LOS ANGELES — Since its origins in the 19th century, the Jewish Deli has become an iconic American institution, its steaming bowls of matzah ball soup, towering Pastrami sandwiches on rye, and cushy, padded booths seemingly stuck in time, unchanging from generation to generation. A new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli, counters this conception, depicting the Jewish Deli as an adaptable balance of tradition and transformation that has incorporated new cultural and culinary influences while preserving its roots.
When the show’s curators began planning the show in 2017, they were challenged with how to depict the deli in an exhibition without losing its vitality. “We didn’t want to replicate the deli, but at same time we asked ‘how do we bring the deli to life?’” says Lara Rabinovitch, a food scholar, writer, and producer who co-curated the exhibition with Cate Thurston and Laura Mart from the Skirball. “There are so many multi-sensory things when you walk into a deli: the smell, the steam, the noises, the meat, the slicing, people bumping you.”
The trio drew on the Skirball’s collection, as well as other institutional and private collections, to tell the story of the Jewish Deli’s origins and development as a Jewish-American phenomenon through photographs, menus, uniforms, videos, neon signs, and other objects and ephemera. Contrary to the almost-comically overloaded classic deli plates, the show is trim and efficient, introducing several facets of the deli without overwhelming. Instead, it offers threads for viewers to pick up and continue to explore on their own outside of the exhibition.
The origins of the Jewish Deli in America date back to the mid-19th century when a wave of German-Jewish immigrants arrived in New York, bringing with them regional delicacies. (The word “delicatessen” comes from the German Delikatessen meaning “delicious things to eat.”) They were joined at the end of the century by Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia who added their own culinary traditions to the mix. Many of these foods — pickles, pastrami, borscht, smoked fish — were less specifically Jewish than reflective of the areas they came from, though in keeping with kosher dietary laws.
They sold food and wares from barrels and pushcarts along the crowded streets of the Lower East Side, which had become the largest Jewish community in the world by the turn of the 20th century. Some of the now-legendary Jewish eateries started this way, like Russ and Daughters which was founded in 1907 by Polish immigrant Joel Russ who sold herring out of a barrel. (My own great-grandfather, Harry Stromberg, supported his family with a pushcart after fleeing pogroms in Ukraine around 1905, while my great-great-grandfather Meier Beiler was a butcher who delivered meat from a horse-drawn cart.)
Local authorities enacted measures to limit the pushcarts, which numbered 25,000 in just the LES alone by 1900, according to the Museum at Eldridge Street. These included a “Thirty Minute Law” which forced vendors to move every half hour. In a period film clip at the Skirball, a police officer can be seen pressuring a vendor to move along. The scene has direct parallels with the restrictions street vendors selling clothes and paletas currently face in Los Angeles.
Paradoxically, the crackdown on the pushcart helped spur the development of the Jewish Deli, as those vendors who could weather the storm ended up adapting, and establishing brick and mortar operations. The growing demand for beef in the US gave them another boost, as kosher slaughtering and preparation guidelines were a guarantee of quality meat. As Jews became more prosperous by mid-century, they moved out of the inner-city tenements, bringing delis with them to new neighborhoods, cities, and suburbs. Many relaxed kosher restrictions on separating meat and dairy, and began catering to both Jewish and non-Jewish customers.
The deli developed as a haven, a communal site of nourishment for these early immigrants, and would come to fill that need for a later generation of refugees fleeing Europe after World War II. Drexler’s Deli in North Hollywood was founded in 1957 by Rena Drexler, a survivor of Auschwitz and her husband Harry. After the horrors of the Holocaust, Rena “learned to care for people again” through the deli, says exhibition curator Laura Mart.
More than simply focusing on the food — though there are some mouthwateringly realistic recreations of deli classics — the exhibition illustrates how the Jewish Deli was uniquely American, tied up with political and social trends of the day. For example, posters from a 1960’s ad campaign proclaimed, “You don’t have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s real Jewish rye” and featured an African-American boy, a Native American man, and an Asian boy enjoying sandwiches. The ads speak to the crossover success of the Jewish deli, however they do so by advancing essentialist ethnic stereotypes. A photo of a 1963 protest outside Leb’s Restaurant in Atlanta shows the dark side of assimilation into the fabric of American society. African-American students protested Leb’s policy of racial segregation, which was not uncommon for the place and time, but was at odds with the restaurant’s “come one, come all” slogan of inclusion. A sign in the window reads: “This restaurant is my own investment and I intend to protect it by serving who I please.”
Fittingly, the exhibition highlights LA’s contribution to the Jewish Deli, from neon signs, including one that hung outside Drexler’s advertising kosher meats (with a hand-painted “kosher” in Yiddish, the unofficial language of the deli), to an early Guns N’ Roses publicity photo taken at the Fairfax Avenue institution Canter’s Deli. In classic LA style, the wall text name drops celebrities, like Dr. Dre who could be seen eating at Junior’s in Mid-City, or Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth at Sherman’s in Palm Springs.
Then there is the show’s title, which comes from a scene in the 1989 Rob Reiner film When Harry Met Sally, during which Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal argue about sex over sandwiches at Katz’s Delicatessen, culminating in an explosive climax. The show features this scene on a loop with other clips like the “chocolate babka” scene from an episode of Seinfeld, showing just how ingrained the deli is in popular culture.
As much as it captures a living phenomenon, the show takes a mournful tone in noting how many delis have closed in the past two decades. New York’s Carnegie Deli closed in 2016 and Glendale mainstay Billy’s shuttered in 2015, while Wolfie’s in Miami — reportedly a favorite of mobster Meyer Lansky — closed in 2008. A new generation of delis like Wise Sons and David’s Brisket is working to reinvigorate the genre, offering new twists on old favorites, and expanding beyond Ashkenazi staples. Although the pandemic has resulted in the closure of countless restaurants, it has also forced them to adapt once again, putting out al fresco patios in a serendipitous callback to the era of the pushcart.
“I never thought I would see the day of delis having patios, or delivery, or getting comfortable with Uber Eats and Instagram. That’s the next chapter,” says Rabinovitch. “The life of deli is always changing.”
“I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center (2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Brentwood, Los Angeles) through September 4. The exhibition is curated by Cate Thurston, Laura Mart, and Lara Rabinovitch.