Ted Merwin is the director of Dickinson College Hillel, where he is also Professor of Judaic studies and an expert on American Jewish cultural history. His most recent book, “Pastrami on Rye,” explores the tasty history of the American Jewish deli. Ted and I recently spoke over Skype about what his book can teach college students about how Jews have built and sustained a sense of community in America. Here are highlights from our conversation.
How did you decide on this subject to research? Was it just to give you an excuse to visit lots of delis and eat pastrami?
It kind of was! But really, I fell into it. Let’s back up to the beginning. I grew up secular, without much knowledge of Judaism. My family didn’t belong to a temple. I was probably the only kid in the Great Neck area who didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah. I was really close to my grandparents, though. They were really traditional Jews. Not religious, but really traditional, mostly eating traditional Eastern European style Jewish foods. I ate at delis a lot with them when I was a kid. But it wasn’t until I came to Hillel as a college student that I had the opportunity to learn about Judaism and about Jewish culture. I was an American Studies major, and had a real interest in theatre, and ultimately ended up doing a Ph.D. in theatre history. For my PhD research, I explored Jewish involvement in theatre on Broadway in the years between the two world wars. I decided I wanted to use my dissertation research as an opportunity to really explore the generational connection with my grandparent’s era. So I wrote about Jews in Broadway theatre in the inter war period. It was my first book, “In their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture.”
As I was preparing the book for publication, I realized that lots of the scenes in the plays I was studying were set in Jewish delis. And I realized — there’s another research topic here! Why were all these scenes set in delis? My hunch was that many Jews living in America during the interwar period had originally been born in Europe and had a real homesickness for the sights, smells and tastes of European Jewish culture. Delis gave them an opportunity for a taste of the homeland.
It’s interesting, because most historians previously thought that it was in the beginning of the 20th century, the heyday of the Lower East Side, that the delis became popular. But it wasn’t. It was a generation later, when Jews were actually moving more into the mainstream of society that delis became such a big part of Jewish life. The Jews running them were living in an increasingly non-kosher world. They wanted a place that felt Jewish, but they weren’t too concerned about Kashrut. The deli provided a place for Jews to still engage with other Jews, over familiar foods, at a time when they were increasingly spending much of their time outside of the Jewish community. In other words, the deli was a place where Jews could seek out a really deep, rooted sense of community, outside of the synagogue.
One of the things that I have noticed since moving to America is that American Jews seem to have a sense of real nostalgia for deli food. Why is that, do you think?
I think it’s partly because we are nostalgic for a time when there was a really strong sense of a community of Jews who lived and ate together. In the past, the corner deli was a community hub. It was a place for Jews to gather to eat Jewish with other Jews. We don’t have that kind of gathering place in our culture any more.
But let’s not overlook the kinds of foods that delis sell, too! For an immigrant generation, being able to go out and eat meat at a deli was a real symbolic statement of affluence. Of making it in America. And as you know, delis are all about meat! When we go to a deli, it’s a real treat, real comfort food. It’s heavy, nurturing food. The kinds of foods that our grandmothers wanted their children to eat so they would appear well fed, fat and prosperous.
Beginning in the 1970s, American Jews started to eat less deli. People became concerned about cholesterol, and maintaining a healthy weight and active life style. And in addition to that, ideals about being affluent stated to become connected to eating a variety of ethnic foods — Chinese food especially. So, delis began to be less popular. They’ve never really recovered. But there are still people who will get off the plane at JFK and go straight to Carnegie Deli for a pastrami on rye. [Editor’s note: the Carnegie Deli is currently closed for business. See, http://nypost.com/2015/11/08/carnegie-deli-staff-feels-heat-as-restaurants-future-is-uncertain/]
We’re talking here about nostalgia for a time of deep Jewish community connection that most Jews today didn’t experience first hand. Particularly today’s Jewish college students – they were born in the 1990s. So, what could Jewish college students learn about Judaism from reading your book?
I think it’s really important for Jewish college students to learn where they came from. And I think they’ll be intrigued to learn that their ancestors, like many of them, were not very religious. We have this image of Jews of a few generations ago on the Lower East Side with long beards and black hats, but it really wasn’t like that. The Jews who chose to come to America for the most part were more secular. I think college aged Jews should know that this is where the roots of secular Judaism in America are planted.
Food really does bring people together, doesn’t it? I know you do a lot of work with food programming at Dickinson Hillel. Do you find that your research overlaps at all with your work as a Hillel director?
I see so many overlaps between my research and my work as Hillel director. Some of the most successful programs we run at Dickinson are our cooking clubs. Students gathering together to eat, share recipes and create food through community.
During the research for the book, I got to thinking a lot about how deli functions as a “third place.” Sociologists define a third place is a place that’s not work, not home, but some place in between where people come to socialize. That’s what the delis were, especially in the interwar period. I realized when writing the book that this is exactly what our Hillel needed to be as well! We have a wonderful historic Hillel building at Dickinson, and I realized that it needed to become the third space for our students. A place where they could come together, be together, eat, socialize, and touch base with their community.
A lot of the ideas in the book also came from presentations that I gave at Hillels. And hearing from students gave me so many ideas.
Finally, I can’t resist. What do you order when you visit a deli?
I grew up going to the deli for turkey, gravy and potatoes. That’s the nostalgic food of my childhood. So today, I order a turkey sandwich. I love pastrami, obviously. But if I’m connecting to my childhood I’m ordering what my parents ordered – a Turkey sandwich with Russian dressing and coleslaw.
“Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” is available for purchase on Amazon.
Ted Merwin is the Hillel Director at Dickinson College, as well as associate professor of Judaic studies and director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life.
Laura Tomes is director of educational research and innovation at Hillel International and adjunct faculty at the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.