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Can Pastrami Conquer the Palate in the Land of Hummus and Falafel?

At Ruben, a new restaurant with a distinctly American Jewish flavor, there’s almost no need for a menu; the thick smell of pastrami is like a business card for the eatery’s unabashed focus on smoked meats. Patrons can choose among freshly sliced heaps of pastrami, turkey or a mix, placed between two thin slices of rye with sauerkraut and a schmear of mustard, horseradish or harrisa — a Tunisian hot sauce that is one of the few concessions made to suit the local palate.

Invading Pita?s Turf: Ruben, a new deli that recently opened in Tel Aviv, serves traditional American Jewish fare, like the much-loved pastrami on rye. Image by Oren Shalev

Image by Oren Shalev

Since it opened several months ago, Ruben has carved out a following for pastrami on rye in the land of pita and falafel. While American-themed restaurants have been around for a while, Ruben is the first to devote itself entirely to cold cut sandwiches and has won the distinction of being called Israel’s first authentic Jewish deli by the local press. This month, in fact, Ruben will become a chain when a new branch opens at another Tel Aviv location, with one more new opening planned soon after.

“Ruben’s success has exceeded our expectations,” bragged Gavriel Zilber, 31, one of the restaurant’s owners. “I think we’re successful because Israelis recognize the quality of our product. But also, it reminds them of visits to New York and Montreal.”

It may come as a surprise to some that it took 61 years for Israel to be able to boast its first deli. But it shouldn’t. Despite impressions, this is not quite Ashkenazi food from “the Old Country.” Delis serving hallmark fare like oversized sandwiches and matzo balls larger than baseballs are a distinctly American creation. Eastern European Jews invented them only after their arrival in the New World, around the turn of the 20th century, and combined Old Country staples with local favorites and ingredients. Similar variants developed among Jewish communities in places like France and the United Kingdom but not in Israel, where local cuisine evolved in a different direction.

David Sax, author of “Save the Deli,” which tells the story of the increasingly endangered Jewish delicatessen, says there are a number of reasons that the deli never made it to the Holy Land.

“The climate made it very difficult for people to grow the produce, especially raise cattle for such a meat-based food,” Sax said in a telephone interview from New York. “Also, the food itself doesn’t suit the climate as much. Then there was the clear philosophical break Israel’s founding fathers made with the Diaspora, and [the indigenous] falafel became the official food of Israel.”

Most Israeli customers at Ruben are unaware of the Jewish roots of the food they’re eating. Zilber, a native-born Israeli, downplays the connection, although he admits that his inspiration is the legendary Schwartz’s deli in Montreal.

“I was working as a chef at a restaurant in Montreal, and every night after we closed, we could help ourselves to all the steak and caviar we could eat. Still, we’d end up going to grab a bite at Schwartz’s,” Zilber recalled. “That’s when I said we have to have something like this in Israel.”

When he returned to his native land, Zilber went through a long process of trial and error to find the right recipe for the homemade meat that goes into his sandwiches.

“It’s not as easy as throwing a steak on the grill,” he said. “First we pick a specific cut of beef with a carefully measured amount of fat. Then it’s marinated and smoked in large ovens for two weeks, before it’s finally steamed and sliced at the store.”

So, after all that, is the nosh any good? The Forward asked a couple of deli mavens to determine whether Ruben’s was up to snuff.

Barney Breen-Portnoy, 24, a Washington native who made aliyah six months ago and grew up on cold cuts from Katz’s Kosher Supermarket in Rockville, Md., gave it a measured seal of approval.

“The atmosphere’s a bit odd: It’s like a chic, scaled-down version of a deli. Where are the sweaty old Jews?” he said. “But for Israel it’s not bad. It’s what you’d expect a satisfactory Tel Aviv take on the food would be. I’ll be back because the meat tastes fine and I love my pastrami.”

Max Julius, 28, a veteran immigrant from London, was less enthusiastic.

“I know of a couple of guys from Long Island who have been impressed with this place and come here regularly,” he said. “But for me, the sandwich here pales in comparison to the salt beef sandwiches served at Bloom’s in Golders Green [in northwest London], mostly on account of the bread.”

Authentic or not, Ruben’s appearance on the Israeli food scene comes at a time when Jewish delis are slowly disappearing from their native North America in what some have described as a “gastronomic holocaust.” Its success begets the question: Has the Jewish deli found a new home in the Jewish state?

Food critic Janna Gur, author of “The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey,” is doubtful.

“Ruben is a fun place which serves good food, but I find it hard to believe deli foods will gain widespread popularity in Israel — it just doesn’t fit the mentality,” she said.

Sax, who heard about Ruben from a friend but has yet to eat there, said he hoped its popularity might raise interest among Israelis in the culinary heritage of Ashkenazi Jews.

“Deli food is certainly more Jewish than falafel, so if it catches on, perhaps it would help expand what people are thinking about when they think of Jewish food,” Sax said. “Hopefully, they won’t be like the delis in New York but would inspire a local, Israeli version.”

Contact Gil Shefler at [email protected]

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