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Rhode Island’s Best Spot to Find a Decent Corned Beef Sandwich May Be Doomed

By many measures, Jews have thrived in Rhode Island.

Two have been elected to the state’s highest office, including the late Bruce Sundlun (governor from 1991 to 1995), whose resume also included a Purple Heart, a Légion d’Honneur from France and the Prime Minister’s Medal from Israel. Others have launched some of the state’s most notable businesses, from the international toy juggernaut, Hasbro (short for Hassenfeld Brothers); to the jewelers, Ross-Simons; the discount retailers, Benny’s; and the pest control company, Big Blue Bug Solutions, famous for the 58-foot-tall blue termite perched atop its headquarters overlooking Interstate 95. Lil’ Rhody was also once home to at least two literary superstars — the late humorist and New Yorker contributor, S. J. Perelman, and the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning short story writer, Edith Pearlman — and the showbiz wunderkind Josh Schwartz who, before creating “The O.C.” and “Gossip Girl,” sold his first script (titled “Providence,” after his hometown) for $500,000 while he was still a junior at the University of Southern California.

And, yet, the little state has a big problem. Nowhere in its 1,045 square miles will you find a restaurant to sit down and order a bowl of matzo ball soup, a hot pastrami sandwich, and a cream soda. Jerusalem and Galilee — villages in the beach town of Narragansett — have famous seafood shacks, but no Jewish deli. Neither does Newport, home to America’s oldest synagogue. Nor does Providence, home to a Jewish Community Center, two Jewish day schools, and the majority of the state’s 18,500 Jews. For Jewish soul food, you’ll have to schlep to Weintraub’s in Worcester, Massachusetts; or Zaftigs, near Boston; or Rein’s, outside of Hartford, Connecticut — all journeys that, to the famously travel-weary Rhode Islander, might as well be to the Grand Canyon.

This problem isn’t new. The archives of local newspapers contain plenty of articles echoing the sentiment of the June 2001 Rhode Island Jewish Herald piece headlined, “Kosher Eatin’ Blues.” And the problem isn’t necessarily unique. “The phenomenon of dwindling delis is directly related across all communities, whether big ones like New York City (where once there were 3,000-plus delis, now two to three dozen), or smaller ones,” says David Sax, author of the 2009 book, “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.” But here in Rhode Island — the state to which George Washington penned his famous 1790 letter proclaiming, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants” — well, the lack of an old-fashioned Jewish deli stings worse than pickle juice on a paper cut.

It wasn’t always like this.

In 1937, the Providence City Directory listed six delis and groceries: Lightman’s, Gold’s, Diwinsky’s, Greenstein’s, Ackerman’s and Wax’s. The archives of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association are stocked with relics of the 20th-century deli boom, from a mid-1940s menu from Harry’s Delicatessen in downtown, where 65 cents bought a large pastrami sandwich with French fries, coleslaw and pickles, to various historical articles describing the fare at Lightman’s (“We made our own pickles, sauerkraut, pickled tomatoes and pickled watermelon,” Julius Lightman once said), the deli sandwiches enjoyed by patrons at Providence’s bygone Russian baths, and the behind-the-counter dynamic at Cohen’s Delicatessen, where “Morris was very generous when making sandwiches, despite the warnings given by his wife, Bessie.”

Image by Kurt Hoffman

Talk to older Rhode Islanders and the sights, smells, and flavors of these places come into sharper focus. Long before he was a well-known local talk radio host, Steve Kass had his first job at Miller’s on Providence’s East Side (the epicenter of post-World War II Jewish life in Rhode Island), where he would “cut up the chives and squish ’em into the cream cheese” for about 80 cents per hour. Retired longtime Providence Journal political columnist, M. Charles Bakst, grew up across the state line in Fall River, Massachusetts, but remembers his father bringing home Miller’s corned beef and saying, “‘Eat this, it’s from Providence,’ like Providence’s East Side was the promised land.” As a teenager, Rhode Island School of Design English professor Mike Fink delivered goods from Diwinsky’s to customers in the surrounding neighborhood. Hy Diwinsky, the shop owner who made bagels and pickles in his garage, wrote Fink a college recommendation. “For the rest of his life, he claimed credit wherever he went for getting me into Yale,” Fink says.

When Providence’s Jews began moving to the suburbs, the delis followed. “You opened the door and the odor just grabbed you,” Fredda Yarlas says of the Park Avenue Delicatessen, which her stepfather, Haskell, ran in Cranston from 1952 to 1976. One early morning at age 59, Haskell died of a heart attack inside the deli, but not before he had prepared deli platters for a fundraiser at Cranston’s Temple Sinai that evening. “That was him. That was his work ethic,” Fredda Yarlas recently said, sitting in her Warwick living room next to her husband, Stuart Yarlas, a retired Johnson & Wales University professor who worked at the deli on Saturdays. On a table nearby was a genealogy book featuring a black-and-white photo of the deli storefront taken in 1967. Below the neon Hebrew National sign in the window was another sign, announcing in big, bold lettering, “HASKELL’S famous for his SANDWICHES.”

So what happened to Rhode Island’s delis?

