Ted Merwin, The Jewish Week’s longtime theater critic, was just awarded a National Jewish Book Award in the category of Education and Jewish Identity for his new book, “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” (NYU Press). Extensively researched, the book delves into deli culture, history and its layered connection to Jewish identity, seasoned with humor. Merwin, who is associate professor of religion and Judaic Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., is founding director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life. He grew up in Great Neck, L.I., where he spent many Sunday evenings procuring turkey and roast beef for his family from a nearby delicatessen, where he first observed the “intricate, elegant choreography to the movements of the counterman as he sliced up the meat.” We interviewed him via email.
Q.: When you began doing your research for the book, did you expect to find the deli to have such a large role in American Jewish life?
A.: I knew that the deli was important to my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, but I didn’t realize that it was a kind of surrogate synagogue in the sense of a gathering place for a rapidly acculturating ethnic group.
While the deli was becoming an American and Jewish institution, what happened to the kosher dairy restaurant? Could you have written a similar history?
My sense is that dairy restaurants were never anywhere as numerous as meat ones, although Ratner’s on Delancey Street was certainly iconic. Indeed, Ratner’s was similar to the theater district delis like Reuben’s and Lindy’s (and later the Stage and the Carnegie) in its obnoxious, imperious waiters, who treated the customer with the kind of playful disdain that they were accustomed to getting only from close relatives and friends!
Have you come across particularly memorable deli memorabilia in your research?
Yes, one of the most exciting things about working on this project has been collecting neon signs, electric clocks, menus, photos, matchbooks, etc. from both kosher and non-kosher delis that went out of business. I keep these items in a big closet at the rear of the sanctuary in our Hillel building at Dickinson where the Torah ark was supposed to go when it wasn’t in use. So these are my secular versions of holy ritual objects.
As more delis shut down, what is lost … beyond all those overstuffed sandwiches?
What’s lost, more than the sandwiches, is the gathering place for Jews. We have so few public Jewish spaces any more, especially for those who are no longer interested in being in the synagogue on a regular basis.
Where can one still find platters of sliced meats, secured with frilly toothpicks?
There are still a precious few delis left in New York. I keep kosher, so I go to Ben’s in the garment district or to the 2nd Avenue Deli on the East Side.
What is the appeal of neo-retro delis like Mile End and Harry and Ida’s? Can you imagine kosher neo-retro?
These delis have upped the gourmet quotient in Jewish food; Mile End [which has locations in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn and Noho in Manhattan] has the Montreal roots, so they serve poutine (cheese curds, fries and gravy), while Harry and Ida’s [in the East Village] serves their pastrami with buttermilk-fermented cucumbers. But this is all obviously quite treif, and I don’t think that any deli that wants to reinvent Jewish deli food would do it in a kosher idiom. Or if they did, that it would be very popular. Then again, what’s kosher Chinese other than a melding of two cultures?
Where can one find the best pastrami sandwich in New York City?
I hear that Katz’s is the best, since it’s hand-sliced. Very few delis hand-slice their meat; Langer’s, in L.A., which also hand-slices, is rumored to have the best pastrami in the country.