Reprinted with permission from CultureMaven.com. Posted June 22, 2015.
The true and experiential transitional moment came during the summer of my 13th year.
This was months after the ritual of my bar mitzvah, where I was called on a cold shabbos morning to say the prayers over the Torah, recite my Haftarah and deliver a canned “Dear parents, grandparents and friends” speech provided by my rabbi. Upon the completion of which, I was considered an adult, according to the tenets of my Jewish faith.
Obviously there was plenty more to learn.
That summer, as with most in my youth, I worked at my parents’ handbag store at Sixth and Market Streets. On the fateful day, I was sent to bring back lunch for my dad, Sam Cohen and Joe Rosenthal. They owned the dress and shoe shops on the same block.
I was to go to the deli a couple of blocks away, and bring back sandwiches. I don’t recall the name of this deli, since it was not one of the more memorable of my youth. It had neither the panache nor longevity of Greenwald’s or Schneider’s on Bardstown Road, or the one run by Barry Sherman’s dad on Preston Street, where we stopped on Saturday evenings on the way home from the store, to get lox, bagel, corned beef, smoked fish, etc, for that night, and Sunday.
The waitress behind the counter was obviously as unaware as I. Though she had an excuse, since she was not of the Jewish persuasion.
“What can I get you?”
“Three corned beef sandwiches.”
“On white, ok?”
A moment later, the proprietor came running out from the back, in more than somewhat of a huff.
“Who ordered the corned beef on white bread?”
“Uh, I did.”
“What’s your name, son?”
“You been bar mitzvahed yet?”
“Yes, in February.”
“You want these on rye bread . . . with mustard!!!!”
• • •
I was reminded of this story last night, when I spent a lovely Father’s Day evening at Adath Jeshurun, the synagogue of my youth, where I became bar mitzvah.
There was a deli dinner, which I shared with 180 or so in all, and at a table with my best friend from high school, his bride and daughter (now a judge), three generations of one of Louisville’s Cohen families. The nosh was followed by a showing of the beautifully crafted and endearing documentary, “Deli Man.”
Then a Q & A with director Erik Greenberg Anjou. He’s the fellow I railed against previously, which you can hear at www.culturemaven.com/blog/2015/06/22/fathers-day-with-deli-man. That was in jest of course. When I first heard of the movie, heralded in its adverts as including deli mavens everywhere, I was painfully aware that I, a deli aficionado of the highest order, hadn’t been asked to participate, despite my deli resumé.
For which absence, “Deli Man,” this loving and insightful look at the importance of delicatessens in American Jewish culture suffered not in the least.
While telling the history of delis in the United States and their evolution, it wisely focuses on Ziggy Gruber, an old soul, who is a crusader for the food from the old country as it evolved after Jews landed in droves at Ellis Island.
Part of the film is food porn. There were noticeable gasps in the audience, upon sight of stuffed cabbage, knishes, Ziggy’s Mish Mash Soup, and pastrami sandwiches (On rye, with mustard) so thick, only someone with jaws the size of a hippopotamus could possibly bite all the way through.
There are interviews with deli men in New York, of course, LA, Chicago. But, most of all with Ziggy Gruber in Houston, the fellow carrying the torch.
There are heartfelt and suitably humorous tributes to the food and culture of Jewish delis from such as Larry King and Jerry Stiller.
Documentaries work when they capture and convey the zeitgeist of their subject matter. “Deli Man” certainly does that. In spades.
• • •
In addition to pastrami, corned beef, roast beef and turkey, lox was available at the dinner last night at AJ. Though you had to go to a separate table to get it.
When I inquired of one of the serving ladies, if there was any cream cheese available, she stared at me with disdain.
Of course, the synagogue adheres to the dictates of the Kashruth. Translation: It has a kosher kitchen. Milk products and meat don’t mix. Decades later, I’ve still not fully shaken that inner kid, the one who dared order corned beef on white.