Hot Pastrami and the Decline of Secular, Jewish-American Identity

How deli stopped being an essential part of the Jewish-American story.

City Foodsters / Flicker

I realized the other day that my two children, ages nine and six, have never tasted pastrami. In fact, I’m not even sure they know what it is.

They’ve never tasted chopped liver or herring either. They’re unfamiliar with Dr. Brown’s Soda, and they feel no particularly affinity for rye bread.

Were they growing up in Bismarck, North Dakota, this might not be surprising. But they live on New York’s Upper West Side, attend Jewish school, make it to synagogue most Shabbats and can give a reasonable account of what’s in the weekly Torah portion. Their Jewish identity is strong. It just doesn’t include deli.

When I was their age, I would have considered that strange. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, my father would pile us in the car, leave our deracinated, academic hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts and deposit us at Rubin’s Deli in nearby Brookline. It wasn’t exactly Kol Nidre, but we knew he wasn’t taking us there simply to eat. We were being culturally initiated. In college, my friends and I would make pilgrimages to the Second Avenue Deli. In graduate school in England, I tried to ease my homesickness by frequenting Bloom’s in Golders Green. As a 20-something-year-old visiting Montreal for the first time, I bought a Schwartz’s t-shirt.

Why is it so different for my kids and their friends? Greater health consciousness plays a role. In college, a waiter at Schmulka Bernstein’s (of blessed memory), which combined deli and Chinese in sometimes bizarre ways, suggested I order “the heart attack special.” That doesn’t go over well in the age of organic.

Immigration is also a factor. Despite growing up in a supposedly cosmopolitan college town, I didn’t encounter Thai food until my twenties. Since my childhood, the vast post-1965 immigration to the United States from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East has undermined all manner of blander, meat and potato cuisines. In heavily Jewish neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, deli has faced particularly brutal competition from Israeli food. My kids spend more time at restaurants serving shakshuka than restaurants serving corned beef.

But there’s something else going on: the decline of secular American Jewish identity. In my youth, it was easier to find cultural spaces that were both distinctively Jewish and utterly non-religious. Jews – no matter how little they cared about Torah and God – lived at a greater distance from their non-Jewish neighbors. Back then, Jews were more likely to classify law firms, hospitals, country clubs, universities, even sports teams, as ours or theirs. The prominent Jewish conservatives of the 1970s were generally called “neoconservatives” in part because they had once been liberals but also to mark the cultural space that separated them from their right-wing Christian allies. Lenny Bruce’s famous “Jewish and goyish” routine (“Chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime Jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish”) was already decades old when I was a kid. But the references still made sense.

In the decades since, as Jews have moved fully into the cultural mainstream, it’s become harder to identify things outside of Judaism itself that are exclusively ours. Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld are both Jewish comedians. But they are so utterly mainstream that appreciating their humor isn’t a marker of tribal identification in the way laughing at Jackie Mason or even Mel Brooks was when I was young. The aspects of secular Jewish culture that America has embraced are barely Jewish anymore: McDonalds now serves a bacon, egg and cheese bagel. And those parts of secular Jewish culture that America has rejected – bialys, for instance – have pretty much died.

That’s not to say contemporary America has no vibrant, growing, exclusively Jewish spaces. It has them in spades. They’re just religious. There’s vastly more and better kosher food than when I was a kid. Independent minyanim (prayer quorums) have sprouted in city after city. You can order a five-minute sukkah delivered to your house the next day.

The American Jews who live in this expanding religious space may still enjoy corned beef on rye but they don’t need deli because they have other, more fundamental, ways to distinguish themselves from their gentile neighbors. And the Jews who live far from this religious space, especially in the younger generation, don’t need deli because they don’t particularly want to distinguish themselves from their gentile neighbors.

In the grand drama of American Jewish assimilation, there are winners and losers. And painful as it is to imagine the knish being deposited in history’s dustbin, that’s where it may be going – smeared with mustard, of course.