Publisher: NYU Press
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
Formats Available: Hardback, Kindle
For much of the twentieth century, the New York Jewish deli was an iconic institution in both Jewish and American life. As a social space it rivaled—and in some ways surpassed—the synagogue as the primary gathering place for the Jewish community. In popular culture it has been the setting for classics like When Harry Met Sally. And today, after a long period languishing in the trenches of the hopelessly old-fashioned, it is experiencing a nostalgic resurgence.
Pastrami on Rye is the first full-length history of the New York Jewish deli. The deli, argues Ted Merwin, reached its full flowering not in the immigrant period, as some might assume, but in the interwar era, when the children of Jewish immigrants celebrated the first flush of their success in America by downing sandwiches and cheesecake in theater district delis. But it was the kosher deli that followed Jews as they settled in the outer boroughs of the city, and that became the most tangible symbol of their continuing desire to maintain a connection to their heritage. Ultimately, upwardly mobile American Jews discarded the deli as they transitioned from outsider to insider status in the middle of the century. Now contemporary Jews are returning the deli to cult status as they seek to reclaim their cultural identities.
Richly researched and compellingly told, Pastrami on Rye gives us the surprising story of a quintessential New York institution.
I’m breaking one of my cardinal rules and reviewing a book I wasn’t able to finish. There is a wealth of fascinating information in Pastrami on Rye. Ted Merwin also has an easy, conversational style of writing that draws you. The reason I couldn’t finish it? Largely, organization. I felt like every possible aspect of the history of delis was being presented to me all at once, and to be honest it was overwhelming. One moment we’re talking about the importance of pickled meat in Jewish history and culture, the next we’re talking about Jewish immigrants in the 1950’s. It was all incredibly interesting, but because of the lack of organization I really wasn’t able to absorb most of it. I will probably try to revisit this book again in the future because it really is a great topic, but I only recommend to those who don’t mind a more scattered approach.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
About the Author
Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion and Judaic Studies at Dickinson College (PA), where he is Founding Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life. He writes about Jewish theater, dance, and food for the New York Jewish Week and other major newspapers and magazines.