Katz’s & Co | Jewish General

When Ted Merwin was growing up in the suburbs of New York in the 1970s, the heyday of delis was long gone. The famous Jewish restaurants on Broadway, “Reuben’s” or “Lindy’s,” where New York society met after the theater for a pastrami sandwich, no longer existed; only the “Carnegie Deli” survived. The Lower East Side still had Katz’s, Russ and Daughters, and the Second Avenue Deli, but the number of classic Jewish-American family restaurants that were still around every corner in the ’30s and ’40s had already declined significantly.

Nevertheless, for Merwin, who now teaches Judaic Studies and writes about Jewish life and pop culture, the deli was a central place in his youth. “The local deli connected me much more than other Jewish institutions with my ancestors and my Jewish identity,” he writes in the foreword to his deli book Pastrami on Rye.

existence Whenever he ate a corned beef sandwich, matzah dumpling soup, or chopped chicken livers at Great Neck’s deli as a youngster, Merwin says, he knew he was eating the same foods his grandparents would have eaten at weddings, birth parties, and funerals . They were courts that connected her with her generation at a time when being Jewish was not just a facet of her existence, but a “central fact of her existence”.

For many Jewish New Yorkers, the deli was a more important reference point than the synagogue.

Around 50 years have passed since then, and having this connection with Jewish heritage in New York has become even more difficult. Katz’s still exists and the pastrami there is still outstanding, but the tourist craze at the city’s oldest deli makes it hard to feel at home. Russ and Daughter has evolved into a stylish gourmet restaurant, and the Carnegie Deli, the last of the great Broadway delis, closed its doors in 2016.

GENERATIONS However, the dying out of the classic Jewish deli does not merely symbolize the disappearance of a Jewish institution which, according to Merwin, was a more important reference point than the synagogue for generations of Jewish New Yorkers. It also means a noticeable change in the cityscape of New York, which was shaped by the Jewish deli for a good 100 years. There were more than 5,000 such bars in the 1940s, today there are barely a dozen.

The sad development was undoubtedly one of the impetus for the New York Historical Society to commemorate the Jewish deli in a large exhibition. In three large rooms on the ground floor of the house on the western edge of Central Park, visitors can travel back in time until April next year.

The exhibition makes no effort not to get caught up in the snares of nostalgia. From the moment you enter, it exudes a longing for a New York in which the hyphenated cultures of the classic immigrant groups – Jews, Italians, Irish, Germans and Chinese – still shaped the cityscape and life in the city. One longs for an era when the heart of New York was not yet a fully globalized consumer zone and immigrant cultures were pushed deep into the outskirts.

The Sentimental Journey to the New York of the Eastern and Southern European immigrants begins, of course, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where between 1880 and 1920 around two million Jewish immigrants found their first home in the new world . Most came straight from the quarantine island of Ellis Island to what would be described as a slum by today’s standards. More than 70,000 people lived in less than half a square kilometer, and the families lived huddled together in tiny rooms in the often windowless apartments.

FLESH As can still be seen today in the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, many families slaughtered themselves in the basement of these residential areas to support themselves and the neighborhood. The counter sales took place right next to the slaughter rooms. From these very small businesses emerged the first delis, sausage and meat shops, often of German origin, as the name “Delicatessen” already suggests.

Katz’s, which still sells its pastrami sandwiches on the corner of Houston and Ludlow Streets, opened its doors in 1888 just a few meters from its current location. Admittedly, there were no chairs back then – it would be a few more years before the delis started serving their meat products, pickled vegetables, knishes and smoked fish at tables.

What was already beginning to emerge, however, as the exhibit vividly demonstrates, was that the Jewish deli was a uniquely American institution. The delis of the Lower East Side and later other Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Harlem offered a mix of different Central and Eastern European dishes. The preparation also had to be adapted to the availability of certain types of meat and spices and ultimately to the tastes of the American public.

legend For example, the »pastrama« of Romanian Jews was still made from goose breast when this group came to New York in large waves. It was only in America that they began to be made from the cheaper and more accessible beef belly. Legend has it that Sussmann Volk served the first pastrami sandwich in his Lower East Side deli in 1887.

