In Los Angeles, a new exhibit on the American deli reveals some Jewish truths

By Rob Ashman David Sachs, The Forward

April 16, 2022

In the 1930s there were 5,000 delicacies in New York City. By comparison, Starbucks, which seems to be on every street corner, has 241 outlets in New York.

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And these delicacies were much more than just places to get coffee or pastrami. “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” a new exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, explains that delicacies were how a generation of Jewish immigrants challenged America, and how America grew to accept and understand those immigrants.

“Even when the deli comes to symbolize tradition, it’s actually a story of change,” Lara Rabinovich, the exhibition’s co-curator, told me.

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The exhibition is compact. The bad news is that it does not smell or sound like a deli, and given all the photos and souvenirs, you will find yourself hungry and wishing you could just order one of the historical menus on display.

The good news is that the Skirball gift shop now holds Cel-Ray carbonated drinks and artificial mustards, and anyway, you’re there to learn, not to eat.

The exhibition is a kind of black-and-white cookie, which divides its presentation between pure nostalgia and a deeper meaning. It fits very well with the Skirball brand, an institution founded to explore the connections between Jewish culture and American democracy.

So, the exhibition begins with a display of a battered leather suitcase and an old, shiny kosher butcher knife, a relic brought by one of the two million Jewish immigrants flooded into the country between 1880-1924.

The newcomers often encountered racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, and sought to make a living serving dishes from their homeland, Eastern and Central Europe: bagels, biali, canish, smoked meats and fish.

The exhibition, Rabinovich said, is rooted in the history of immigration.

“Unfortunately, more than a century later it continues to be a divisive issue in this country, despite the obvious wealth – culinary or otherwise – that new immigrants bring everywhere they go,” said Rabinovich, a food anthropologist who did her doctoral dissertation on pastrami.

The businesses gave Jewish immigrants an economic foothold in the new land. A picture of a young Ann Russ serving customers behind a deli counter in 1939 tells the story best: Joel Russ began selling pickles from a keg in 1907, then graduated to a cart before opening his first store, with smoked and pickled fish. , In 1914. His three daughters, Hattie, Ida Van, worked in the store from the age of 11 or 12. In 1935, he changed the name of the Russ & Daughters store, making his daughters partners in the business, which now has multiple outposts, cookbooks and a TV series soon Based on her story.

One big reason for the success: The delicacies sold by Russ & Daughters and other delicacies were not necessarily of Jewish descent, but became popular with non-Jewish Americans as well.

In the 1930s the deli was everywhere in New York, a social and economic force no less than culinary. One display features a busy session of the Association of David Delicatessen Delicatessen, which has published a magazine – also on display – that covers union affairs and local politics in Yiddish and English.

A newsletter from the 338 Local Bagel Manufacturers Association shows that the politics of immigrants was as married to a deli as a poppy to a bagel. All members of the union spoke Yiddish.

To help visitors understand what these places serve, there is also a Japanese samforo – plastic pastries like the ones outside of sushi bars – of pastrami on rye, bagels, lux and other dishes. A bottle of glass celery rests on the pedestal in a nearby display case. (Half you expect to see a sign, “In case of comedy, broken glass”).

As Jews spread to the suburbs, so did delicacies. There are match books, menus, signs and waitress uniforms from the heyday of delicacies around the country: Manny’s in Chicago, Wolfy’s in Miami. Goldman’s Atlantic City.

Showcase holds a cutting knife from the glassman’s restaurant now closed in Los Angeles, its blade worn to the size of a sewing needle: If knives could talk, imagine the complaints they heard.

As its title suggests, the exhibition takes a deep and enjoyable dive into the deli’s impact on popular culture. There is a World War II-era Katz deli ad urging parents to “send a sausage to your child in the military,” and a wall of photos of politicians stopping at deli to campaign. There’s President Barack Obama shaking hands with Canter’s in 2014 and Senator Ted Cruz engaging in politics at Shapira’s in Indianapolis: Delicatessens are a two-party ground.

Finally, there is a video collection of famous deli scenes on TV and movies – from “Mad Man,” “Restrain Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld” – which ends with the deli scene known as “When Harry Met Sally,” where Meg Ryan demonstrates, out loud, how A woman can fake ecstasy.

The sound is muted and her moans are subtitled, but her face says it all: either she just had sex, or she just took a bite of your hot chocolate.

The show touches on struggles faced by older delicacies, and nods to the rise of the “new delicacies,” which include smaller menus and artificial fermentation, home-smoked fish and hand-rolled bagels – much closer, in fact, to what Joel Russ sold his cart.

Perhaps there is a lesson in the future of American Jewry as well. Institutions and people come and go, but as long as you find a way to provide comfort and community, customers will keep coming back.


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