How pastrami on rye became the symbol of the American dream

How pastrami on rye became the symbol of the American dream

Morris Wepner, owner of the East Harlem deli, in 1921. 
Morris Wepner, owner of the East Harlem deli, in 1921. 

The deli earned a spot in Jewish tradition as a place to socialize with other Jews while enjoying a nice corned beef or salami sandwich. Its lure spread from the immigrants in the early 20th century New York to their children and grandchildren, for whom deli platters laden with sliced meat became standard fare at parties and celebrations.

Amid health concerns about the food, which contains high contents of sodium, fat, calories, and cholesterol, modern Jews have cut down on their deli intake, but much like a hot fudge sundae brings back happy memories of childhood summers, a good pastrami on rye evokes similar nostalgia.

“Jews came to see the overstuffed pastrami sandwich as the symbol of the American dream,” said Ted Merwin, whose book, Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, delves into the genesis of the Jewish deli. It won the 2015 National Jewish Book Award of the Jewish Book Council.

On Jan. 20, Merwin will give the delicious details of his research, which include eating his share of pastrami on rye in delis far and wide, when he speaks at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen during and after Shabbat services. The program is being presented by the adult education committee and the Gilbert and Claudie Hayat Lecture Series.

Merwin, director of the Asbell Center for Jewish Life and associate professor of Judaic studies and religion at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., said in a phone interview with NJJN that he wrote the book because he couldn’t find any other research on the topic, despite the fact that delis rivaled — and in some ways surpassed — the synagogue as the primary gathering place for the Jewish community.

It became “totally acceptable” for a deli platter to be served at a wedding or bar or bat mitzva reception and became “almost a ritual” for Jews to go out on Sunday night for deli.

“I think the Sunday night deli dinner became more important to many Jews than the Friday night Shabbat dinner,” said Merwin. “As Jews became less religious and less kosher, they began to see the deli as a surrogate synagogue, a gathering place for the Jewish community that didn’t require any sort of religious observance.”

The book was a natural outgrowth of his first book, In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture, about Jewish life and vaudeville in the 1920s as the second generation of Jews began to move from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn and the Bronx, and into mainstream American life.

“They still wanted to keep their own Jewish heritage,” said Merwin, who has a doctorate in theater. “I found a lot of these stories were set in delis and it was clear the deli was an important part of American Jewish life.”

As he searched for information, he became increasingly interested in learning why delis meant so much to American Jews. He was surprised by the answer.

“I made the assumption that it was because they missed the food they had as children,” said Merwin. But he found that in particular Jews appreciated the overall atmosphere, in which people could get kosher food, speak Yiddish, eat with their hands, deal with impolite and brash waiters, and generally be “one happy family” away from the rest of society. At a time when there were still quotas for Jews at major universities and they were not allowed in country clubs, Jews had a place where “they were on top of the world,” he explained.

“There was this stereotype of Jews as being uncouth. They talked too much with their hands,” said Merwin. “Here they could take a break from being scrutinized.”

The deli actually began in Manhattan’s theater district during the vaudeville age, when Jews dominated the film and stage industry. There was the recently-closed Carnegie Deli and others in midtown that began to name sandwiches after entertainment stars.

“You could fantasize about being a celebrity,” said Merwin, as you munched your pastrami on rye even though Jews had not yet gained full entry into American life. “There was a certain sinfulness associated with food made in dark basements. There was a younger generation who liked their food a little more spicy and shifts in culture in the twenties with flappers and women gaining a sense of independence. There was a sense of excitement and this type of food goes in tandem with that.”

Except for the occasional Shabbat chicken dinner, meat was rarely eaten by the poor Jews of Eastern Europe’s shtetels, according to Merwin. Rather, Jews had picked up the custom of eating smoked and pickled meat from living in the Rhine Valley in the Middle Ages and brought the idea with them to Poland and Russia. They were still poor when they arrived in the United States, but the food was more plentiful, and even without much disposable income, “You could take someone out on a date and get a sandwich and soda,” said Merwin.

And while it is less apparent in the New York-New Jersey area, the deli has now made its way into other cultures in places like Chicago or Baltimore, where Merwin lives.

“Delis became fixtures in Jewish neighborhoods that became black,” he said, “and now have become part of black culture.”

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