In Praise of Pastrami: When Kosher Delis Were 'Secular Synagogues'

Instead of being a lament for a lost pastrami past, Ted Merwin's well-researched history of the iconic Jewish delicatessen is a serious meditation on American Jewish culture.

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The pastrami at Katz's Delicatessen
The pastrami at Katz's DelicatessenCredit: City Foodsters / Flicker

“Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” by Ted Merwin, New York University Press, 245 pp., $26.95

Food writer Janna Gur’s “Book of New Israeli Food” is just one of several recent cookbooks celebrating the rich diversity of Israeli cuisine. Inside, the curious cook can find recipes from the far corners of the Jewish Diaspora: Iraqi kibbeh, chopped liver, shakshuka, and North African fish stew.

But would it be too much to ask for nice pastrami sandwich?

As generations of American Jews have been shocked to discover, the dishes traditionally considered most heimish back home — bagels, knishes, deli sandwiches — are hard to find in the Jewish state. The few, lonesome delis that do exist, like Ruben’s in Tel Aviv, are foodie curiosities rather than cultural staples.

Ted Merwin’s new book “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” cogently resolves the conundrum of why there are so few delis in Israel. Even if the New York deli seems as Jewish as Rabbi Akiva (or more!), Merwin, a professor of religion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, shows it to be a quintessentially American institution.

Based on a wealth of archival research and interviews, “Pastrami on Rye” tells the story of the kosher deli from its origins among Eastern European Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, its spread – thanks to expanding Jewish communities across the United States – and, in the face of changes in Jewish aspirations and tastes, its eventual decline.

But Merwin is not concerned merely with how deli conquered the continent. “Pastrami on Rye” is a cultural history of American Judaism told through a particularly revealing culinary lens. If Merwin sometimes seems to overstate his case, implying, for example, that the deli’s origins might lie in Jews’ “long-standing connection with sandwiches” — e.g., the “Hillel sandwich,” eaten as part of the Passover seder — his nuanced reading of the deli’s rise and fall is also a serious meditation on Jewish culture in America.

An unattainable luxury

While the delicatessen, originally connoting a gourmet grocery, originated in Europe, and pickled and smoked meats were part of the Eastern European Jewish diet – the iconic kosher deli is native to the New World. The first delicatessens in New York were opened by German immigrants in the late 19th century, purveying traditional German delicacies and high-end products such as sausages, sauerkraut, olive oil and imported teas. Interestingly, Merwin notes that at the time the term delicatessen was also applied widely to other immigrant food shops, including Italian, French, and Chinese specialty groceries; the latter, as one contemporary journalist put it, offered “perfumed ducks, pickled oysters, and beautifully roasted and powdered pigs, with pink ears and red nostrils.”

Jewish delicatessens were relatively late entries to New York’s ethnic food bonanza. Merwin suggests that the reason is that most Jewish immigrant families “preferred to cook their meat at home.” While there were over 1,000 kosher butcher shops in the immigrant Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century and numerous candy stores, soda fountains, coffee houses and fried fish stalls – for the majority of poor immigrants, eating out at pricey delicatessens was a nearly unattainable luxury.

Though the famous Katz’s deli, the first of its kind, had opened in 1880, 20 years later there were only 10 kosher delis on the Lower East Side, serving a population of more than 75,000.

Merwin describes the deli’s subsequent growth as a slow process of existing kosher butchers and sausage shops adding tables and counters to their stores. By no means a risk-free proposition, many deli owners went bankrupt, and had to battle Sunday closing laws and disreputable kosher slaughterhouses.

If this description sounds a little vague, it is no accident. Merwin is not interested in pinpointing the precise progression of economic and social forces that contributed to the deli’s rise; this is not an academic history. Rather, throughout “Pastrami on Rye” the author gathers anecdotes, ephemera, and photographs, many from his own collection, that convey in broad strokes the deli’s larger cultural significance.

Like a great sausage, Merwin packs his narrative full of spicy tidbits: writer Afred Kazin’s erotic description of wurst smacking of “the forbidden, the adulterated, the excessive”; the corned-beef sandwich that flew into space on the 1965 Gemini mission; Samuel Chotzinoff’s memories of serving paper thin slices of meat to the customers at his family’s deli (and saving the thicker slices for himself); and how the aromas of the delicatessen played a starring role in the Marx Brothers’ first Broadway show.

Sites of gastronimical worship

In fact, the theater takes center stage in “Pastrami on Rye.” Merwin has previously written widely on the subject for the popular press and devoted a 2006 book, “In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture,” to Jews’ involvement in vaudeville, silent film, and theater in the 1920’s.

