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Conversation with Ted Merwin

In their heyday, delicatessens were places where Jews could have one foot in the Jewish world and one in the American world, says a deli expert.

By Cindy Mindell


Ted Merwin

Ted Merwin

Ted Merwin, PhD has given more than a hundred public lectures on Jewish culture. He is the author of In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2006), and the forthcoming book on the history of the Jewish delicatessen, Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Delicatessen.

In addition to numerous scholarly articles on American Jewish food and culture, Ted has published articles in the New York Times (Arts and Leisure), Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, Haaretz, Forward, Moment, Hadassah, and many other publications across the English-speaking world.

For the last 13 years, Ted has written a weekly theater column for the New York Jewish Week. He also now writes a bimonthly “back of the book” culture column for the same paper.

Merwin is associate professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where he is also the founding director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life and current director of Hillel on campus.

He developed an interest in the American Jewish deli while working on his PhD dissertation about second-generation Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the American entertainment arena of 1920s-era New York.

“I realized a lot of these vaudeville routines took place in delicatessens and I wondered why the delicatessen was such a popular setting for American Jewish culture,” he says.

Merwin will present “Homeland of the Jewish Soul: A History of the Jewish Deli” on Wednesday, April 9 at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

He spoke with the Ledger about the cultural ingredients behind the rise (and fall) of this most iconic of American eateries.


Q: How did the deli play a part in your own upbringing?

A: I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island — a very Jewish suburb, but in a very secular family. I didn’t go to synagogue or Hebrew school, didn’t have a bar mitzvah, and really didn’t know much about Judaism. So my relationship with my grandparents was so important because they symbolized Jewish culture for me – the way they talked, the places they vacationed – the Catskills and Miami Beach. They lived in a Jewish milieu, felt and thought in a Jewish way, and interacted mostly with Jewish people.

Every Sunday, my grandparents would come from Queens for dinner, and I would go to the neighborhood deli to get a pound of turkey, a pound of roast beef, a dozen slices of seeded rye bread, and a container of gravy. My family was so Americanized: I ate ham and cheese sandwiches growing up – not with my grandparents – but even when we were doing something Jewish, we were doing it in an American way.

My parents were both rebelling in certain ways against all that and wanted to become more American. They were a little uncomfortable with what they perceived as an immigrant world view and a Jewish world view, and were more cosmopolitan. They ate out in ethnic restaurants and prided themselves on being non-religious and not following those customs and beliefs.

There’s an expression, “What the son tries to forget, the grandson tries to remember.” In order for me to rebel against my parents, I had to turn back to my grandparents’ way of life. They didn’t keep kosher but they went to synagogue on the High Holidays and weren’t hostile to organized religion, unlike my parents. My father went further: he was studying to be a psychoanalyst and had a view of religion as a neurosis.

All four of my grandparents were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. My first book [In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture] focuses on the ‘20s, when that second generation came to the fore, moving out of the Lower East Side.

For the delicatessen book, the more research I did, the more I discovered that the heyday of the deli was during that period, between the World Wars. So it made sense that I associate so much with my grandparents. At their peak, there were 1,500 delicatessens – kosher and non-kosher – in the city; now there are five or six.


Q: What did the deli look like before it came into its own in the ‘20s?

A: There were delicatessen-type stores in Europe – the French charcuterie and the Italian salumeria. The American model comes from Germany.

We don’t know when the very first delicatessen opened in America but in the 19th century, during the time of the big immigration from central Europe – the area that became Germany – a German Jew opened a delicatessen to cater to his co-religionists, who were used to eating these kinds of foods.

Katz's Deli (date unknown)

Katz’s Deli (date unknown)

The delicatessen was almost definitely kosher from the beginning. Katz’s goes back to 1888 and was one of the first in New York, if not the first.  [According to its official history, Katz’s Delicatessen started life on Ludlow St. as a kosher restaurant run by a pair called the Iceland brothers. When a partner named Willy Katz joined in 1903, Iceland Brothers deli became Iceland & Katz. After buying out the brothers in 1910, Katz bumped their name off the marquee, and Katz’s – as we know it – was born. It also became non-kosher.]

Originally, the delicatessen was a store, not a restaurant, and you would take food out. Many articles and books on American Jewish history, focusing on food, say that the delicatessen started in the immigration period but was not a feature of Jewish immigrant life. There weren’t very many of them: a survey on food businesses in the Lower East Side conducted in 1899 reports that there were 10.


Q: Why didn’t the delicatessen catch on until the ‘20s?

A: My sense is that it just wasn’t part of the culture. While people bought food from pushcarts, and there were lots of candy stores, the idea to bring a meal home was not something that an immigrant Jewish mother was comfortable with. It was her role to provide food for her family and to bring in a meal would be an admission that she wasn’t a good cook. Eating out was not something that Jews were familiar with – it was not a part of Lower East Side or Eastern Europe culture, but an American thing to do.

There was also prejudice against immigrant food, not just Jewish. In the settlement houses, where immigrant women were taught English and a trade, there was a bias against the kinds of foods immigrants were bringing with them.

Food historian Mark H. Zanger writes that, in the immigrant experience, “food becomes softer and whiter.” Spicy meatballs and garlicky pastrami, all those strong smells and weird ingredients, didn’t help you fit in and just didn’t seem American.

