If I had to make a list of things I found overrated and vaguely annoying, there are two items I’d be sure to include: Seattle and crowdfunding campaigns. The first because I find it to be a town of fleece-clad conformist techies who are frequently passive-aggressive when you don’t go along with their virtue signaling, and the second because, well, everyone’s doing it and it’s just annoying. But when a Seattle baker named Josh Grunig took to Kickstarter to raise some money in order to open a Jewish deli, even a Grinch like me felt his too-small heart grow two sizes or more.
A year ago, Grunig opened Standard, a bakery that, I’m informed by some friends who’ve decamped to the Pacific Northwest from the cantankerous Northeast and are therefore delightfully judgy, is quite excellent. Those buttery pastries kept folks coming, and Grunig started thinking about expanding. When the restaurant next door went up for sale, he seized his moment, leaning into an old dream.
“I really want to dig in to my past and my family recipes,” he says in his charming fundraising video. “We’ll be serving pastrami sandwiches, bagel sandwiches, matzo ball soup every day, and challah.” A tradition-oriented project like that deserves a traditional name, and Grunig chose Zylberschtein’s, which was his family’s name when it arrived from Poland to Ellis Island.
Why, then, support Grunig when there are other, grimmer and more pressing charities at hand? For one thing, few are the crowdfunding campaigns that offer such earthly delights: For $10 you get coffee and a pastry, for $750 a challah-baking masterclass, and for $1,000 you can enjoy a deli party for 10. “After you have had too much to eat,” reads that particular prize’s description, “my mom will come around with bread pudding and tell you how thin you are and that you must need to eat something. Don’t refuse her.”
But the foodstuff and the other goods on offer are only one part of the story. The Jewish deli, like the art-house cinema or the independent book store, is in perpetual crisis, always just one slice of rye ahead of oblivion. We don’t have one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I and a few other Jews live, and the great names of the past, like the Carnegie Deli, are no more than appetizing ghosts now. And Zylberschtein’s, too, is far from a sure thing: Of the $50,000 Grunig seeks, he’s raised only $2,805 so far. Let’s hope he perseveres: The rise of a new Jewish eatery serving the good ol’ staples anywhere is a promise we should all help keep.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.