Sunday, October 21, 2007

Delicious Delis

I was bar-mitzvahed in 1960, so I guess that means I grew up in the 60s.

Why do I mention that?

The Jews who immigrated here during the first half of the last century ate at delis — most of them kosher — regularly. Eventually they moved to the suburbs and traded salami for salad. In the 1960s there were 300 kosher delis in the city and suburbs and a Greater New York Delicatessen Dealers’ Association. That group is long defunct, and you can count the number of marquee delis left in Manhattan on one hand: Carnegie, Katz’s and Stage, none of them kosher.


And a great quotation:

Richard F. Shepard used to say, “I love Jewish food, but when you eat it, 72 hours later you’re hungry again.”

The story is mainly about the reopening of the legendary Second Avenue Deli and one of the guys behind it:

Jeremy Lebewohl has a buzz cut and deep-set blue eyes. He’s pleasant and self-effacing, but he can be a tough guy too. Even though he attended Ramaz, a yeshiva on the Upper East Side, his roots on Avenue A shine through. He’s wired — talks fast, walks fast, sizes up a situation fast and looks willing and able to sling a barrel of corned beef at a moment’s notice. Yet there is a sweetness, especially in his bond with his father, that is unexpected and welcome. “My father always said I had no tush,” he told me, laughing. “I could never sit still.”

We talked at Jeremy’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Last year he married Ariella Vago, whom he met at Ramaz. We discussed his stint in the Israeli Army, where he served nearly two years in a combat unit before returning to N.Y.U. It’s certainly rare to find an American willing to trade a cushy college for the Israeli-Lebanese border.

“I went in the summer of ’02,” he said. “I think it was a combination of my own Zionism and the effect that being in New York on Sept. 11 had on me. I’d been to Israel before as the American tourist. Every single person who lives there goes to the army; I would go for vacation, then say, ‘O.K., time to leave.’ So I felt that joining the army was me putting in my share.” He also served in Bethlehem and Hebron. “It was a phenomenal experience,” he said. “But I never talk politics because left, right, it doesn’t make a difference. Nobody should be a victim of terror, period.”

Good man. Good Jew.

And I really enjoyed delis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have very kind, grateful memories of Lebewohl's Second Avenue Deli in the 70s. In the mid seventies when we would get arrested demonstrating for Soviet Jewry, etc., we would inevitably receive food while waiting in jail. Each of us would get a deli bag with a sandwich, a pickle, and a coke from Lebewohl's! It happened to me several times. I think I remember someone saying that he had a daughter or daughters who were active in JDL or SSSJ... I just know I didn't have to catch the last train back to Connecticut hungry! Lebewohl's took good care of us. I heard Abe was murdered years later. May he rest in peace and may he speak up for us before the heavenly court.