In the delicatessen, there was an element of connecting to the home country, but this wasn’t food that Jews had eaten much of in Eastern Europe because they were desperately poor. As Jews moved through the Rhine River Valley to Eastern Europe, they acquired sweet-and-sour and pickled meats, but by the time they had moved into Poland, these foods had become a small part of their diet – Jews didn’t have access to grazing lands, and meat was expensive. It became a gourmet item eaten on special occasions.

It’s ironic because delicatessen foods are not seen as gourmet. To a certain extent, they became part of American Jewish culture. In their inter-war heyday, delicatessens were places where Jews could have one foot in the Jewish world and one in the American world, and connect to these foods that represented a level of luxury. Jews were moving from the lower class to the middle class. There were still quotas in terms of Jewish admittance to colleges and professional schools, and separate country clubs, so Jews were not fully a part of American society.

Jews used Theater District delicatessens to celebrate their success in America, to be able to eat meat – a symbol of luxury – surrounded by pictures of celebrities, and eating these big sandwiches named for celebrities. People could feel like celebrities in these places.

The delicatessen was far from the only kind of Jewish eating store or restaurant in New York. There were dairy restaurants – Ratner’s, Rappaport’s – and the cafeterias in the Garment District, and there are still appetizing stores. But I think the deli was the most popular and it became the most iconic and an object of nostalgia.


Q: What other aspects of early 20th-century American Jewish life did you learn from your research on the delicatessen?

A: I also looked at the delicatessen in terms of a gender analysis: was it mostly a male space or a space where men and women were equally participating and comfortable? I see it as a male space; there’s something male about red meat, slicing and serving and eating meat. On the other hand, as the deli became more ingrained in Jewish culture, it was a mom-and-pop business so there were women working there, helping to cook and at the register. Delicatessens served working people during the day, single men who were here by themselves before they brought over their wives and families. In immigration patterns, Jews tended to come as families more than other groups did. There was a lot of back-and-forth among other nationalities but Jews couldn’t do that – most didn’t have a place to go back to. Their whole life in Europe had been wiped out and that had an effect on food patterns and eating-out patterns.

The delicatessen was also a place where families would go out to eat. In the Jewish neighborhoods of New York’s outer boroughs, Sunday night was deli night, when people would gather with extended families.


Q: What happened to the deli over the decades?

A: A lot of my focus is on the depiction of the deli in popular entertainment; how Jewishness really became naturalized in a way in America, and the borders between non-Jews and Jews started to become blurrier. The deli really helped to bring that about by providing a place where Jews and non-Jews could have an entrée – no pun intended – to Judaism that wasn’t as unfamiliar as going to synagogue services. The first experience we often have of an exotic culture is through its food. Jews could introduce non-Jews to Judaism at the deli, and non-Jews could start to develop the same kind of fondness for Jewish food as Jews had.

There was a period of rejection, after World War II, a shift away from the city into the suburbs. People didn’t need to go to a deli because they could buy mass-marketed deli products in supermarkets, not the same but good enough. The cold cut became popular then. Companies realized that they had to shift away from the deli and start packaging their foods in order to stay viable.

In some ways, as the deli faded out, it became increasingly iconic in popular culture.

The health movement in the late ‘70s called out deli food as the highest in fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and that generation had a sense of that food as being peasant, immigrant, and low-class, the food Jews ate when we were poor and starving. There were no vegetables in sight, except for pickles and coleslaw, and you didn’t even get lettuce and tomato on a sandwich.

The kinds of foods traditionally sold in a delicatessen – pastrami is the most iconic – are not seen as Jewish food any more. You can buy pastrami at any sandwich shop in America. The only people who would want to go to a traditional deli are those who want something more authentic or are nostalgic. Katz’s, Carnegie, and Stage, before it closed, are tourist attractions and are not seen as Jewish restaurants. I ask people in these places, “What are you eating?” and they don’t have any Jewish associations with the food.

It’s a whole world that’s gone but there are a few kosher delicatessens that try to maintain that link to the past – 2nd Avenue Deli and the Ben’s Kosher Deli chain.

As a historian of popular culture, I’m also interested in what happened to the New York deli as it has moved outside of New York and what “the authentic New York experience” signifies outside New York.

The pendulum has swung back a little and there’s nostalgia for the delicatessen but it’s not enough to sustain a whole deli culture. There’s an effort to marry the deli with sustainability – free range, organic, homemade soda, etc. – that seems to be a trend on the East and West coasts but I don’t know how many of the customers are Jewish. Will these places succeed in offering the Jewish stuff along with modern values?


Q: Does the deli have a place in the Sephardic community, or in the current Orthodox communities of New York?

A: While the delicatessen is an Ashkenazi tradition, there are also Sephardic Jewish restaurants, which are much more upscale. Among Orthodox Jews, you tend to see more of an interest in Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine, and there are also a lot of kosher pizza places.


“Homeland of the Jewish Soul: A History of the Jewish Deli” with Ted Merwin, PhD: Wednesday, Apr. 9, 5:30 p.m., UConn, Babbidge Library, Class of ’47 Meeting Room, Storrs | Info: Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, (860) 486-2271 / judaicstudies@uconn.edu.


Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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