It was the “new boy in town” when it opened 50 years ago, said owner Jack Lebewohl. Now it’s the last to bow out, marking the end of an era on New York’s Lower East Side.
The Second Avenue Deli, which symbolized to generations of New Yorkers the past glory of the avenue once known as the “Yiddish Broadway,” closed its doors last week, following a dispute with its landlord over a rent hike. As workers this week unscrewed the signs that marked the cultural icon, passersby stopped to comment. “The myth of New York is closing down,” one of them said. Another called it a crime.
The deli, commentators noted, actually opened in 1954, long after the storied Yiddish theater district had entered its decline. “Even when it opened, it was kind of an anachronism,” said Kevin Walter, a frequent patron. “All the forgotten stars were in nursing homes.”
But the deli created its own myth, built on nostalgia. It planted a Yiddish Walk of Fame in the sidewalk, with brass stars honoring Yiddish entertainers. Waiters cultivated a curtness that delighted customers.
Lebewohl, 57, took over the business in 1996 after the founder, his brother Abe, was gunned down outside a bank. Watching this week as workers removed his brother’s name from the storefront, he recalled the opening. “I was 5 1/2 years old,” he said. “What can I say? I don’t feel too hot.”
The deli was also part of a disappearing culture, once prevalent in New York, of kosher restaurants that remained open on the Sabbath. Only a handful remain, as kosher authorities increase their stringency and a more casual clientele drifts away.
One of the last of the breed, Fine and Schapiro, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, turns 80 next year, and its owner, Benyamin Profis, said that while “it’s not easy,” he hopes it will stay open. The closing of the Second Avenue Deli, Profis said, is “terrible. This is one of the famous delis. He shouldn’t give up.”
There was an outpouring from New Yorkers, young and old, who agreed. The Internet was filled with posts from young bloggers who, according to Gawker.com, called the deli’s closing traumatic. “I can suddenly (sadly) imagine the place as, like, a Marc Jacobs boutique… or a new Chase branch,” one post read.
Another popular blog, Jewschool.com, offered a link to a Save-the-Deli petition. As of Tuesday, it had 53 signatures.
Lebewohl said that while he was considering reopening elsewhere, he didn’t welcome petitions now. “I’m the type of guy, when I make a decision I stick to it,” he said. But as he watched the deli’s signs come down and wondered what would replace the institution, there was a hint of resentment in his voice: “Another bank? A Duane Reade?”