopped loving.

Glaser’s was founded in 1902 by a German immigrant, a professional baker named John Herbert Glaser. He began baking bread but very quickly he realized what his customers’ tastes were and switched to cakes and cookies. In 1935, his son Herb took over the business after his father passed away.

In 1999, the two grandsons, Herb (named after his father) and John (after his legendary grandfather), took over the business. But today these grandkids are 65 and 67 and worn out. They’ve decided to retire. The problems began when the great-grandchildren of the founder were not interested in continuing the family tradition and becoming bakers like their fathers.

After all, who today wants to begin working in the wee hours of the morning, doing complicated physical work with no vacation? It’s easier to work in real estate.

Even though the shop gives a nice impression, the younger family members reached the conclusion that they can make more money if they sell the building and turn it into a residential housing project. Who cares about history or tradition?

Linda Sasson, a director at New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies.Credit: Charlotte Diamond

The closing of Glaser’s is nothing exceptional. For years, dozens of Jewish restaurants and delis have closed – and some say the true number is in the hundreds. For example, the Carnegie Deli, which was ensconced not far from Carnegie Hall, closed at the end of 2016 after 79 years. The Second Avenue Deli moved elsewhere and lost its status.

Zucker Bakery's challah.

July, it seems, was a particularly bloody month for Jewish restaurants. In addition to Glaser’s, the Zucker Bakery – known for its knishes, matzo balls in clear chicken soup and spiced honey cookies – shut down at the beginning of July. A few days later, the well-known kosher Ben’s Best Deli in Queens closed after 73 years.

Then came the turn of the Benash Delicatessen, an old and traditional deli that was only 28-years-old. Benash was the last of the Jewish delis in Midtown Manhattan. A few weeks later, the Financial District branch of the ambitious Jewish restaurant Harry & Ida’s also shut down, only 10 months after it opened. The optimistic ray of hope is that the pastrami provider with a twist still has a branch up and running in the East Village.

Russ & Daughters at 179 E. Houston St. A 104 year old historic landmarkCredit: Haim Handwerker

Mitchell Davis, the chief strategy officer of the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which organizes the American culinary world’s most important awards, says that what is going on at the moment in New York is a disaster in every way for Jewish food, mostly Ashkenazi.

Jewish food is disappearing, he says, and while in certain places it is still an attraction for tourists looking for New York nostalgia, in general Jewish restaurants are disappearing. The sad story of the Jewish kitchen is that it has become lesser quality food served in large quantities accompanied by stories of its lost past, says Davis.

Everyone is now trying to find the reasons for this decline. Lisa Sasson, a director at New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies,says that when she asks people if they go to Jewish restaurants, they answer that they like the food but don’t go very often.

Mitchell Davis, strategist for the James Beard Foundation.Credit: Clay Williams

The reason they give is that the food is too heavy, too oily, she says. Everything people are trying to avoid can be found in Jewish food.

Classic Jewish food is heavy, has a lot of red meat, a lot of fried goods. This is food that is you eat it today just for the fun and only once, she says. This is exactly the food the doctor will tell you not to go out and eat, says Sasson.

What is happening with Jewish food in America is similar to what happened to the diners, she says. A lot of diners are closing and “healthier” restaurants are opening in their place, where they serve salads.

Customers want to know where the raw materials are coming from today and then when rents are high and fewer people come, they close down, says Sasson. Jewish food has moved into another phase, it is now food for special events. When you want to celebrate the food your grandparents ate, she adds.

And in fact, New Yorkers are worrying more about their diets, much more than elsewhere in the United States. They are exercising more than other Americans (New York is fuller than ever of gyms) and they’ve turned bread and sugar into real enemies.

Doctors, dieticians and even food writers warn against cakes and bread and the enemy besieging good health. The result is that masses of New Yorkers, including the hipsters in Brooklyn, are reducing their bread and sugar intake. Challah, for example, used to be an attraction around here. Now? Not on their lives.

Another reason Sasson says Jewish restaurants are declining is that many of the old neighborhoods where these restaurants once were located are becoming gentrified.

“As a result, the Jewish restaurants are losing their followers and have had to close or move elsewhere,” he says. Steven Ho of the nutrition schools of New York University and a follower of the restaurant scene, says that Jewish food doesn’t go well with the most prominent trend in food worldwide: Instagram.

According to Ho, Jewish food as it’s served in Jewish restaurants these days doesn’t photograph well. Big, clumsy portions like huge sandwiches just aren’t photogenic on your Smartphone. Sasson agrees.

She says even if there are some successful restaurants that have survived like “Famous Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse” and Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, if your food doesn’t photograph well, the millennials will stay away.

