LA deli exhibit puts a little mustard on the Jewish-American immigrant tale – The Times of Israel

Posted By on September 8, 2022

Creating a successful museum exhibition about the Jewish deli is an order thats taller than well, a pastrami sandwich. But organizers of Ill Have What Shes Having at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles have no need to worry.

The new provocatively-titled display is a smash hit with visitors, and its stay at the Skirball has been extended by two weeks to September 18. After that, its off to another deli mecca, New York City, where it will show at the New York Historical Society starting November 11.

A lot of people say the exhibition makes them hungry, said Laura Mart, an associate curator at the Skirball who is one of the three organizers.

Working on the exhibition along with Mart were Skirball curator Cate Thurston and writer Lara Rabinovitch an expert in immigrant food cultures.

[Mart] and I often enjoy lunch together, Thurston wrote in an email. During these meals we often talk about work and bounce ideas around. Deli grew out of these conversations over food, which is fitting. We contacted Ill Have What Shes Having co-curator Lara Rabinovitch to see if this seed of an idea had legs and ended [up] having an incredible conversation where we mapped out some early ideas. The finished product is very much the result of our collaboration.

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Planning lasted five years, starting in 2017, with the envisioned October 2020 opening delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition debuted this April.

In her opening remarks, Thurston described the Jewish deli as a community centered on food a secular synagogue, if you will, that connects and welcomes all who have ever found comfort at the bottom of a bowl of matzo ball soup.

The show has more than made up for lost time.

Every time I go to the gallery, it is packed with people, Mart said. It was a lot of fun to research.

Snack at Mannys Delicatessen, Chicago, 2010. (Image Professionals GmbH/ Alamy Stock Photo/ Skirball Center)

The title adds a fun note, evoking the When Harry Met Sally double entendre uttered by Estelle Reiner, the late mother of director Rob Reiner. The famous scene was filmed in New York mainstay Katzs Deli. Founded in 1888, Katzs is the oldest deli in operation in the United States.

Its cheeky, Mart said of the title, and also something that if youve not seen the film you would be able to understand its about food, sharing space, other people eating with you, youre ordering food in a convivial dining experience.

Of course, she noted, theres an extra meaning.

To show the rich history of delis, organizers found numerous artifacts, many of which relate to LA mainstays past and present. Rabinovitch likes a photo of Elvis Presley at Glassmans Deli. She also mentioned the cigarette dispenser from Canters, plus a historic collection of matchboxes. There are mid-20th-century menus from New Yorks Carnegie Deli and Lindys Restaurant, and the largest artifact in the show, a 10-foot-high neon deli sign.

Elvis Presley with deli employee Joe Guss at Glassmans Deli and Market, Los Angeles, 1969. (From the BonarFamily Collection/ Skirball Center)

There are also several deli uniforms on display, including one from the late waitress Kaye Coleman, who worked at Nate n Als for 38 years. Upon Colemans death, Larry King remarked, She was just a waitress the way that Sigmund Freud was just a doctor.

All aspects really tell the story of the deli as it changed through time, Rabinovitch said. Of course, the menus tell the story of the food.

There are interactive features, including one where visitors can leave their favorite deli order such as the No. 19 from Langers, a pastrami sandwich. One visitor left something else his phone number and a request to call a nice Jewish boy. Another shared a story of scattering their fathers ashes under his favorite booth at Juniors. For the kids, there was a necklace-making activity using pickling spice an exception to the no-food-in-the-gallery rule.

And yes, there is a place where visitors can actually have deli fare: the museum cafe. On the menu are pastrami sandwiches, rugelach, black-and-white cookies, and a spectrum of Dr. Browns sodas.

There have been other Jewish food-related museum exhibitions Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture and American Jewish Identity was on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in the previous decade. Yet on the whole, the subject remains a rarity.

You look at what, historically, Jewish museums have done for exhibition programming. Theres a lot of biography, arts and culture, history, pop culture, Mart said. Looking at food is an entirely new area.

Illustrative: Pastrami on rye. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

With Thurston and Rabinovitch, she planned an exhibition that was as comprehensive and multifaceted as a deli menu.

Thurston said that the research process drove the narrative. What started as a broad look at the Jewish delicatessen grew into a larger story about Jewish immigration to America and the creation of a uniquely American restaurant.

The first delis in the US were actually German and not necessarily German-Jewish. Delicatessen is a German compound word that doesnt quite connote the American deli experience. An approximation of the word is a place to find delicious things to eat.

Mart went into more detail, defining the word as a restaurant where youre able to find dainty or delicate generally luxurious things to eat, that youd not necessarily prepare at home.

Although this tradition existed in Europe, it evolved into something quite different in the US during the waves of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe starting in the 1880s.

A 10-foot-high neon deli sign. (Morgan Foitle)

A tradition started with families, especially Jewish people living in a city, Mart said. Its where a lot of kosher products were originally served. People needed a place where they could buy foods under supervision that they knew were kosher.

She compares the resulting Jewish delis to two modern NYC institutions the bodega, with its all-purpose options for grocery shopping, and the coffee shop, with its crowded but cozy confines. From the late 19th century, the deli caught on with immigrant patrons, spreading across the US like a schmear of cream cheese across a bagel.

Speaking of schmear, the exhibit pays homage to Yiddish as a language of the deli. After all, the deli is a great place to nosh, it takes some chutzpah to cut the line and if theyre out of corned beef, you feel verklempt.

The goldene medina gets some love, too. American ingenuity gave the world sliced bread, and there was enough open space to graze cattle for all that brisket. Although tenement life was hard, immigrants looking to advance found a way to do so by serving beloved recipes, from smoked fish to sliced pastrami.

Rena and Harry Drexler at Drexlers Deli in Los Angeles, circa 1970s. (Private collection/ Skirball Center)

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act drastically limited immigration to the US, including Jewish immigration. A generation later, the nightmare of the Holocaust devastated Europe and its Jews who could not reach safety. After the war, a number of survivors and refugees went on to build a new life in the US through delis. They included Rena Drexler, an Auschwitz survivor who was liberated on her 18th birthday. She met her future husband, Harry Drexler, in Munich. They immigrated to America and founded Drexlers Deli in North Hollywood. Meanwhile, Abe Lebewohl endured persecution by the USSR and life in a refugee camp before immigrating to America and founding the Second Avenue Deli in New York.

They found healing and community in the deli, Mart said in describing the section on survivor stories.

A further section addresses new possibilities for the deli. In the 2010s, foodie-ism took over think farm-to-table fare, in-house cured pastrami, even artisanal pickles. During the current decade, its all about food sourcing and equity. The exhibition includes a menu from Beetroot, a Portland, Oregon, deli that had to close during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before it did so, owner Sonya Sanford offered a menu with more options than the traditional Ashkenazi fare. There were Israeli options such as falafel and hummus, and favorites from Sanfords roots in the former Soviet Union, such as borscht. Ingredients were sourced from women- and immigrant-owned farms.

I see the Jewish deli take on all kinds of different forms I love it, Rabinovitch said, adding, The traditional Jewish deli is being revered and experiencing a renaissance in its own way as well.


LA deli exhibit puts a little mustard on the Jewish-American immigrant tale - The Times of Israel

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