New-York Historical Show Highlights The Significance And Plight Of The Jewish Deli

Food & Drink

Patrons looking to dine at the Stage Deli, Carnegie Deli or Fine & Schapiro in New York City, all noted Jewish delis known for pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, are out of luck. They shuttered between 2012 and 2020. The Jewish Deli has, in fact, become something of an endangered species.

Yet the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition specializing on the historical and culinary relevance of The Jewish Deli opened on November 11 and runs through April 2, 2023. It premiered at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, another metropolis where Jewish immigrants opened successful delis.

Although as Nikita Richardson, a New York Times dining columnist pointed out, some delis and appetizing stores such as Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side, the Second Avenue Deli now in Murray Hill having moved from the East Village, Pastrami Queen, Liebman’s Deli in Riverdale, P.J. Bernstein’s on the Upper East Side, are still going strong.

According to the exhibit, immigrants from Eastern Europe who flocked to the U.S. between 1880 and 1924 introduced deli food, often sold in pushcarts on the Lower East Side, including lox, knishes, gefilte fish, and latkes to the U.S. That led to many Jewish people opening up delis, a German word that boils down to “delicious food.”

New Yorkers of all stripes came to enjoy deli food for decades. In fact, the exhibit also shows an advertising campaign for Levy’s bread that said “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”

The show includes menus from leading delis from the 1940s when corned beef sandwiches cost $2, advertisements for Hebrew National, and photos of Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles. It also displays excerpts of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in the film “When Harry Met Sally” in which she displays her joy of being at Katz’s Deli.

But of late many consumers have been cutting back on fatty corned beef sandwiches, contributing to their decline. In fact, the estimated 3,000 Jewish delis that flourished in New York City in the 1930 have dwindled down to just a few precious dozen.

Here’s what co-curator of the exhibit Marilyn Kushner said about the significance of the Jewish deli.

Forbes: What exactly is the cultural significance of Jewish deli’s in the U.S.?

Kushner: You can look at it in two ways: the Jewish cultural importance or New York City importance. With New York’s cultural importance, it’s generational but universal. When babyboomers were growing up, delis were everywhere, they were a way of life. And we related to them because our grandparents came from Eastern or Western Europe. With New York City, delis are a part of the zeitgeist, for all New Yorkers whether they’re Jewish or not. You don’t have to be Jewish to have memories of delis.

Forbes: Why did they thrive for so many years?

Kushner: In the 1930s, the immigrants that came here were still around and it was part of the life they brought here, and the life they knew. They hadn’t moved out to the suburbs yet; it was their children and grandchild who left for the suburbs. If you look at history, after the 1950’s, there was a giant migration to the suburbs. Before the war, there weren’t that many delis in the suburbs. That is countered by the Katz’s and Zabar’s who stayed in the city. Now tourists come to New York to visit Katz’s and Zabar’s.

Forbes: But food in the U.S. often becomes Americanized, like chow mein and meatballs and spaghetti. How did Jewish deli food become Americanized?

Kushner: Because everyone started going to deli’s, not just the Jews. You don’t have to be Jewish to know what good matzoh ball soup is.

Forbes: After thriving in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many started to close in New York City and elsewhere? What were the major reasons why?

Kushner: The parents who ran the deli, their kids didn’t want to do it anymore. It was generational. Some kids took over and did a great job. And a lot of their clientele moved away.

Forbes: Why did people want to cut back in dining on corned beef and pastrami sandwiches?

Kushner: You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know that a lot of Jewish food isn’t good for you. Ratner’s had the best potato soup around, but when I got the recipe, it contained a pound of butter. I would go to Lou Siegel’s delicatessen in the Garment district for a chopper liver sandwich. Who would eat a chopped liver sandwich twice a week these days? You don’t do that anymore. Because it’s not healthy and we know it.

Forbes: The deli’s that have survived like Katz, 2nd Avenue Deli, Mile End Deli, Ben’s what adjustments did they have to make to modern diets?

Kushner: They have to have made adjustments. I’d have to look at a menu. I’d expect them to offer more vegetable alternatives. People are thinking a lot more about nutrition because science has changed and advanced, and we know more about the food we can eat and can’t eat.

Forbes: What might lure the current generation not raised on pastrami and corned beef back to deli’s?

Kushner: A great corned beef sandwich with cole slaw on rye would do it. There’s nothing like it. There’s something romantic about eating food that people have been eating for at least 100 years. I’m an art historian, and I love history. The recipes for matzoh ball soup or brisket are things that I’ve made, that my mother made, and that her mother taught her to make. I may change the recipe because you can’t use schmaltz, the fat, anymore, but there’s something about carrying on tradition as Teyva said in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Forbes: What’s your take of the future on Jewish deli’s in the U.S.?

Kushner: I think they’ll survive because they’re Jewish delis. Italian and Chinese restaurants aren’t going away. People want food from different cultures. They have to change with the time, which is what has happened. People won’t stop eating pastrami. Everyone has memories of them that they don’t want to end.

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