Sunday, October 04, 2015

Tasty bits from the history of the Jewish deli 

Try reading Ted Merwin’s new book, “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” (NYU Press) without having your mouth water.

Merwin offers plenty of delicious descriptions as he traces how delis rose up first as take-out services for Jewish immigrants, to gathering places for Jewish communities, to symbols of integration — as pastrami piled high became popular nationwide. Here, a serving of some of the book’s colorful tales.

They were home
The delicatessen enabled second-generation Jews to refuel themselves and reinvigorate their own tradition, at the same time as it facilitated their entrance into the mainstream of American society. The comedian Harpo Marx claimed that performing on Broadway was a special thrill because, while in New York, he had “two homes-away-from-home, Lindy’s or Reuben’s.” In these delicatessens, he exulted, “I was back with my own people, who spoke my language, with my accent.”

They were political
As the historians Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer have pointed out, delicatessens “became such an iconic New York institution that their presence marked a Jewish neighborhood more clearly than even that of a synagogue.” Delicatessens were thus prime venues for both Jewish and non-Jewish candidates to campaign for political office.

After Robert Morgenthau, a Jewish candidate, lost his 1962 bid to unseat Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Baptist who frequently campaigned for the Jewish vote in kosher delicatessens, Morgenthau ran into the African-American civil-rights activist Bayard Rustin on a corner. Rustin was eating a knish. Morgenthau asked him what he was eating. Rustin replied, “I’m eating the reason that you’re not governor.”

They were the office
After his performances at the Winter Garden Theater, the famous Jewish singer Al Jolson, the most popular Jewish entertainer of his day (best known for his 1927 film “The Jazz Singer”), would invite the entire audience to accompany him to Lindy’s for a pastrami sandwich. The bootlegger Arnold Rothstein, infamous for fixing the 1919 World Series, did all his business at delicatessen tables at Lindy’s, where he was such a fixture that when he was gunned down outside the restaurant in 1928, many people thought that he had been an owner of the restaurant.


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