As early as the turn of the century, the Jewish deli began to free itself from the confines of the Jewish residential quarters.

As early as the turn of the century, the Jewish deli began to free itself from the confines of the Jewish residential quarters. Jewish delis migrated up Broadway from southern Manhattan and south from Harlem. Delis opened in Chelsea and Times Square, catering to Gentile New Yorkers, especially on Sundays. For a growing number of urban Christians, Sunday meals in the Jewish deli replaced lunchtime at the family table after church.

However, the heyday of the Jewish deli in New York, to which the exhibition gives the greatest amount of space, came after the end of the First World War with the dawn of the Jazz Age in New York. The legendary delis Reuben, the Stage Diner, Lindy’s and the Carnegie Deli opened on Broadway and became centers of New York social life.

SYMBOL The delis on Broadway were symbols of the social advancement of American Jews. The owners were mostly second-generation immigrants, who celebrated their arrival in American society with their restaurants. The fact that the “Reuben’s” signature shone in bright neon across Broadway was a source of great pride for New York Jews.

The success of Broadway delis went hand-in-hand with Broadway’s explosion into the entertainment district it is today. The number of revues, theater performances and musicals on Broadway doubled almost every year. And in this industry, too, the Jewish influence was becoming increasingly noticeable. Jews wrote plays and scores, they performed on stage, they worked as agents, and they became theater owners.

Visiting Reuben’s or Lindy’s before or after the show was increasingly becoming a New York ritual. And the ambience of the establishments adapted. The interiors were opulent and elegant, and the menu went well beyond the standard Jewish deli offering. There was champagne and oysters and a wide range of non-kosher dishes.

And the list of sandwiches on the oversized menus offered a dizzying variety and choice. At »Reuben’s«, for example, you could choose from 45 different sandwich preparations. Each had the name and, as Reuben claimed, the character of show business giants from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland to Danny Kaye. Getting a sandwich with his name on it at Reuben became a show business accolade.

BROADWAY And, of course, during this time, the deli found its way into Broadway entertainment itself. In 1925, the musical Kosher Kitty Kelly opened, celebrating the deli as a place where diverse New York demographics congregated. In 1926, the silent film Private Izzy Murphy was made, in which George Jessel played a deli owner modeled on stage diner owner Max Asnas.

Since then, the Jewish deli has had a regular place in pop culture. It has starred in films from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose to When Harry Met Sally, with the juicy scene that made Katz’s world famous. And the Seinfeld series is just as unthinkable without Deli as the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm.

However, with the decline of Times Square into a seedy district in the 1960s, the delis on Broadway lost their luster. And as greasy, heavy food became increasingly unpopular from the 1970s, the number of delis in New York declined dramatically. What remained are the few institutions like »Katz’s« or the »Second Avenue Deli«.

DISAPPEAR The deli fared no better than the institutions of other immigrant cultures. The originals disappear at the latest with the third generation and full assimilation. Little Italy, just off the Lower East Side, also has only one original family-owned Italian deli left.

In the past 20 years, however, the Jewish deli has been making a comeback – as a quote, as a pastiche, if you will.

In the past 20 years, however, the Jewish deli has been making a comeback – as a quote, as a pastiche, if you will. Original “New Yorker” delis are opening in places like Texas, Michigan, California and Berlin. There are four of them in Las Vegas.

In New York itself, a whole series of “designer delis” have opened in recent years. They quote and update the original and reinvent it as »haute cuisine« or »artisanal food«. Today, Greenpoint hipsters are lining up at Frankel’s to get a $16 pastrami salmon bagel.

One can cynically see this as the death of an authentic culture and its rebirth as a fetish. Or you can relax and enjoy the fact that Kreuzberg now has a pastrami sandwich that critics unanimously agree is just as good as Katz’s.

The exhibition »›I’ll Have What She’s Having‹: The Jewish Deli« can be seen until April 2, 2023 at the New York Historical Society.

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