By Bill Simons
The 35 years from the end of World War I to the end of the Korean War marked the heyday of the Jewish deli. New York City, then home to more than half of American’s Jews, was the deli capital, although areas of Jewish settlement across the U.S. had their own establishments. Proximity to the Broadway theater invested the Midtown Manhattan delis with celebrity glamor. Autographed photos of patrons from entertainment, politics and culture lined their walls. Lindy’s, the Gaiety, Reuben’s, Carnegie Deli and the Stage Delicatessen named sandwiches for their famous diners.
By the mid-1950s, the Jewish delis of New York City were in decline. Movement of Jews from the city’s boroughs to the Levittown suburbs of Long Island eroded the base of local customers. Assimilation lessened participation in ethnic culture, culinary and otherwise. Upward mobility and higher education made Jews more health conscious, lessening the appeal of fatty, salty meats. During World War II, Jewish soldiers were exposed to new foods in other regions and overseas, rendering them and their families more hospitable to other cuisines as Italian and Chinese restaurants multiplied. Jewish Chronicle columnist Jesse Berman observed that Jews, often found in Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve, may prefer “a plate of moo shu chicken over… a bowl of matzah balls.”Although they kept kosher in the house, my paternal grandparents would host the extended Simons family breaking of the Yom Kippur fast at Tai Hong’s Chinese restaurant in Lynn, MA.
With the erosion of its core Jewish clientele, delis and kosher food companies attempted to woo a Gentile clientele. During the 1960s and 1970s, Levy’s (Henry S. Levy and Sons), a Brooklyn bakery specializing in seeded Jewish rye, ran a spectacularly successful advertising campaign directed at non-Jews. Designed by advertising genius Judy Protas, the iconic Levy series featured a variety of diverse ethnic and racial faces, often stereotypical, on their large billboard posters and magazine displays. Beneath photos of Native Americans, Asians, an Irish cop, an Italian woman and Blacks (even the militant Malcolm X) appeared the tagline, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” The ads spoke to an American era of assimilation, increased tolerance, intermarriage and the sharing of culture, including food, across ethnic lines. However, even with Jewish bread, pickles and other kosher products finding new adherents, the Jewish delis continued to decline.
Once home to more than 100 Jewish delicatessens, the Bronx now has but one kosher deli, the landmark Liebman’s, still at 552 West 235th St. ESPN Investigative Producer William Weinbaum recently shared with readers of The Riverdale Press, a Bronx newspaper, his adventure presiding over the Liebman’s initiation of a “pair of transplanted Michiganders.” When one of the “neophytes” asked for a Cobb salad, the waiter informed him, “That’s not what you order here” – and returned with a pastrami sampler. Weinbaum reports, “To make a megillah short, both newcomers ordered pastramis on rye, and one also had matzo ball soup and a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray tonic (celery soda), after trying a sip. With a little kvelling and proselytizing from us, we have two new converts to the cuisine we love.”
Beyond the handful of traditional Jewish delicatessens still standing, the salted meats and pickles survive in non-ethnic restaurants, supermarkets and retro delis in suburban malls. And attempting to cash in on ethnic nostalgia, a few trendy New York City delis, including S&P and Simply Nove, have opened in recent years, appealing to childhood memories with menus highlighting sandwiches, lox, chopped liver, and black and white cookies.
During a 72-hour stint in NYC this spring, I sampled deli food in five different venues. While the open walls, pell-mell atmosphere and multi-ethnic knockoffs (chicken parmesan, burrito, deluxe ham sandwich) didn’t evoke Jewish culture, the Reuben at the Port Authority Deli was surprisingly good. Likewise, Storico, a sophisticated café with international offerings situated in the New-York Historical Society building, is clearly not a deli, but served an excellent matzah ball soup to complement its “I’ll Have What She’s Having” exhibit.
The Second Avenue Deli is renowned. Neither of its venues are still on Second Avenue, but my late Sunday afternoon dinner at the First Avenue location provided a nostalgic portal to the past. The food is still kosher and traditional. My potato knish was gigantic and delicious. Stopping by tables, the owner kibitzed with regulars and newcomers. Second Avenue lore tells that diners start as customers and become friends whose bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals are attended.
At Junior’s 49th Street location, I consumed a large slice of arguably the best cheesecake in the city, which traces its origins to Harry Rosen’s eatery on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. My Jewish deli research also took me to the 45th Street Junior’s in the heart of the theater district. Junior’s is not a kosher deli, evidenced by the fried shrimp, Virginia ham and cheeseburger options. Nonetheless, the menu and ambience retain a Jewish resonance, and I ordered traditional: large corned beef sandwich on rye, kosher pickles, coleslaw and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. Two young women to my immediate right ordered the Cobb salad, verboten at Liebman’s. The customer demographics were ethnically eclectic. The bartender, Phil Whitney, 6 foot plus, muscular, charming and Black, took drink and food orders, while deftly supervising several waiters. He addressed regulars by their first names, some of whom worked in the performing arts. Phil himself has appeared in small TV soap opera roles. From his smart phone, Phil showed me a video of his son’s first collegiate home run. The comradery and food were welcoming.
Reflecting on the deli experience at Junior’s, a quote from satirist Lenny Bruce came to mind: “If you live in New York, you’re Jewish.” The adage is correct, but incomplete, “If you live in New York, you’re Jewish, Black, Latinx, Asian, Italian, Irish…”
At its best, New York, a diverse city since its inception, is a place where groups share their music, vernacular, fashion, style, wit, sensibility and food, including still evolving deli fare.
Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.