Attman's Deli in Baltimore, Maryland. Deli cuisine has now been reinvented, writes Merwin, as hipster gastronomy.Credit: Bloomberg

In “Pastrami on Rye,” in addition to relying on plays and, later, film and television as barometers of popular perception of the deli — from the Marx Brothers to “When Harry Met Sally” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — he argues that the deli’s prominence in the American consciousness is closely tied to the theater district delicatessens that flourished in the interwar period.

Glitzy, stylish, non-kosher but nonetheless strongly Jewishly identified, these delis attracted both celebrities and the Jewish public for whom the restaurants’ affluent airs, abundant menus, and overflowing sandwiches reflected their own rising social status. The non-kosher aspect was a crucial part of such a deli’s appeal: It was “an intensely Jewish space, but one that held the promise of a magical, almost mystical, transformation.”

Merwin tells the story of several larger-than-life figures, including Max Asnas, the owner of the theater district's Stage Delicatessen. Asnas, famous for his caustic one-liners, even released a comedy album in 1961 called “Corned Beef Confucius.” Recorded live at the restaurant, Asnas, in a thick, nasal Ashkenazi accent, riffs sarcastically about his customers and famous patrons. In a revealing bit included in the book, Asnas recalls being asked by an older woman if the restaurant is kosher, and he answers that it is so unkosher that even the kosher meats are sold as treif. “'And where did you get your accent?’ she pursued. ‘This I got from the customers,’ he rejoined.”

Merwin argues that delis in their heyday in the 1920s and '30s were also viewed as “secular synagogues,” sites of gastronomical worship and ethnic belonging that bypassed traditional Jewish religiosity. At least, that is how delis appear in the nostalgic memories of a later generation of writers. For instance, Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City” (1951) recalls the illumination of his boyhood deli’s electric sign after the Sabbath as a lost moment of redemption. “It was,” he wrote, “as if we had entered into our rightful heritage.”

Kazin and others’ nostalgia was a sign of the times. By the 1950s and '60s the deli had begun to decline. Merwin points to a number of factors, including Jewish movement away from New York City and eventually to the suburbs, where few delis thrived, concerns about the health risks associated with fatty meats, the deli’s association with a lower-middle class past now shunned by staunchly professional Jews, supermarket frozen meals, and the rise of Chinese food and other rival ethnic cuisines. Acculturation and many Jews’ rejection of the stereotypical ethnic characteristics associated with the deli also played a factor.

“Pastrami on Rye” ends with a section on the reinvention and reintroduction of deli cuisine as hipster gastronomy, such as the local, grass-fed beef served by Saul's, the Berkeley, California, restaurant, or the Brooklyn pan-Asian restaurant Dassara’s Deli Ramen: “a dish that is composed of Japanese noodle soup with matzoh balls and strips of smoked meat.”

Rather than pastrami, for many the quintessential Jewish foods have become falafel, hummus and shwarma.Credit: Doron Halutz

Move over, falafel is here

“Pastrami on Rye” could have easily been a lament for a lost pastrami past. But Merwin’s book is much more subtle and smart. He argues that the deli in its prime served American Jews as a consummate “third space” — a concept borrowed from sociologist Ray Oldenburg to describe the casual gathering places, outside of work and home, that “level social distinctions among patrons, foster civic engagement, and provide a platform for mutual emotional support.”

However other spaces can meet the needs of contemporary Jews just as well. Merwin briefly discusses how the synagogue or lessons in Jewish texts might play this role. Significantly, he acknowledges that even if “delis might be viewed as furnishing a kind of last rites for Ashkenazi Jewish culture,” their close association with Jewish tradition and ethnic belonging was never inevitable,

“The overarching irony is that while the deli seems to gesture to, even recapitulate, Jewish history both in Eastern Europe and on the Lower East Side, we have seen that the deli was not an especially prominent part of Jewish life in either place,” he writes.

In this light a gastronomic development, which Merwin mentions as an aside, takes on a new significance. He notes that, among other dietary changes, “Ashkenazi Jews have embraced Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods in recent years, trading fatty deli foods for lighter dishes cooked in olive oil.”

However, it can be argued that this preference for Middle Eastern cooking is not only about health; it’s also about Israel. It is no wonder that, as columnist Peter Beinart similarly wrote in a recent article in these pages about the demise of the deli, that his children are more familiar with shakshuka (an egg-and-tomato dish) than corned beef.

Just as attachment to the Jewish state is seen by many as an essential part of being Jewish, Jewish ethnicity in America has been overtaken, to a degree, by Israeliness: Rather than pastrami, for many the quintessential Jewish foods have become falafel, hummus and shwarma.

It is unfortunate that Merwin misses, or simply ignores, the Israelification of the Jewish palate. Readers would certainly have benefited from his clever and colorful take on this latest twist to the story of American Jewish culture and cuisine.