A very 2023 history of Jewish delis in America

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The protected in a glass case blue seltzer bottle with silver spigot will make any grandparents in the group misty. Photo by Fran Kritz

There’s a lot of nostalgia to behold on a tour of “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” a historical view of Jewish delicatessens in America, now on exhibit at the New York Historical Society in New York City through April 2.

I could explain the title but why not just let anyone not in on the joke laugh at the clip from “When Harry met Sally” about two thirds of the way through the exhibit.

“I’ll have What She’s Having” is the creation of curators at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and takes about an hour. (You’ll leave hungry.) Photos, signage, artifacts and film clips make up the exhibit, and an interactive kiosk lets you design your own sandwich.

Placards next to artifacts explain the deli’s history as the food of immigrants, and marvel (maybe too much) at the popularity of the genre. The exhibit’s curators include a specialist in immigrant food cultures and explain that the waves of Jewish immigrants, first from German and then from eastern Europe from the 1880s to the 1920, brought their own foods from their own cities and countries resulting in the amalgamation of foods we now call deli cuisine — including smoked meats, smoked fish, bagels, pickles, chicken soup and rugelach.

The history speaks to the difficult beginnings of immigrants, and is worth noting now that D.C.’s Call Your Mother Café, which labels itself “Jew-ish” sports a $14 tuna sandwich. With delis on the wane in some parts, ingredient explanations for such items as rye and pumpernickel bread are, sadly, helpful.

The Yiddish glossary, literally writ large, doesn’t come with phonics, so stand near a native speaker if you don’t speak the language to learn how to pronounce “tsuris” (trouble), “mishpucha” (family) and “bissel” (a small amount, and an odd choice for a word in a Jewish deli exhibit.) Plastic models of hotdogs and noodle kugel don’t add to the appeal but the [protected in a glass case] blue seltzer bottle with silver spigot will make any grandparents in the group misty.

Youngsters, including those in their 40s and 50s, may be surprised by the smoking paraphernalia, but smoking and Jewish delis shared a heyday. Matchboxes from the leading delicatessens adorn a wall, and the cigarette vending machine on display, has packs still in the slots.

Plan to spend some time on the history of non-Jewish hawkers of Levi’s Jewish rye bread — including Malcolm X. And photos of political candidates, including Hillary Clinton during her successful New York run for Senate, help explain the prominence of delis in many urban centers.

The exhibit asks, and attempts to answer, the question of why delis inspired artists, writers, comedians and film makers. One possibility: “It is a place where characters can demonstrate or celebrate their Jewish identity outside of private or religious spheres.”

That’s certainly a “Discuss” opportunity for the trip home. Far harder to reconcile is the exhibit’s take on the Holocaust. In an exhibit about Jews and their contribution to the culture of the world, a placard about the Holocaust informs viewers that “More than eleven million people, including six million Jews, were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.” Asked about why the murder of Jews doesn’t’ come first in an exhibit about Jewish culture, Cate Thurston, one of the Skirball curators, explains that Skirball believes it needs to teach within the context of Jews being a part of the larger world around them. To me, it diminished the catastrophe that was the Holocaust, as well as the importance of the exhibit.

The last placard in the exhibit celebrates the reimagining of delis by emerging restaurants like a “pastrami hash in a jar” at one new Brooklyn café. Despite the photo, the museum seems unconvinced. The first floor restaurant has three (non-kosher) deli items on its menu for the duration of the exhibit including pastrami on rye, chicken soup and a smoked fish platter. No hash. No jar. ■

“I’ll Have What She’s Having” at the New York Historical Society through April 2, at 170 Central Park West in New York City. For tickets and hours call 212-873-3400, or order online at https://tickets.nyhistory.org/ Tickets range from free to $22.

Fran Kritz is a freelance writer.

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