Off the shelf | Summing up the Jewish experience in pastrami on rye

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One of the reasons food enjoys such a heightened place in Jewish culture, perhaps, is that we recognize how it tells a story. There is much we express and recall through foods, whether in ritual enactment at Passover or simply in yearning for the dishes we remember growing up. With the growth in the field of culinary history in recent years, it is no surprise that the Jewish experience continues to be well represented.

It is difficult to believe that a comprehensive history of the New York delicatessen hasn’t been written before now, but with “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” Ted Merwin has proven himself an appropriate candidate for the task with a book that is very well researched and enjoyable.

Merwin, who teaches religion and Jewish studies at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, shows the cultural, religious and demographic trends that contributed to the rise and fall of the Jewish deli. It was not a Jewish institution in the beginning, but it certainly became one. In their heyday of the 1920s and ’30s, Merwin writes, more than 1,500 kosher delis were in business in New York City alone. Today there are fewer than 20. Merwin explains the many factors at work, including flight to the suburbs, the decline of immigration, less adherence to religious dietary restrictions, preferences for healthier foods and the move toward international cuisine (Merwin devotes a number of pages to the Jewish love affair with Chinese food).

Another interesting factor has to do with Jewish self-definition. The deli was an unabashedly ethnic space that was not only about food — it also was an expression of being Jewish, and provided a particularly resonant connection for those who found more meaning and joy in eating than in praying.

Merwin notes that as Jews integrated into mainstream American life, they began to define themselves “less as an ethnic group and more as a religious one.” This led to the synagogue becoming a more central social institution — even for marginally observant Jews — and the delicatessen less so.

Yael Raviv’s “Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel” is more about nation than falafel. It is an excellent book, but one that is likely to appeal more to people seriously interested in Israeli history than to those interested primarily in food. It highlights aspects of Israel’s development through a culinary lens, particularly in the early years of the state.

The initial significance of food for the Zionist movement was foremost as an agricultural product. Harvesting the fruits of the land of Israel would provide economic sustenance to the developing Jewish community and help tie Jews to the land itself, practically and symbolically. It was the orange, rather than the falafel, that was Israel’s emblematic food for many years.

Raviv shows how these agricultural concerns led to changes in the kitchen. Buying and preparing only foods grown, picked and packaged by Jewish pioneers was promoted as a way to support the efforts of nation-building. This effort was institutionalized in the 1930s with stores that strictly sold food products made by Jewish labor in what was then British Mandate Palestine. This practice had a significant impact on the Israeli menu.

Raviv devotes attention to a number of phenomena that have distinguished the Israeli experience, such as the communal dining room of the kibbutz. And she does discuss falafel, which has a fascinating story of its own, and highlights Israel’s complex relationship to the greater Middle East.

If the previous books are dispassionate academic investigations, “Eating Delancey” is an unabashed love letter. Created last year by Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps, it’s a beautifully presented coffee-table book celebrating the foods and culinary institutions of the Lower East Side — mostly those that have survived into the present day.

The book exudes passion about food and place. It’s something I relate to; when in New York, I’m one of those folks who makes it a point to go to the Lower East Side on a sort of pilgrimage — one that is becoming less fulfilling amid all of the gentrification and development — and these visits feel incomplete without ordering a kasha knish at Yonah Schimmel’s or re-creating the family trips led by my father to Kossar’s bialy bakery.

Luscious photographs are complemented by testimonials from celebrities (including an introductory essay by the late Joan Rivers), restaurant owners and other interested parties, as well as old articles and a number of recipes.

One memorable anecdote comes from Michael Lang, co-creator of the Woodstock Festival. It turns out that rock promoter Bill Graham felt threatened by the 1969 concert and was making noise about using his power to force the cancellation of its major acts. A nervous Lang and a fearsome Graham met for breakfast at Ratner’s, the famed dairy restaurant on Delancey Street, and negotiated over food, with Graham eventually getting from shouts to smiles. Lang remarks that “Woodstock might have been a very different event, a wholly different concert altogether, if it weren’t for the pickled herring.”

“Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” by Ted Merwin (256 pages, NYU Press)

“Falafel Nation: Cuisine and the Making of National Identity in Israel” by Yael Raviv (304 pages, University of Nebraska Press)

“Eating Delancey: A Celebration of Jewish Food” by Aaron Rezny and Jordan Schaps (224 pages, powerHouse Books)


Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.