The Jewish Deli, Explained


The history of one of our country’s most beloved institutions is longer and more colorful than most people realize, from icons such as Katz’s Deli in New York to the much-missed Wolfie’s in Miami Beach.

Do you remember Wolfie’s, Pumpernik’s or Rascal House?
Can you still see the shiny tables, cushioned vinyl booths and swivel-top stools lined up along the long counter? Perhaps you can even remember what it was like to sink your teeth into the warm, rich corned beef on rye, or the bite of those crisp, tart garlic pickles set out in a silver bowl alongside the salt-and-pepper shakers. The vibe in those places was reminiscent of what today would give us the feeling we were in the middle of a vaudeville sketch, or a sitcom. It was an experience that was all-encompassing and multisensory: the smell of the food; the feeling of the sticky rugulach on your fingertips; the sight of the waitresses— outfitted in traditional polyester uniforms—bustling about; the ambient clatter of dishes and silverware landing in the busboys’ tubs.

If you identify with this memory of visiting a Jewish deli, you’re not alone. History tells us that the humble neighborhood deli is actually an inheritor of decades of tradition that links show business, celebrity culture and, of course, Eastern European food into one very unique type of restaurant.

It was in the northern cities of our country that these traditions first fused, later moving to the sunbelt in pursuit of retirees and snowbirds. According to Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Delicatessen, in the early 20th century the deli became the linchpin of Jewish communities around the US, serving up “soul food” and atmosphere and becoming a quintessential part of American culture. “Sunday night in the deli was more important to a lot of Jews than Friday night at the synagogue,” writes Merwin, an associate professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He first developed an interest in doing scholarly research about the American deli while working on his PhD dissertation about second-generation Jewish immigrants in the entertainment professions in 1920s-era New York City; that’s when Merwin came to realize there was a close connection between this type of ethnic restaurant and show business.

This may have been true from early on. Katz’s Delicatessen, which opened in 1888, perhaps the oldest Jewish deli in the country, is located on Manhattan’s lower east side. In the late 19th century, that area was a cultural hub for Jewish immigrants, and Katz’s was often frequented by performers from the nearby Yiddish-language theaters. Later, iconic delicatessens situated near the Broadway theater district in mid-town, like Lindy’s and Reuben’s, which weren’t kosher, became well-known hangouts for famous entertainers from the 1920s, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel. Comedian Harpo Marx (yes, he could speak) claimed that performing on Broadway was a special thrill because it allowed him to eat at Lindy’s or Reuben’s.

Of these delicatessens, Merwin wrote, “I was back with my own people, who spoke my language, with my accent.” Many of these restaurants were responsible for ongoing trends like stage-naming specific sandwiches after show business personalities, and covering their walls with framed photos of the celebrities and other famous people who ate there.

Early South Florida deli restaurants followed suit. Wolfie’s, for example, which opened in 1947 on Collins Avenue, became associated with the nightlife and entertainment industry on Miami Beach. Celebrities like comedian/TV star Jackie Gleason and boxing champ Muhammad Ali could often be spotted there. Wolfie Cohen, the restaurant’s legendary owner, was said to be close friends with the actor Danny Kaye. According to the Miami Herald, when the comic actor would go in to dine, Cohen himself paraded into the dining room with a napkin draped over his arm and the two would perform a comedy act for the other patrons.

Another similar restaurant started by Cohen only a few years later, Pumpernik’s, helped launch the career of former CNN talk show host Larry King. King got his first on-air experience in Miami in1957; then, soon after, while working for AM radio station 610 WIOD, broadcast his first local talk show directly from Pumpernik’s. Celebrities such as Bobby Darin and Lenny Bruce dropped by to be interviewed by the then-young, gravelly voiced broadcaster.

Notables of various sorts have been associated with delis and deli food, including underworld characters and gangsters. The 1920s’ crime kingpin Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein had his own table at Lindy’s, a place that was known as his unofficial office. Mafioso Lucky Luciano, really a pure product of the Manhattan streets, was a great lover of deli fare; in fact, he was said to have complained that he missed corned beef and pastrami after being deported to Italy.

