Deli Won Stomachs, Hearts
up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the son of Russian immigrants, Alfred Kazin looked forward with gleeful anticipation to his weekly motzei Shabbes outing. “And now, as the electric sign blazed up again, lighting up the words Jewish National Delicatessen, it was as if we had entered into our rightful heritage.” Highly seasoned and oh so tantalizing, “this was food that only on Saturday nights could be eaten with a good conscience,” he vividly recalled in his classic memoir, “A Walker in the City.”
By the time Kazin came of age in Brooklyn during the 1920s, delicatessen had taken hold of the American Jewish household. A decade or so earlier, however, its rosy future had not seemed quite so assured. Music critic Samuel Chotzinoff, in “A Lost Paradise,” his equally glorious but less well-known memoir of growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, recalled the animated discussions between his parents as to whether delicatessen was here to stay. Chotzinoff’s mother, convinced that opening a deli would secure the family’s financial future, was keen on running one; Chotzinoff’s father had his doubts. “My father stated categorically that there was no future in delicatessen and that what my mother saw as a trend was only a temporary deviation from normal Jewish eating habits.… My mother replied that only a housewife could have an authoritative opinion on the future of delicatessen.” Chotzinoff’s mother prevailed and soon opened a deli on the Lower East Side where her son “abandoned [himself] without restraint” to the delights of corned beef, pastrami and bologna.
That delicatessen loomed large in the memory of several of American Jewry’s most discerning writers is surely no coincidence. A testament to the pleasures of the palate, it also reflects the powerful ties between food and history. As one Commentary writer wryly put it in 1946 when discussing the impact of the delicatessen on American Jewish culture: “And so it is with the Jews who frequently speak of the heritage of Israel when what we really have in mind is — yes, Jewish delicatessen.”
On that note, let’s raise a glass — of black cherry soda — to Gitlitz and its counterparts for the unsung role they’ve played in shaping the American Jewish experience and our sense of the past.
History has a strange way of creeping up on us. Open the newspaper these days and, if you’re anything like me, you can’t help being startled by the number of contemporary references to Babylon, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and Mesopotamia, once the stuff of dreary Hebrew school exercises in biblical geography.
History can also be found closer to home. Ransacking our closets for something to wear, we’re likely to come across an article of clothing that immediately puts us in mind of a long-ago occasion. Or round the corner and where a building once stood, blocking the sun, you can make out the faintest traces of an old advertisement for Murano cigars on an adjoining wall.
Just the other day, the residents of my neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side were treated to one of those serendipitous encounters with history when a Duane Reade drugstore, after many years of business, shut its doors and removed its exterior signs. Suddenly, the existence of the storefront’s previous occupant came into view: Good-bye, Duane Reade, hello Gitlitz Delicatessen! A former neighborhood institution whose bold neon letters stood out against a now-faded red background, the old-style Jewish deli had momentarily come back to life, bringing with it the surprisingly tangible presence of the past.
Bustling, informal eateries such as Gitlitz’s once peppered the Upper West Side and other Jewish enclaves throughout the metropolitan area. “The Jews, because of their more delicate taste, have taken to delicatessens more readily than the others,” observed Mogen David Delicatessen Magazine, the house publication of the Mogen David Delicatessen Owners’ Association, in 1931. “More concentrated [and] more filling” than other foodstuffs, a frankfurter or a corned-beef sandwich, the magazine noted, goes a long way toward satisfying the appetite. “And they go well with all kinds of drinks, hot or cold, mild or strong.” What’s more, deli sandwiches are a boon to the balebuste, taking her away from the kitchen and the daily constraints of having to put supper on the table, trumpeted the magazine. “Nothing else,” it said, “can take their place in the menu of the people.”
In some families, Thursday night was reserved for delicatessen; others, like mine, preferred Sunday afternoons and still others Saturday night. Growing