I rarely take down the Encyclopedia of Ghettos, a heavy brown hardback with stern yellow type that sits on a bookshelf at home. I don't remember when I got the two-volume set, but I've only looked at it a few times. Inside are browned pictures of the nearly 1,100 ghettos completely obliterated in Eastern Europe during World War II. It's the world's saddest yearbook and too hard to peruse often. But it was to that book, those shtetls, and the Jews who lived there where my thoughts turned while watching Erik Greenberg-Anjou's new documentary Deli Man. The film, out this Friday, February 27, assembles pretty much every macher in today's delicatessen game and, sadly, there are only a handful. But what a handful they are.
The cuisine of the delicatessen comes from a world that no longer exists.
The world of delicatessen is like a time capsule. As David Sax, one of the many authors Greenberg-Anjou includes in the film, explains — and I'm paraphrasing here — there is still an Italy where Italian food is made. There is still a France where French food is made. (Ditto China, Japan, and nearly everywhere else, though that point isn't made on film.) But the cuisine of the delicatessen comes from a world that no longer exists. There is no flourishing Eastern European jewry, whose kitchens are fragrant and warm with potted meatballs, noodle kugels, stuffed cabbage, lungen stew, goulash, tongue polonaise, or kishkas.
Those kitchens no longer exist, and in fact, that food hardly exists at all, either. Which gives the men (and they are all men in the film) an almost monastic — or I guess, rabbinic — sense of purpose. As monks safeguarded literature through the Dark Ages, so too are the foods of the Ashkenazi Jews kept alive in the few and far between delicatessens like Second Avenue Deli and Ben's Kosher Delicatessen in Manhattan, Ben's Best in Rego Park, Hobby's in Newark, and Wexler's in Los Angeles.
It would have been easy for Greenberg-Anjou to leave Deli Man as a melancholic eulogy. But he doesn't. First of all, delicatessen is a joyous world. The man around whom this particular story swirls is a heavyset man named Ziggy Gruber, who is something of New York delicatessen royalty. His grandfather, Max, ran the Rialto on Broadway on NYC, but the third-generation deli man relocated to Houston, TX, where he runs Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen in a strip mall.
Ziggy on the floor is Nijinsky on stage or Maccioni during his glory days at Le Cirque.
Ziggy is full of life. He's a strange dude, a loud talker, a caring boss, an old soul, seemingly lonely at first but he finds love. Jews, many of them, are full of life, and perhaps especially those who work in delicatessens, where just as much action happens kibbitzing on the floor as it does in the back, thinning out the bletlach for the blintzes. "The delicatessen is a home away from home for many of these people," Ziggy told me over lunch at the Second Avenue Deli. (Shameless plug: To listen to the entire conversation, check out this week's Joshua David Stein Variety Hour...Half Hour.) As the film shows, Ziggy on the floor is Nijinsky on stage or Maccioni during his glory days at Le Cirque.
The sadness is my valence, I suppose, or it's how I wear the burden of my people's history. The impulse to pull the books down from the shelf was felt in equal measure to how the film conveys the richness and depth of the world; it's to shudder in awe at how it's all lost. But hey, I'm just a down kind of guy. It's entirely possible — and I think most people, and certainly most goyim — won't have quite as intense a reaction as I did. And there's plenty to enjoy, too, without any of the historical mishegoss. There's the Yiddish, which sounds funny and, as Leo Rosten noted, joyous. There are the puns, which overfloweth from delicatessen menus. (My favorite is, by far, Kenny and Ziggy's Salmon Chanted Evening.) Then there's the food. For those who, like me, assumed corned beef and pastrami are the benchmarks by which to judge a delicatessen, this is a revelation. Simply because they are so rarely found had I overlooked the true jewels of delicatessens: the cholent, the kishka, the tongue, the chopped liver.
And then there's this other deeper happiness for which Deli Man is a catalyst. As Ziggy and I discussed, one of the reasons for the decline of the delicatessen is that there is this almost inherent shame — or if not shame, uneasiness — the assimilated Jew carries. Chopped liver, chopped liver. Gefilte Fish. Kishkas. These are but incantations of our old relatives with their moles, bridge-playing ways, and ghetto accents. Though I'm a bit too young — my grandparents began their lives in the Lower East Side but by the time I knew them had joined the professional ranks — I carry my earlier shtetl selves along with me with shame. Two-fold shame: Shame of either the old world or the poor new one, and shame that we were singled out for destruction.
Deli Man is the best kind of mirror there is.
I know, I know, this is heavy shit for a food-documentary review, but bear with me, please. Because Deli Man, and deli men like Ziggy, embrace this world and encourage you to embrace this world. You don't have to have had lunch with the guy to feel this communion (though it helps). Ziggy is a guy who has such love for those old eating ways of the delicatessen, unbridledly Jew-y, not even Jewish (which is religious) but Jew-y (which is cultural). And that's key, too. Because I am neither religious or Zionist, it's been hard for me to find a Jew-y thing to which to cling — but a snappy pickle and a kishka make a perfect life preserver. (Who would have thought?)
More than a film, much better than a eulogy, Deli Man is the best kind of mirror there is. It makes you ask, "What am I, chopped liver?" And for the first time in a long time, the answer is an ebullient yes.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars