Deli Down

Published January 13, 2006, issue of January 13, 2006.
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The closing of the Second Avenue Deli, the landmark Lower East Side kosher eatery, has all the classic elements of a modern-day Jewish cultural crisis: The struggle for historical memory. The quest for generational continuity. The never-ending battle for control of the land on which we stand. And, of course, the search for a truly great pastrami sandwich.

It’s sobering to consider that when the moment of decision came for the deli, it was real estate that trumped all the other interests at stake. The rent went up, the cost of holding on became too high, and the famed tabernacle of sliced tongue folded up and departed, legacy or no legacy. That may be a comment on the times, or it may offer a window into some larger truth we have been missing all along.

It is true, as Shoshana Olidort reports in The Shmooze this week, that the famed deli was not really part of the Yiddish cultural moment on Second Avenue that it came to symbolize. Born in the 1950s, when the great days of Yiddish theater were already past, the deli eventually built its own legend by trading on nostalgia for what was gone. The stars in the sidewalk, the pictures on the wall, the surly waiters and even the high-cholesterol food came together to form a sort of theme park dedicated to the past.

And yet the Second Avenue Deli was greater than the sum of its parts. New York still has other great delis — Katz’s, the Carnegie and the incomparable Mendy’s come to mind — but there was only one Second Avenue. Sitting astride the Yiddish Broadway, smack in the heart of what was once hallowed ground, it was a pilgrimage.

It was also something larger. (You didn’t think we’d let you off without a message, did you?) The Second Avenue Deli was the best known of a fast-fading breed that used to dot the Jewish landscape: kosher restaurants that were open on Saturday. New York used to have dozens. Even Jerusalem had a few. In their heyday, they represented an emerging Jewish culture that gravitated toward the middle, combining love of tradition with acceptance of modern life. Today that middle is nearly gone. Those who take kosher laws seriously won’t go inside, and most others find the entire package meaningless. There’s hardly any room left for a tolerant place like the Second Avenue Deli.

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