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How New York came to love Jewish delis

Christine Lehnen
December 26, 2022

In the 19th century, Jewish and European immigrants founded what would become New York's world-famous delis. The specialty food shops are now featured in an exhibition in the Big Apple.

A chef in white clothing sits in front of a deli with a bright yellow front.
New York's Carnegie Deli was founded in 1934Image: Ei Katsumata/Alamy Stock Photo

Sandwiches with pastrami, bagels with cream cheese and pickles on the side: Jewish delis have a long tradition in the city of New York. Especially when the days grow shorter and the nights colder, when snow falls and the sidewalks freeze over, a sandwich with a pound of pastrami can be very tempting. The famous delis are also icons of US food culture and most recently came to renewed fame in the popular TV series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" about a Jewish housewife in 1950s America who becomes a stand-up comedian.

Three people lie on deck chairs, palm trees in the background.
The Jewish housewife Miriam 'Midge' Maisel turns stand-up comedian in 1950s New York in the Amazon Prime series 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel"Image: Amazon Prime/dpa/picture alliance

However, the origins of the Jewish culinary tradition lie in Europe, including Germany. In the mid-19th century, many German Jews  emigrated to the United States, while in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, New York city experienced an influx of Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. As they settled into their new homes, many of these immigrants began selling the food of their native countries in their communities.

Is that Kosher?

Women in charge

At first, many Jewish merchants sold their food on pushcarts and stands. While city officials found this a nuisance, it did not stop thousands of Eastern European immigrants from making a living. They sold products such as German frankfurter sausages, toffee, figs, pretzels and bagels, earning an average of $1 a day — today's equivalent of about $US 35 (€ 34).

Postcard of a street of New York around 1900.
Hester Street on the Lower East Side around 1900: In this crowded immigrant neighborhood, Jewish merchants sold their delicaciesImage: Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society

One example is businessman Joel Russ, who established his deli in 1907. At first, he sold smoked fish from a pushcart until he opened his own shop in 1914. Requiring the help of his daughters Hattie, Ida and Anne to work in the store after school and on weekends, he renamed his business "Russ & Daughters" in 1935 and made them partners in the business.

At a time when most family businesses were passed down to sons, the young Russ women developed a reputation for their business acumen — and their skillful way of slicing salmon.

Salami on the frontlines

"Russ & Daughters" is just one of the delis featured in the current New York Historical Society exhibition titled "'I'll Have What She's Having:' The Jewish Deli." Photos from the shop feature in the exhibition, showing the three daughters at work. Other exhibits include a letter from a US soldier, thanking his fiancee for sending him a salami from a Jewish deli to the front. During World War II, US soldiers were delighted to receive Jewish delicacies in the field mail. Katz's Delicatessen even made an advertising campaign out of it: "Send a Salami to Your Boy in the Army!"

After World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, more Jewish emigrants were drawn to the United States. Rena Drexler was liberated from Auschwitz on May 8, 1945, and moved first to Munich, where she and her husband Harry began their new life as clerks in a deli. Later, they moved to Los Angeles and opened their own deli on the West Coast.

A black and white photograph: two people work in a deli.
Rena and Harry Drexler work at Drexler's Deli on Burbank Boulevard in Los Angeles, which they opened in 1957. Rena Drexler, as a Holocaust survivor, also spoke in schools, synagogues and churches about her experience in AuschwitzImage: Private collection

Some delis followed their customers to the rapidly expanding suburbs, while others remained in historically Jewish neighborhoods which also began to draw new immigrants, often from Latin America and the Caribbean. Although New York City remained the epicenter of Jewish deli culture, new delis opened throughout the United States, such as in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Restaurants become a setting for Hollywood movies

Many delis in the theater district of New York City became icons in their own right in the second half of the 20th century, for example Reuben's, Lindy's, Carnegie Deli, Stage Delicatessen and the Gaiety. Here the stars and starlets of Broadway met with prominent theater-goers.  Katz's became the setting of one of the most famous movie scenes of the 20th century: In the cult romance "When Harry Met Sally" (1989), Harry claims to Sally that no woman could fake an orgasm with him.

Meg Ryan as a young woman, with blond hair and a black sweater, her mouth open, in a still from 'When Harry Met Sally'.
Meg Ryan as Sally in 'When Harry Met Sally' (1989), pretending to have an orgasm at a dinner table at Katz's DeliImage: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection/IMAGO

To prove him wrong, Sally pretends to have an orgasm at the table in the famous New York deli. That prompts an older woman sitting at a nearby table to ask the waitress to bring her the exact same food as Sally's: "I'll have what she's having." This iconic scene lent the exhibition at the New York Historical Society its title.

Since the 1980s, however, many of the old-fashioned delis have closed down. The Carnegie Deli, well-known among celebrities, theater audiences and tourists from all over the world, closed its doors in 2016. That also meant an end to its famous sky-high sandwiches, formerly topped with more than one pound of meat.

Two men in white shirts and caps stand behind a counter, offering breads and baked goods.
Many traditional delis have now closed in New York, but new Jewish restaurants are opening in the city, for example, in BrooklynImage: Image Professionals GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

The end of a long culinary tradition?

Food writers and deli fans lamented the loss of the Carnegie Deli as a symbol of the decline of Jewish food culture, but the exhibition in New York City offers a little more hope: Jewish delis have played a key role in shaping US food culture, no matter whether delis close or not.

The exhibition also looks at new delis that have opened their doors in the last decade, keeping Jewish-American food culture alive. One of them, the USA Brooklyn Delicatessen, is located in a special place: Just a stone's throw away from the site of the former Carnegie Deli.

The New York exhibition "'I'll Have What She's Having:' The Jewish Deli" runs through April 2, 2023.

This article was originally written in German.