Religion & Beliefs

Are You As Jewish As A Kosher Style Deli?

On Monday night I read an awesome piece over at SOMA Review about how hard it is to find a good Jewish deli outside of a big metropolis. It’s a fun, interesting article by a woman named Mary Beth Crain … Read More

By / July 25, 2007
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On Monday night I read an awesome piece over at SOMA Review about how hard it is to find a good Jewish deli outside of a big metropolis. It’s a fun, interesting article by a woman named Mary Beth Crain who’s had to move to the small town of Hart, Mich. to be with family, and who has an interesting way of prioritizing:

I soon discovered that being a Jew in Hart is a far different experience from being a Jew in L.A., or New York, or Flatbush. There’s no synagogue, and no Jewish community, but far more important—there’s no Jewish deli.

Yes, if you ask me, the deli—and by deli I do not mean those pathetic packaged sandwich sections in the supermarkets and 7-11’s—is the real place of Jewish worship. A genuine Jewish deli is not simply a wondrous locale, it’s a wondrous experience.

Full Story Crain goes on to list, at length, her favorite things about various delis in LA, where she lived before the move to Michigan. And I have to admit, her descriptions are fantastic, and totally make me want to visit those delis the next time I’m in LA. Except for one thing: they’re not kosher, and I’m a vegetarian. The whole phenomenon of Jewish delis irritates me, to be honest. I get annoyed because in my mind, Jewish should mean kosher, but in fact, the prototypical Jewish delis—the Carnegie deli in New York, Manny’s Deli in Chicago, and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor are pretty thoroughly treyf these days. The only thing that gets my eyes rolling faster than Jewish delis is anything that’s “kosher-style.” Does anyone know what that means? Is there anyone out there that eats only at kosher and “kosher-style” restaurants? I doubt it. I love food, and I especially love traditionally Jewish foods. I make a mean Jerusalem kugel, and I think even vegetarian matzah ball soup has mystical medicinal powers (but I outright refuse to spell it matzo). The only thing that I love more than traditionally ashkenazic foods like kugel are traditionally Sephardic foods, like dolmades. And I’ve said before that whenever my faith in God wanes, I eat hummus and my faith is restored. But somehow a Jewish deli just doesn’t do it for me, and I think that’s because it makes me uncomfortable to sit in a place that’s openly proclaiming itself as Jewish, and that also openly serves a corned beef and Swiss sandwich. Earlier this week I wrote about ahavat Israel, and I truly intend to make ahavat Israel a bigger part of my life this year, so I don’t want to come down hard on Jewish delis. I just wonder what makes a deli Jewish? A sign that says shalom? A Reuben on the menu? Homemade pickles? When did Jewish come to mean quality meat (wow, SO many jokes to be made here), as Mary Beth Crain seems to imply? Why do we insist on making the deli part of our religious dialogue, when it seems to belong more in our cultural myth? Frankly, when something is labeled Jewish, I have certain ethical standards that I hold it to, and I don’t really want to care about the ethics of some guys running a deli on the South Side of Chicago. But when they call it Jewish, I feel a sense of obligation. You can call language Jewish (Yiddish) and you can call a piece of art of an artist Jewish (Chagall) because those aren’t things governed by Jewish law. So, if they act in a way that’s specifically non-Jewish, it’s less problematic. But I get edgy around foods and countries that label themselves Jewish, and then don’t live up to their own labels. But I don’t know. Maybe I’d feel different if I ate corned beef.