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The Schmooze

How Ziggy Gruber Became a ‘Deli Man’

Photo courtesy Cohen Media Group

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here.

Like many other aspects of Ashkenazi Jewish culture, old-time Jewish delicacies are becoming harder and harder to find. In 1931 there were more than 2,500 delis and 150 kosher dairy restaurants in New York City alone; today there are only 21 delis left in the Big Apple. Erik Greenberg Anjou’s film “Deli Man,” which is now playing nationwide, explores the history of the American-Jewish deli and its precipitous decline through the men seeking to keep deli culture alive, chief among them “deli man” Ziggy Gruber.

Gruber, a 40-something New York Jew, has run Kenny and Ziggy’s Delicatessen in Houston, Texas for the past 15 years. Gruber grew up in the deli industry. “How did I start working in delis?” Gruber repeated the question during a telephone interview. “Well, when I was 8 my grandfather threw an apron at me and said ‘come with me. It’s time to make a living.’ And he taught me how to cook real heymishe (down-home) Yiddish food and work in the deli.”

Ziggy Gruber has an impeccable pedigree in the world of Jewish delis; his family is made up of three generations of “deli men.” His grandfather Max came to America from Budapest at age 16 and soon began working in Jewish restaurants. Together with his brother-in-laws Izzy and Morris Rappaport, Max opened the first deli on Broadway, the famous Rialto Deli in 1927. The restaurant was a huge success and they soon opened other popular delis, including Berger’s Delicatessen on 47th street, Wally’s Downtown and The Griddle on 16th street. Their delis attracted some of the biggest celebrities of the time, including Milton Berle and the Marx Brothers.

Just like Ziggy Gruber, his father Eugene Gruber also began working in delis as a child. He later opened his own restaurant, Genard’s, on Madison Avenue, together with his brother Seymour. The family later moved to Spring Valley, New York, where Ziggy’s father and uncle ran the Cresthill Kosher Deli. It was there, in the late 1970s, that his grandfather put the young Ziggy to work.

“My life growing up there surrounding by family was like a modern-day version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s world” Ziggy said. “The people working behind the counter were almost all Jews from Eastern Europe: survivors, refugees, immigrants. I’m one of the youngest to have grown up among Jews like that. Their way of life and their humor is a huge part of who I am today and the reason why I do what I do.”

Gruber also learned to speak Yiddish behind the counter. “My grandfather was from Budapest and my grandmother was from Czernowitz, so at home they always spoke to each other in Yiddish and they also spoke Yiddish at work. Years ago everyone behind the counter spoke Yiddish as well as many of the customers; it was the common language. Later on they spoke Yiddish because they didn’t want other people to understand. I learned Yiddish through osmosis.”

Although Ziggy Gruber, like all real “deli men,” learned to cook Jewish delicacies the old fashioned way — watching others cook — he is also a trained professional chef. As a teenager he was at the top of his class at Le Cordon Bleu’s culinary arts school in London and worked in some of the most renowned fine-dining establishments in the British capital, even cooking for Queen Elizabeth on several occasions.

After attending the annual conference of the Delicatessen Dealers Association, however, his life took a different turn. Seeing that only a few dozen old men had come to the conference he decided to leave the world of fine dining and dedicate himself to the traditional Jewish delicacies of his youth. “I love to cook real heymishe Yidishe food (down-home Jewish food). Holeptses (stuffed cabbage), goulash, chicken pupikelekh (gizzards), a heymishe chicken soup with real kneydlekh (dumplings), a good piece of flanken. The types of dishes that I know I love to cook and that I’m trying to perpetuate.”

Gruber explained that many of the items on his menu are exotic to his customers in Texas. “Well, of course we sell a lot more pastrami and things like that which are better known. But non-Jewish customers see me on the Food Network and order kishke (stuffed intestine) or gribenes (cracklings). It’s funny because a lot of Jews have stopped eating stuff like that and here non-Jews are coming in and think it tastes great. The Jews need to learn to love their own food again. The Orthodox are eating sushi and every other type of food you can imagine. Everything they eat is kosher but it’s rarely Jewish.”

Gruber noted that after “Deli Man” began its theatrical run his customers began ordering more of some of the items mentioned in the film. As far as the film itself, Gruber commented: “It’s been a wonderful experience for me. A lot of people are enjoying the film. I think that Erik Greenberg did a fantastic job. It’s very touching, truly. It’s his film, I’m just in it.”

“Deli Man” is the third film in Erik Greenberg Anjou’s trilogy of documentaries on Jewish culture. Although the previous films, “A Cantor’s Tale” (2005) and “The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground” (2010), both deal with Jewish music, there are many connections between them and “Deli Man.” “A Cantor’s Tale,” like “Deli Man,” teaches its audience about a Jewish tradition by focusing on a single expert in the field, telling his personal story and weaving in the nostalgic recollections of celebrities on the topic (Alan Dershowitz appears in both films — among Deli Man’s other celebrity commentators are Fyvush Finkel, Jerry Stiller and Larry King).

Although Greenberg’s film about The Klezmatics follows a very different format, shadowing the acclaimed klezmer band as they embark on a European tour, “Deli Man” also has some interesting connections to Greenberg’s previous documentary: The Klezmatics lead vocalist Lorin Sklamberg composed the film’s score and contributed an original song about Ziggy Grubber. The band’s trumpet-player, Frank London, also appears in the film’s most touching scene, performing at Gruber’s wedding at the historic Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, where Gruber’s grandfather had his bar mitzvah. (Gruber himself is a great fan of traditional Jewish music and listens to cantorial recordings to help relax after a long day at his deli.)

Asked to provide his favorite item on the menu, Gruber demurred. “There’s no bad item on our menu, everything is geshmak (tasty). But when it gets cold I really like our nice heymishe goulash. For something light I eat blintzes, pierogis. Once in a while I’ll get a strong desire to have a nice Romanian steak. It’s sad, but certain things are being forgotten. We used to make ‘harts-un-lungen stew’ (heart and lung stew). Nobody knows what that is today. Like Isaac Bashevis Singer said that he needed to wait for the Messiah to come so that his dead Yiddish readers would come back and ask ‘what new Yiddish books have come out?’ I need to wait for the Messiah for there to be crowds of people ordering my ‘harts un lungen stew’.”

One can’t be sure about the Messiah but Gruber hopes that the film will help to bring more customers to Jewish delis. “Maybe the film will wake up the next generations so that they’ll understand what Yiddish cooking is.”


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