Randy's Corner Deli Library

22 October 2009

Where Deli is Community


Once upon a time, the delicatessen was the third pole of Jewish American communal life. The other two were the synagogue, where people prayed twice daily, and the bathouse, shvitz, or mikveh, where the men and women gossiped, bathed, and bonded. Considering that the synagogue was separated by sex, as, naturally, was the bathhouse, the delicatessen was the one spot where community socialized as one. It was open to everyone from the pious to the sinners, the machers and pishers, criminals and politicians.

In communities like Boston's Dorchester and Mattapan neighborhoods, delis like the G&G Delicatessen were de-facto community halls. It's where people went to plead to those in power, where the humble and the exalted could meet equally over a bowl of soup. The Irish had their pubs and the Italians their cafes. We had our delis.

Somewhere in the past decades of post-war evolution and assimilation, the deli lost its place as a locus of the community where it was based. First, communities moved, and quickly. Some happened because of the housing opportunities in the suburbs. Others because of white flight, and the deterioration of American inner-cities.

People went from living within shouting distance of each other ("Heloooo Mrs. Goldberg") to having miles of property separating them from their neighbors. While once dozens of small delis served neighborhoods like Brooklyn's Flatbush or Chicago's Maxwell St. Market, now one or two giant delis could cover forty square miles of suburban residents. Supermarkets edged out Jewish delis for prepared foods and lunch meats. People grew afraid because of diet trends: first fat, then cards, now salt. Sushi came and captured the mouths of young and old.

When was the last time you ate at a deli? I'm guessing it was a while ago.

Yet in smaller Jewish communities around America and the Ashkenazi Diaspora, the Jewish deli holds on to its role as an important institution. Take the case of Deli on the Go, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Here's a community with less than three thousand Jewish souls, wedged between the snowy Wasatch mountains and the barren salt flats, in Mecca for Mormons. Hardly prime deli country. Yet Israel and Miriam Lefler felt it was their duty to make sure any Jew, whether a local or a tourist, has a kosher option in Utah.

So they converted the living room of their bungalow into a small restaurant kitchen. Israel (who works by day in defense technology), and Miriam will bake challahs and make soups for any party that needs it; from a kosher family skiing in Park City, to a 300 person kosher wedding in a local hotel. Because of their distance from larger Jewish communities, much of their food is trucked in frozen, but what they make is done with love.

Same goes for the Kosher Cajun NY Deli and Grocery, just outside New Orleans, LA. When Joel and Natalie Brown opened in the 1990's, they did so to provide kosher food for communities around the gulf coast, who often had to drive hours just to go grocery shopping in larger cities. Kosher Cajun mixed a grocery store with restaurant, serving classics like pastrami and cholent, along with kosher Cajun classics, like gumbo and jambalaya.

When Katrina hit, the Browns fled to Memphis. Joel returned a week later to find his store completely flooded, the rancid smell of rotting food filling the air. He could have collected an insurance check and kept the family in Memphis, but his allegiance to the community was a priority. The Browns rebuilt, and within three months Kosher Cajun was back up and running, serving everyone from locals to FEMA workers.

People ask, "What makes a deli any different from a diner or a pizza place?" The answer is community. When your son is born, will the sushi place cater the bris, or will the Jewish deli? When your grandmother dies, where will the dinners at the shiva come from? Red Lobster? A Thai place? No, it'll be deli....the one place that feeds Jews from birth till death.

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