Not only are customers are losing interest, but even the younger generation whose parents owned these restaurants and inherited them from mom and pop.

A serving of chopped liver at 'Russ and Daughters'Credit: Haim Handwerker

Niki Russ Federman, co-owner of “Russ and Daughters” said in an interview that the owners of the Jewish delis are actually to blame. Over the years they wanted their kids to become doctors and lawyers and find themselves more respectable and lucrative jobs.

A lot of Jewish restaurants have become irrelevant, Russ Federman says. The kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids don’t want any part of a business that is such hard work and not always profitable, she adds.

But in the declining Jewish food scene in New York, Mitchell Davis of the James Beard Foundation finds some rays of light, that might, he says, mean something. For example, there’s Hazon, a society that holds an annual Jewish food conference.

Niki Russ Federman, co-owner of 'Russ and Daughters.'Credit: Haim Handwerker

There’s also the Israeli Jewish foodie Naama Shefi who founded the Jewish Food Society, which is trying to preserve Jewish recipes and holds events that attract the New York audience.

Another example of an attempt to update Jewish cuisine is the highly rated “Shalom Japan” restaurant in Brooklyn, where Chef Aaron Israel and his wife, Sawako Okochi are fusing Japanese and Jewish cooking. They serve for example, matza ball ramen, foie gras dumplings and Okonomiyaki, made of sauerkraut and pastrami.

But the key to success for Jewish restaurants, according to Davis, is a commitment to the younger generation. For example, “Katz’s Delicatessen,” which holds the title of the oldest deli in New York, was established in 1888 and is still going strong.

Even in 2018 the place is full and pulls in many tourists who want to taste food like in the old days. And of course, Russ and Daughters, considered to be trending.

Elizabeth Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz are trying to revive the Jewish kitchen. They founded “The Gefilteria,” in New York, starring gefilte fish made by hand and sold frozen, not in the usual jars.

They also hold events and tastings of whatever is connected to Jewish Ashkenazi food, Alpern says, as well as pop-up eateries and workshops. In what seems to be the twilight of Jewish restaurants, she hopes their establishment is on the way to a renaissance in Jewish cuisine, even if there will never be hundreds of Jewish restaurants again.

One attempt to bring back quality Jewish deli fare in New York is “Mile End Delicatessen,” originally from Montreal, which is trying to bring the Canadian-style deli to the city.

The deli’s founder, Joel Tietolman, brought in Chef Adam Gruzin and in 2010 they opened a small restaurant in Brooklyn. Two years later the pair opened a larger premises on high-end Bond Street in Manhattan, and their plan is to head south to Nashville, Tennessee and Birmingham, Alabama, as well. The food is certainly good here. But whenever I passed their Manhattan restaurant, I never saw it full.

The Gefilteria.

Gefllte fish, challah and goose liver – out; pita and tahini – in. Some people say they know who’s really to blame for the decline in Jewish food: Israeli food, which is trending in New York.

Israeli chefs and Israelis who moved here years ago are suddenly opening wildly successful restaurants. Local Jewish diners have seen the light, and have switched their pastrami sandwich for the Miznon’s pita and Meir Adoni’s kubaneh. They account for a large slice of the clientele.

New Yorkers haven’t simply discovered Israeli cuisine. The success of Israeli cuisine isn’t necessarily because some star chef has arrived here or because the New York Times repeatedly comes back to Shani, Adoni and Uri Scheft.

There are more than a million Jews living in New York. Many of them have visited Israel at one time or another and have gotten to know Israeli food. And who says Birthright doesn’t have an effect at home? About 150,000 Americans who visited Israel with Birthright live in the greater New York area. When they get home, they want to recreate the food experiences they had in Israel.

'Russ and Daughters'Credit: Haim Handwerker

According to Sasson, Israeli food, with its big helpings of fruits and vegetables, is perceived as healthier than Jewish food, and is associated in people’s minds with healthy Mediterranean cooking.

But the impact of Israeli food in New York is not only its association with Mediterranean food but with dishes that have a Jewish character. As an example, Mitchell Davis points out what happened to babka in New York.

It was there before, but when “Breads Bakery” came to the city (the New York version of Israeli bread bakeries), it made waves and attracted a lot of media attention. When New York Magazine chose Breads Bakery’s babka as the best in the city, it meant things would never be what they were, Davis says.

The result? Lots more babkas on menus, with even a French chef, at the “Arcade” making them, and he’s not even Jewish. So, concludes Davis, it took the Israelis to bring babkas back to New York.

A platter of Israeli food.Credit: Zoe Jane McClean / Shutterstock.

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