The gangster most closely associated with the Miami area, Meyer Lansky, was a regular at Wolfie’s. According to the Sun-Sentinel, during the 1950s and ‘60s, the FBI would park a van across the street from the Miami Beach restaurant to keep an eye on the mobster. Later, in the ‘70s, the retired Lansky could often be spotted breakfasting there, kibitzing with old cohorts. Lansky’s grandson recalls being with his infamous grandfather in 1977 at a Wolfie’s in North Miami Beach when two young boys asked him for an autograph (the aging gangster politely declined the request).

Conversely, legitimate figures—especially politicians—often visit delis to garner support from Jewish and/or elderly voters. Paul Kruss, co-owner of Mo’s Bagels & Deli of Aventura, says that many local mayors and commissioners come to his restaurant to campaign. In the past, Kruss reports, US Senator Joe Lieberman and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have been in to greet diners. Kruss also says that part of his motivation for wanting to go into partnership with Mohamed “Mo” Hussin to run the deli was so he could be at the center of the local Jewish community; to that end, Mo’s expanded a few years ago so it can accommodate big parties and celebrations. “We’ve become sort of like the Versailles of North Dade,” says Kruss, comparing Mo’s Deli to the Cuban-American restaurant and social hub in Little Havana that serves as the focal point for Miami’s exile community.

Not Really in Tevye’s Diet
Ironically, the food that is now considered the common man’s meal, or the average Joe’s fun night out was, in the past, the food that only the rich could afford. During his research, Merwin found that the lower east side of Manhattan actually had very few deli establishments during the turn of the century. Meat was a luxury then. Deli meats, traditionally pastrami, corned beef and tongue (turkey and roast beef were added later), were not foods poor immigrants could readily afford.

Over the centuries, wandering Jews moving through the Rhine River Valley to Eastern Europe acquired a taste for sweet-and-sour and pickled meats, but by the time they had moved into Poland and Russia these foods had become a small part of their diet—Jews didn’t have access to grazing lands and meat was too expensive, a gourmet item eaten only on special occasions. According to Merwin when American Jews started having success, making money and moving from the tenements to the more residential outer boroughs of New York City, like neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens, the modern deli was born. The delicious cuts of meat and overstuffed sandwiches made from overly generous helpings represented to them all the wealth and promise of America. And, of course, they brought these ideas and tastes with them when they traveled south to our sub-tropical vacation paradise, instituting long leisurely breakfasts with bagels and lox and rugelach as a way of enjoying theis retirement years, no longer having to schlep to work on freezing cold northern mornings.

But eventually, with the Jewish migration to the suburbs and out of the big northern cities, the number of delis in the US declined, along with the popularity of the food. In the 1970s, people became more health-conscious and educated about the detrimental effects of consuming fatty meats. According to Merwin, Jews also turned against deli food for social reasons. The Americanizing generation considered it to be low class, peasant, immigrant food for those just off the boat.

But in some ways, as the deli faded in popularity, it became increasingly iconic in pop culture, a typical setting for television shows and films about the Jewish American/urban experience, ranging from the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally to “The Larry David Sandwich” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, which prominently features the Carnegie Deli.

Katz’s is now a New York City tourist attraction. Carnegie Deli NYC, Wolfie’s, Pumpernik’s and Rascal House, are now all closed. When Rascal House in Sunny Isles Beach shut down for good in 2008, the city kept most of its décor for historical reasons. A replica of Wolfie’s counter is now part of a museum exhibit. But the Jewish deli is far from dead, and those of us fortunate enough to live and work in Aventura know that better than anyone. Our wonderful bagel emporiums, like Mo’s, keep the traditions alive. Kruss feels his establishment has picked up where the classic Miami Beach delis have left off. Perhaps, ironically, it is an Egyptian-American Muslim named Mohamed that is helping him do such a good job of this. Mo came to the US in 1984 and began his career working at Pumpernik’s. “It was a good place for me to learn. The people who work there, they teach me the right way,” he says, and anyone who has experienced an overstuffed sandwich in a booth at Mo’s would most certainly agree.

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