Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Pastrami on Rye

Sandwiches, especially oversized sandwiches, are now such a part of the American landscape that it’s hard to imagine they didn’t always hold such sway. In Pastrami on Rye: Readubg11-13BwebAn Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, author Ted Merwin chronicles how immigrants brought the brined and pickled foods of, first, Germany and then Eastern Europe to New York, the first port of entry for so many. Early delis weren’t necessarily kosher, but they became a way for the children of Jewish immigrants to learn a secular way to remain Jewish even as they were becoming “real Americans.” The delightful and fact-filled Pastrami on Rye was published by the NYU Press. It can be purchased at the NYU Press site or through booksellers. What better way to mark University Press Week, November 8 through 14. Our excerpt begins the explanation of how the institution of the delicatessen became Jewish and then became American.

EVERY MINORITY GROUP had its own dedicated social space in America. The sociologist
Ray Oldenburg coined the influential phrase “third place” to refer to casual gathering places such as coffee shops and pool halls that occupy an intermediate realm between home and office. These are spaces, he observed, that level social distinctions among patrons, foster civic engagements, and provide a platform for mutual emotional support. As the theme song for the 1980s television show “Cheers”–set in a bar in Boston–goes, it’s the place “where everybody knows your name.”

Third spaces function like the eighteenth-century town commons; the historian Sharon Daloz Parks has noted that the grassy square around which villages in New England were built was where people gathered “for play and protest, memorial and celebration, and worked out how they would live together.” For Parks, the commons is indispensable to healthy communal life; she observes that “wherever there is consciousness of participation in a commons, there is an anchored sense of a shared life with a manageable frame.”


“Pastrami on Rye” author Ted Merwin. / Photo by Curt Hudson.

The Irish imported to America the pub, a venue that was, in the words of the historian Sybil Taylor, a combination “grocery store, funeral parlor, concert hall, restaurant, bar, political forum, congenial meeting place, courting corner, and, most of all, a place for talk.” The scholar Jennifer Nugent Duffy has underscored the role of the pub in promoting “vital economic, political, and social exchanges,” especially for overwhelmed Irish immigrants who dwelled in overcrowded tenement apartments and needed a place to let off steam.

Italian immigrants formed “social clubs” in Little Italy, such as the Saint Fortunata Society, established in 1900, where they smoked, played the bowling game of boccie, and cooked together. In 1896, the New York Times reported on the plethora of Italian societies and clubs, which boasted a combined membership of tens of thousands of immigrants. Whether by providing  an urban hangout or by sponsoring dances and picnics, they provided a way for Italians to reminisce about the Old Country and forge new American identities in a supportive and nurturing environment.

Most of these immigrant gathering places were established by, and catered to, men. The delicatessen, although it began as a take-out store and not a restaurant, was no exception; the first delicatessens likely to a large extent served single, immigrant, Jewish men who could not cook for themselves. In general, Jews tended to come to America as whole families, since their homelands had become too inhospitable to Jews to permit them to stay; men from other immigrant groups often returned to their countries of origin with the money that they had earned.

But because delicatessens are oriented around the consumption of red meat, the iconic Jewish eatery did take on a manly vibe, one that was exploited, as we shall see, by vaudeville routines, films, and TV shows about Jewish men using the delicatessen to shore up their precarious sense of masculinity. The food writer Arthur Schwartz has pointed out that, in Yiddish, the word for “overstuffed” is ongeshtupped; the meat is crammed between the bread in a crude, sensual way that recalls the act of copulaton. The delicatessen, after all, is a space of carnality, of the pleasures of the “flesh”–the word for meat in Yiddish is fleysh.

Beyond the gender and sexual politics of the delicatessen, it was not, by any means, the only “third place” in American Jewish life. The synagogue was called in Hebrew bayt knesset, or “house of assembly.” Settlement houses for the immigrant generation and Jewish Community Centers, YMHAs (Young Men’s Hebrew Associations), B’nai B’rith (a kind of Jewish equivalent to the Masons, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century), and other institutions offered classes and lectures, put on cultural events, and provided gyms and other recreational opportunities–including sponsoring athletic teams. The Yiddish theater brought together immigrant Jews on a frequent, often nightly, basis. But Jews bonded with especially great intensity around food; as the historians Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer have pointed out, delicatessens “became such an iconic New York institution that their presence marked a Jewish neighborhood more clearly than even  that of a synagogue.”

Delicatessens were thus prime venues for Jewish and non-Jewish candidates to campaign for political office. As J.J. Goldberg, the former editor in chief of the Forward, noted, “For most of the twentieth century, wooing the Jewish vote meant walking through Jewish neighborhoods, donning a skullcap, and being photographed while eating a kosher knish.” After Robert Morgenthau, a Jewish candidate, lost his 1962 bid to unseat Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a Baptist who frequently campaigned for the Jewish vote in kosher delicatessens, Morgenthau ran into the African American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin on a corner. Rustin was eating a knish. Morgenthau asked him what he was eating. Rustin replied, “I’m eating the reason that you’re not governor.” And George McGovern became the butt of ridicule when, during the 1972 presidential campaign, he ordered a glass of milk to accompany his chopped-chicken-liver sandwich at a kosher delicatessen in New York’s garment district.

The delicatessen enabled second-generation Jews to refuel themselves and reinvigorate their own tradition, at the same time that it facilitated their entrance into the mainstream of American society. The comedian Harpo Marx claimed that performing on Broadway was a special thrill, because while in New York, he had two “homes-away-from-home, Lindy’s or Reuben’s.” In these delicatessens, he exulted, “I was back with my own people, who spoke my language, with my accent.” Even as the New York-style delicatessen spread out of New York and took root in other cities, it was known as a place of fellowship, friendship, and good cheer. “The deli is where you go to be Jewish,” the food writer Jonathan Gold reflected. “You live a secular life, but you show up at Junior’s [in Los Angeles] on a Sunday morning and suddenly all your Jewish stuff comes out.”

–Ted Merwin

From Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, by Ted Merwin, published by the NYU Press. © 2015 by Ted Merwin. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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