The answers — there certainly isn’t just one — apply to delis far beyond the state’s famously small confines. First, there are cultural forces. With each post-immigration generation, “Jews in Rhode Island began intermingling outside the community, marrying non-Jews, working in diverse companies, absorbing more popular culture and less Yiddish culture, and yes, eating a greater variety of foods beyond what they brought from Europe,” explains Sax, author of “Save the Deli.” As pizza, Chinese food, hamburgers, clam chowder and other American fare made its way into Jewish Rhode Islanders’ diets, “deli food, and Jewish home-style food, went from being an every meal staple, to an occasional treat,” he says.

Health considerations didn’t help, either. “Before my heart attack, I used to get a corned beef sandwich very often or some pastrami to go,” says Bakst, who was well-known to the staff at a College Hill deli while he was a student at Brown University. “As soon as they saw me coming, they would make me a… rare roast beef delicatessen sandwich on an onion roll, with Russian dressing,” he recalled. (That deli, Lloyd’s, is long gone, and a Subway now sits across the street.)

Wayne Franklin, the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, says that a “noticeable” number of Jews are now vegetarians, including the associate rabbi and cantor at his synagogue. Nowadays, events at the synagogue always have to include vegetarian food options, which was never the case when he started 34 years ago, he says. He spoke from a table at Pawtucket’s Wildflour Vegan Bakery and Juice Bar, one of a handful of vegan or vegetarian restaurants in the greater Providence area that have been certified kosher by a local Orthodox rabbi. Listing the names of two of them, The Grange and the Garden Grille (both owned by the same Jewish family that owns Wildflour), Franklin said, “They’re thriving!… These are the kinds of foods people want to eat now.”

Other explanations abound, from the fact that delis never really had much on-site parking, which made them more suited to Providence’s long-gone streetcar era; to the advent of supermarkets and one-stop shopping; to the arrival of a bevy of competing ethnic dining options, including Thai, Indian, Mexican, Cambodian and Ethiopian restaurants; to the tangled, tragic tale of Barney’s Bagels, the beloved Pawtucket bakery and deli that closed in 2006 after receiving an enormous, unexpected back-tax bill from the State Division of Taxation. (That tale, which could be the subject of its own investigative piece, centers on Rhode Island’s so-called “bagel tax,” a confusing reverse-loophole among tax-exempt bread products.)

In some ways, the dearth of Rhode Island delis may actually be a result of the success and social progress of the state’s Jews. One Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes article explains how Joe Cohen, who grew up helping his father at the family deli, didn’t return to the business after going on to Brown University and Harvard Law school. Instead, he established a chain of supermarkets, which he later sold to become a manager at a local jewelry manufacturing company. Bruce Selya, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, who recently spoke wistfully of the hot pastrami at Providence’s bygone Star Deli from behind the desk of his grand office in the city’s federal courthouse, says he frequently lunches at private social clubs like the University Club, near Brown University, and the Squantum Association, in East Providence, where Jews never used to be found. He told a story of taking his father to the Squantum Association when his parents were visiting from Florida decades ago. “We pulled in and he said, ‘What are we doing here?’ And I said, ‘I’m a member, dad. We’re going to have lunch here.’”

Still, the Ocean State isn’t entirely bereft of a place to order for “parve kishkes.” That’s an order overheard on a recent morning at Rhode Island’s lone surviving Jewish grocery story: Davis Dairy Products, on Providence’s East Side. Inside the modest building, the walls of the store are lined with jars of gefilte fish, boxes of matzo, and bags of Manischewitz egg noodles. Glass cases at the front of the store hold tubs of chopped liver, hunks of house-made corned beef, plastic pickle jars, vats of fluffed-up cream cheese, and boxes of smoked fish. A faded clock in a corner reads, “NEW YORK ZION KOSHER DELICATESSEN.”

“We’re the last of the Mohicans,” says Joslin Davis, the 82-year-old, white-smocked owner who still slices that lox by hand. The business was founded in 1906 by Davis’s uncle; Davis has been working here for over seven decades, since he started stocking shelves at 10 years old. He happily reports that his son-in-law, who helps run the store’s thriving wholesale business that stocks local nursing homes, restaurants, and grocery stores with kosher products, is poised to take over the operation when the time comes. Davis’s 18-year-old grandson works there, too, during breaks from college in Maryland. RISD professor Mike Fink says Joslin Davis “represents Judaism on the East Side. Because he’s the only remaining reminder of what Ashkenazi Jewish food used to be like.”

He may not be alone for long, according to David Sax. The urge for assimilation seems to have peaked with the third and fourth generation American Jews, he says, and the fifth generation has shown an interest in picking up the threads of past culture. “You’ve seen a bloom of young, very Jewish delicatessens opening up over the past few years, rooted in the farm-to-table movement, but also with a pride in that culture that a lot of newer delis lacked back in the ’80s, when assimilation was still in the forefront,” he says. Most of these delis have opened in cities like New York, L.A. and San Francisco, he says, but there’s hope for smaller towns, too. “So, I think it’s highly possible for a new Jewish deli to open up in Providence, maybe by some RISD grads who want to design the perfect corned beef sandwich,” he says.

“Hope,” after all, is Rhode Island’s state motto.

Philip Eil is the former news editor of the Providence Phoenix.

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