The Carnegie Deli. Shut its doors last year after 80 years in business Drew Angerer/AFP

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Old New York Jewish Deli

There were some 1,500 of them in the city in the 30s; now there are about 20. The new breed has some of the same food, but everything else is gone. "The problem is that you dont have spaces for Jews to get together"

The traditional Jewish deli has practically disappeared from the New York landscape, replaced by restaurants that serve modern takes in Jewish food, often in combination with other cuisine. A visit to Davids Brisket House, a Brooklyn establishment started by Jews and now run by a Muslim, leads one to ponder the place of Jewish food, and the Jewish community, in America

What difference does it make if its called Davids or Daouds? Riyadh Gazali, owner of Davids Brisket House, asks half-jokingly as he leans over a meat slicer to make a corned beef sandwich. We both see him as a messenger of the same God, we both see him as a descendant of Abraham, and anyway we both believe in monotheism.

As he talks, the slices of meat fall from either side of the machine. Slicing is the most important part of the sandwich, he explains. The slices have to be thin and tender, the sandwich has that feel when you bite into it, like a real Jewish deli sandwich is supposed to be.

He finishes slicing the meat, a little over 200 grams of it, and lays it atop a slice of dark bread. Then he spreads a thin layer of mustard, a slice of tomato, a sprinkle of salt and pepper and closes the sandwich, not forgetting, of course, to serve it with two sour dill pickle halves, a small basket of fries and a side of coleslaw. This is what traditional Jewish food looks like, he says proudly. This is what I sell to my customers. Quality, authentic Jewish food like Jews have eaten for years, only that here its not kosher. Besides, Muslims dont eat pastrami and corned beef and smoked turkey. You really think I should call this place Mohammeds Brisket House?

Few foods are more closely associated with New York Jewish cuisine than brisket, which made its way to the United States from Eastern Europe starting in the mid-19th century, along with an entire culture of traditional Jewish food including kneidlach, gefilte fish and schnitzel.

Gazalis family came to America from Yemen in 1985. The deli, opened by a local Jew 20 years earlier, was one of dozens of kosher Jewish delis in the area. In 1970, Gazalis uncle bought the place together with a Yemenite Jewish partner. Gazali, 40, came into the picture when he bought the deli six years ago and became the sole owner. Its a good business, unique, that specializes in a kind of food you dont find in too many other places around here, he says.

Seth Wenig / AP

Like many of the residents of this central Brooklyn neighborhood, nearly all of Gazalis customers are African American. There arent many Jews left in the area. This place used to be full of Jews, he says. Mezuzot can still be seen in the doorways of some local businesses. But the Jews who once lived here, many of them ultra-Orthodox, have since moved on to other neighborhoods, like Williamsburg to the north and Crown Heights to the south. I have a few Jewish customers, he says. Folks who love the taste, who miss the traditional food and dont care as much about the kashrut. But not too many.

Pizza instead of matza balls

The saga of Davids Brisket House is part of a larger story of the disappearance or acclimatization of the rich culinary culture that European Jews brought to America. According to the New York Times, in the 1930s New York had more than 1,500 Jewish delis. Today there are about 20. In that period nearly a century ago, the Jewish deli was like the pulse of the American Jewish community, a place that gave hundreds of thousands of new immigrants a sense of belonging in the midst of the huge, alien metropolis.

Nowadays, it seems like there are pizzerias or hot dog stands on every corner, but back then the deli was the eatery most associated with New York. They proliferated especially on Manhattans Lower East Side, the hub of mid-20th-century Jewish life in the city. At one time, an estimated 750 delis and 200 kosher butchers could be found in the area. Since then, the Jews largely migrated northward to more prosperous parts of Manhattan, and the kosher delis and butchers left the neighborhood too. Many closed, some migrated north as well.

In recent years, some new delis have been opening up around the city. Cultivating a chic, youthful vibe, they seek to attract a younger clientele while restoring some of brisket and pastramis lost glory. The design of these places is ultra-modern, as far as can be from the traditional deli. You wont find pictures of comedian Jackie Mason on the wall, or of Woody Allen. Theres nothing Jewish about the music, service is swift, and aside from the sour pickles, there might not be anything kosher there either.

