With platters of pastrami sandwiches, pickles and coleslaw beckoning nearby, Ben’s 38th Street Delicatessen was the ideal setting for my interview with Erik Greenberg Anjou producer-director of the soon to open film “Deli Man.”
“I was born outside of Pittsburgh. My mother’s family emigrated from Russian-Romanian border,” said Anjou. “Briefly in France, the family changed the name [Anjou] then on to Germany and Ellis Island. Every male in my family was a doctor, so it was inculcated that my destiny was to be a doctor. But I fell in love with literature and story telling…with the film form and from 21 on was compelled by movies. My first producing job was Cantor Jack Mendelssohn’s documentary “A Cantor’s Tale.” I told Anjou that Mendelssohn — who is featured in “Deli Man” — was at one time the cantor in my synagogue Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing.
“For me the deli was the medium — not the message,” said Anjou. Was the concept his…how did he choose the delis he showcased in the film. “I located the best people to do the research, spent some time which were the best to visit.” Did he speak Yiddish? “Not even a bisele — a tiny bit. My favorite expression is ‘pastrami, pastrami, pastrami.’” Anybody’s pastrami particularly special? “You’re getting into dangerous territory,” he cautioned. “I just love it with lots of spicy mustard — keep it simple.”
“Two things surprised me,” said Anjou. “The amazing sagacity of the deli owners I met. They are poet-philosophers of pastrami. They are chefs and community builders…and they also do tremendous things to survive as business men.” “Guess you never met a deli man who did not have a sense of humor,” I posited. “Absolutely not! Sometimes some of them are tough nuts. To me a guy like Dennis Howard who used to be at The Carnegie Deli is hysterically funny–but he’s got that tough exterior that you only find in New York.
We reminisced about beloved Second Avenue Deli’s Abe Lebewohl. I told Anjou that a few weeks prior to Abe’s 1996 unsolved murder, he intercepted my husband and me on 1st Avenue and 33rd St. Poking his head out of his white van he called out: “What are you guys doing here? Get over to the deli! It’s on me” then drove off making deliveries. “I never met him and wish I could have made a documentary about him,” lamented Anjou. “ I feel Abe’s presence in the film — but we have Fyvush Finkel [and other celebrities] in the movie.
“What have been unexpected peripherals for you of this film?” He paused: “What surprised me was how passionate people are about deli food. The intention as filmmaker is that it speak to the many aspects of the Jewish experience. We talk about food — a different kind of cultural continuity. The table is where people come together — to laugh, to mourn, to connect. Everyone coming to the table of “Deli Man” will bring their own subset of memories and reference points. The conversation does not begin until the food lands.”
Anjou told me: “I was just reading a biography of Marc Chagall. His father worked in a herring factory in Vitepsk — picking and barreling herring.” I commented: “Do you know the shtetldik explanation for the sea being salty?” He shook his head. “It’s because herring swim in it.”