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Carnegie Deli, New York, 2008Ei Katsumata/Alamy
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A Slice of History—on Rye

An exhibit on Jewish delis serves up tasty servings of nostalgia while avoiding anything that might leave a bitter aftertaste

by
Jenna Weissman Joselit
December 19, 2022
Ei Katsumata/Alamy
Carnegie Deli, New York, 2008Ei Katsumata/Alamy

Growing up on the Lower East Side of the 1900s in an immigrant household where, for a brief spell, his mother owned a kosher delicatessen, Samuel Chotzinoff couldn’t get enough of the stuff. He’d “abandon himself without restraint to corned beef, pastrami and bologna … to sandwiches buried under a thick coating of yellowish mustard.” Even the resulting bouts of “intestinal discomfort,” or, for that matter, the eatery’s short-lived success—it failed after nine months—did little to dent his enthusiasm for the “delicious, aggressive aromas of superheated pickled beef.”

I thought of Chotzinoff—whose salute to the deli, and, more broadly, to the Jewish immigrant experience, appeared in his 1955 memoir, A Lost Paradise: Early Reminiscences—as I made my way through I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli, an entertaining and light-hearted exhibition currently on view at the New-York Historical Society through April 2023.

I’d like to think that it would amuse him to learn that the delicatessen had become a “beloved national institution,” and one, moreover, that’s received the museological equivalent of a full court press.

Much like Lunch Hour NYC at the New York Public Library, a 2012 exhibition that both chronicled and complicated our understanding of the noon-day meal, I’ll Have, which originated a few months ago at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, takes a familiar phenomenon and runs with it. Drawing on the delicatessen’s menus, advertisements and appliances, celery sodas and seltzer bottles, it explores the ways in which food constitutes community, while also telling the story of “tradition and change, adaptation and resilience.”

Mindful of the “powerful connection” American Jews have to pastrami on rye, the exhibition’s trio of curators, as Lara Rabinovitch, one of their number, told me recently, intended for the show to ask big questions of its subject, to go beyond the sentimental, to engage. But near as I could tell, visitors have something else in mind: They’re awash in nostalgia and relishing the emotion.

If the hour or two I spent in the galleries is any indication, audiences are having a wonderful time ambling down memory lane. Usually arrayed in groups of two or three and composed largely of what’s euphemistically called people of a “certain age,” they get a real kick out of the plastic foods on display, the facsimile renditions of a pastrami sandwich or a bowl of chicken soup. They chuckle over memories evoked by the amply stocked menus from Canter’s in LA and the Carnegie Deli in midtown Manhattan; engage in chit-chat loud enough for everyone to hear; and congregate in front of a screen displaying hilarious scenes from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mad Men, and most pronouncedly of all, the saucy bit from the film When Harry Met Sally that gives the exhibition its name. Having had a hearty laugh, which echoes throughout the gallery, visitors then exit I’ll Have with a smile on their faces.

Popular culture furnishes the exhibition’s sensibility as well as its title, unleashing—and rewarding—the audience’s spirited response. Neon signage that once ornamented the exteriors of the 2nd Avenue Deli and Billy’s Restaurant & Deli adds flashes of color and warmth to the galleries’ dark-hued walls, while the deli’s relationship, its proximity, to the Broadway theater on the East Coast and to Hollywood on the West Coast—a relationship that is as much cultural and financial as geographic—takes center stage.

Evoking the language reminiscent of an exuberant press release, I’ll Have makes much of “Jewish delis,” a term repeatedly invoked but never fully explained. Its text panels affirm that these institutions are “welcoming and comfortable places” that “play a central role in how [many Jews] express and connect to their identity.” Visitors are also given to understand that Jewish delis were a “lifeline” for Holocaust survivors and that the “fellowship that delis offered helped survivors heal.”

In keeping with the exhibition’s armature, the objects on display function more as props than as interpretive opportunities. Black and white checked linoleum flooring, a shiny metal cigarette dispenser, and a hefty metal cash register; a white porcelain scale and a meat slicer—the humble tools of the trade polished to a fare-thee-well—dutifully evoke the ambiance, the trappings, of the postwar establishment, but not much else. Also on hand are a pushcart, a suitcase, and even a pair of Shabbos candlesticks, items that seem to have wandered in from some other exhibition.

Most of these artifacts, culled from private collections and supplemented by the holdings of the Skirball Cultural Center and the New-York Historical Society, date from yesteryear, from the deli’s heyday in postwar America. The marvelous Mrs. Maisel, though, shows up toward the exhibition’s close, where the handsome cherry-red ensemble she wore in a 2018 episode at the Stage Deli keeps watch.

At nearly every turn, time stands still, regional differences are minimized, and significant internal distinctions between the kitchen-sink kind of deli, which mixes milk and meat products in the name of an inclusive Ashkenazi Jewish palate, and those establishments that are either “kosher-style” or “strictly kosher,” are flattened.

Potentially disruptive moments are also far and few between. They can be had, but only if visitors actively search for them. Those who peer closely into, and linger about, a vitrine densely packed with menus might notice, for instance, a reference to meatless Tuesdays, a practice instituted by New York’s Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia in 1942, during a period of intense wartime shortages.

Appealing in one of his radio broadcasts to “Mr. Delicatessen Storekeeper,” LaGuardia encouraged him to refrain from selling meat on Tuesdays, confident that his business stocked “such a variety of things … I’m sure you will not feel the difference.”

In another telling moment of which more can be made, I’ll Have encases a 1930s issue of the Mogen David Delicatessen Magazine, the house publication of the eponymous association of Jewish deli owners, that set forth a list of “fair prices” for deli items: A turkey sandwich, it counseled, should go for no more than 30 cents, a smoked salmon sandwich for half that.

Given the whopping disparity in prices between now and then, the attentive visitor might be taken aback by this document—and rightly so. But more than sticker shock should be at play here as well as in the phenomenon of meatless Tuesdays: Surely a thought or two—a curatorial intervention—about abundance and bounty, scarcity and deprivation might be in order, deepening and, yes, darkening this exhibition’s otherwise cheerful, unruffled landscape and that of American Jewish history writ large.

Living up to its name, I’ll Have What She’s Having doesn’t ask much of us. Enveloping rather than challenging, accepting rather than questioning, it offers up a unifying experience, not a fragmented one. As Ruth Glazer observed in a piquant account of the Jewish delicatessen, which appeared in Commentary in 1946, just a few short years after meatless Tuesdays, and as timely today as it was over 75 years ago: “Uncertain, in a precarious world, of the articles of their faith, the Jews of the neighborhood could make one affirmation unhesitatingly. Jewish food was good.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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