Dr. Ted Merwin, a Jewish Studies professor at Dickinson College and author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, describes the situation this way: There is sort of a weird dual process going on, you have delis that have been open all over the country in recent years, certainly in the last four or five years. There had been a lot of stuff in the media about the resurgence of the Jewish deli, delis are starting to incorporate all kinds of 21st-century values, more involved with sustainability, with organic ingredients, with international combinations of Jewish and Japanese food, all the different food trends, and at the same time you have old and famous Jewish delis that are closing, so its hard to say in which direction the Jewish deli is going.

One prime example of the process Merwin describes is the closing of the Carnegie Deli – a culinary institution and tourist destination that was considered the most famous Jewish deli in New York. It shut its doors last year after 80 years in business. Meanwhile, a good number of new Jewish delis are due to open around the U.S. in the coming months, like Half Sour in downtown Chicago, with a menu that will include potato pancakes, chopped liver, matza ball soup and more. Then theres Mile End Deli, which originated in Canada, made its way to New York and will soon open a branch in Nashville, Tennessee. Using our grandmothers recipes as a starting point, we updated traditional dishes and elevated them with fresh ingredients and from-scratch cooking techniques, the owners say on their website.

#cheesepulling pastrami & Swiss @frankelsdeli via @jlcnyc

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Jewish delis are also scheduled to open in Colorado and Seattle. While this may be good news for those who arent so concerned with tradition and kashrut, those still in search of the real thing may find it to be yet more evidence of the death of the authentic Jewish deli.

Once upon a time, the only place to find a Jewish deli sandwich was in a Jewish deli, but thats no longer the case, says Merwin. The kind of food that was sold in Jewish delis is now available everywhere, you can have a pastrami sandwich at Subway, there is no special reason to go to a deli, unless you want gefilte fish, but are people really excited about going out to eat gefilte fish? Just like bagels – you used to only be able to buy them in specialized bakeries but you can buy bagels now anywhere in the country, so is a bagel even a Jewish food anymore? Is pastrami a Jewish food anymore? I would argue that it isnt. Its lost that association. 

No more nostalgia

As Merwin sees it, the story of the deli is more than a culinary one. The food is available everywhere, the problem is that you dont have spaces for Jews to get together. Jews who are religious can go to the synagogue, but what about Jews who are not religious, or Jews who are religious who want to have a social life mostly comprised of being with other Jewish people? Thats what the deli provided, it was the space for social interaction, and thats what doesnt exist anymore, he says. Depending on your perspective, this could be a sign of how well Jews have assimilated in American society, or a worrisome sign of what the future holds for American Jewry.

Its all about assimilation, it used to be that Jews werent permitted to live in certain neighborhoods, and they were not permitted in certain country clubs, and they were not allowed to stay in certain hotels, and go to certain colleges, that was the experience of my grandparents in the 20s and 30s, and that all changed after World War II, Merwin says. Even the JCCs (Jewish community centers) are having a hard time attracting Jews and they stay afloat financially by attracting non-Jews, particularly to their core programs like pre-schools. In a lot of JCCs you have mostly non-Jews who are enrolled in these programs because Jews dont need to do it anymore, they have many more options. Jews are part of America, there are no barriers to Jews, social and economic anti-Semitism doesnt exist anymore, he explains.

It all depends on how you slice it, apparently. Merwin notes that with the high rate of intermarriage, the younger generation doesnt feel the same pull toward Jewish food. You have fewer and fewer Jews who come from homes with two Jewish parents and who identify themselves as exclusively Jewish, so why would they be seeking out Jewish food?, he asks. Jews are not drawn to Jewish food the way they used to be because it doesnt serve the same nostalgic function that it had. Im drawn to Jewish food because thats the food my grandparents used to serve me. Now you have Italian grandparents, Japanese parents. Deli doesnt represent the same link to peoples childhood anymore.

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