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Save the Jewish Deli

New America Media, Interview Audio, Mary Ambrose Posted: Dec 27, 2009

Editor's Note: More and more varieties of ethnic restaurants are opening up in American cities. Yet in this expanding landscape, the one ethnic restaurant that seems to be shrinking is the Jewish deli. New America Now producer Mary Ambrose spoke with David Sax, author of Save The Deli.

Listen to the full interview.


How imperiled is the deli?

In the 1930s there were some 1,500 kosher delis in New York City, which had, and still has, the biggest Jewish population in the country. Today there are about two dozen kosher and non-kosher Jewish delis in New York. The figures are pretty comparable across the country. In San Francisco there were a couple dozen, and now there are four.

Isnt this simply a shift in tastes?

Whats specific about Jewish delis is that this Eastern European Jewish cooking was always the cooking of a stateless people. Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews never had a country of their own. They were forced into exile basically until the formation of Israel in 1948. And [before] that time they moved from territory to territory, country to country and had these communities that were disparate: in the Russian empire, Romania, the Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, the large center of it, where 80 percent of the worlds Jewish population lived until the late 19th century, and Germany, France, places like that.

It was always this mishmash of cultures, and then the Nazis essentially destroyed that. Killed everyone, drove the rest out and burnt it to the ground. Which is tragic and the difference that that makes for a Jewish deli from, lets say, a Mexican or an Italian restaurant, is that a Mexican restaurant always has a Mexico to go back to, for its source. There will always be new immigrants coming over. Mario Batali as a chef can always go back to Tuscany and re-apprentice with butchers and learn what people are doing there.

But a Jewish delicatessen owner only has his grandmothers recipes and his own idea of what the food is. There is no physical place that you can return to. That, compared to every other ethnicity, and I havent found anything comparable, is the key factor at the heart of this.

Youd think that would keep the tradition alive.

You would. But with each successive generation of Jew born in the United States, Canada or the UK or other countries, their connection to that past, to that place of their grandparents or their great-grandparents, is diminished. They become more American. They eat Chinese food, Thai food, sushi, hamburgers and they eat it on a far more regular basis than they do Jewish or Yiddish food.

And many non-Jews like this food.

Right. If the delicatessens had to rely simply on Jewish clients theyd have a much tougher time, which is why kosher delicatessens have a very hard time surviving. This is not a food only for Jews Thats sort of the salvation of it obviously. This food does appeal to other people but without a core clientele of Jews it can get diminished, sort of culturally watered down, both the flavors and the institution.

Its homey food. Are people making it at home?

They could Those cured meats are difficult to make at home and most people dont do it. Matzo ball soup and those sorts of things, of course. However, the reality is that people dont necessarily do so. I was with a group of twenty-odd young Jews in San Francisco, people who are involved in Jewish cultural things and I said, Put your hands up if you know or have learnt the recipes of your parents or grandparents, and two people did.

We cook the food of Italy and Osaka a lot more than we cook our own food in the Jewish community Most people do not keep kosher and those who keep kosher will probably cook kosher versions of Chinese food or other sorts of foods that are not historically or culturally Jewish they might happen to be kosher.

So a lot of people go to delicatessens specifically because thats where they are going to get that injection of Yiddish cooking because theyre not going to make it at home.

Why are delis are so popular in Los Angeles?

Its very much tied into the entertainment industry. It was that way in New York up until television moved from midtown Manhattan to L.A. and it sort of took it with it.

Hollywood has a strong Jewish flavor because the founders of the studios were Eastern European Jews and its still prevalent to this day.

So you go into a deli in Los Angeles like Arts Deli in Studio City which actually has a telephone in the wall of one of the booths where studio executives would take calls before cell phones, and youll have everybody from the young guy sipping his coffee working on his script thats going to be his breakthrough, on the laptop, to two booths over, Ivan Reitman meeting with Jason Reitman or Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg having a meeting over there, and theyre all eating the same food.

Delis are very much tied into Hollywood, which gives it a great source of money, obviously. Theyre constantly doing catering, meetings and lunches and these sorts of businesses, which is great, but it also keeps it in the zeitgeist.

In other cities, people tend to go to Jewish delicatessens for nostalgia. And nostalgia is a strong, powerful force but its not exactly something that bodes well for the future. If youre just living for the past, just eating something to remind you of where you grow up, thats not a current thing. Thats not going to revive a culture.

In L.A., the delis arent about nostalgia. Larry King eats at Nate 'n Als every single morning. I dont think he does it just to recapture his childhood in Brooklyn. He does it because this is the place where he goes. Its that livelihood. Its that sense of community. And that sense of community has to be current. Thats what beats the nostalgia; its building a community. So in Hollywood, the community gathers in Jewish delis.

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