On my way to the Jewish Theological Seminary last week for the annual “Week of Study” with other synagogue executive directors, I stopped off at Ben’s Kosher Deli on West 38th Street. It was 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon and I wasn’t expecting the place to be crowded, but when I peered into the plate glass window, I saw that the entire east side of the restaurant was filled with middle-aged people, none of whom looked like locals. Upon being seated, I soon realized that everyone’s plate looked eerily similar, and oddly like a 1950s magazine ad for home-cooked dinner — a piece of rye bread, a few slices of meat, some lettuce and tomato on the side and a mound of mashed potatoes.
“What is this?” a female patron asked. “That’s pastrami,” the waiter replied. “It’s a keystone Jewish food.” She looked disappointed. “I expected something Italian,” she said. As I finished my meal, another busload of tourists, who waved familiarly to the first group, arrived and formed a long line into the party room at the back of the restaurant. My waiter told me that they were all from Indiana, and that Ben’s regularly serves up to three busloads of out-of-town visitors.
Is there such a thing as tourist Jewish food? Visiting Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow, Poland, last year, I had lunch at a non-kosher Jewish restaurant called Ariel on Szeroka Street. Located in an old townhouse, Ariel is a combination café, gift shop and klezmer performance space that serves what the restaurant advertises as “traditional Jewish food,” none of which looks much like any Eastern European Jewish food that I’ve ever encountered. The potato pancakes came in striped rectangular patties, the chicken fillets were served with cheese and spinach sauce and the lamb was accompanied by the Greek yogurt sauce tzatziki.
But at least I didn’t see any pork on the menu, unlike the Golem Restaurant in the old Jewish quarter of Prague, which serves pork tenderloin with boiled asparagus and parsley sauce; for a time, its menu featured Rabbi Löw Beefsteaks, made with ketchup, cheese, ham and mushrooms.
What responsibility, if any, do these restaurateurs, many of whom are not Jewish themselves, have to present Jewish tradition in an “authentic” way? Many seasoned Jewish tourists insist that a visit to Paris is not complete without a visit to the Sacha Finkelsztajn Bakery on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais, whose signature sandwich is an onion roll filled with spiced beef or turkey, eggplant spread and red chili paste, along with slices of pickles, cucumbers and tomatoes. Is this a Jewish sandwich — and if so, is it Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Mizrachi or some combination of all three?
Like the other “delis” in Paris, Finkelsztajn’s sells as much falafel and hummus as it does pastrami or corned beef. The same is true of Gaby’s, the iconic hole-in-the-wall non-kosher “salt beef restaurant” in the West End of London, which is also famous for its kebabs. Perhaps Jewish food is so difficult to define that pretty much anything goes.
Tourists have not embraced all types of Jewish food. Because Jews of Eastern European descent in particular are often disdainful of their own cuisine, they enjoy seeing non-Jews turn up their noses at it. In the 2005 VH1 television show, “So Jewtastic,” comedian Elon Gold stands outside Canter’s Deli in L.A. and asks a series of non-Jewish patrons if they can identify gefilte fish. He then performs a mock circumcision on a frankfurter, as if to show that Jewish rituals and Jewish food are equally ridiculous.
Yet without tourists, few Jewish restaurants can survive. And New York delis continue to fade out, and not just in Midtown. Ben’s Best, a kosher deli in Rego Park, Queens (featured in the 2016 Robert DeNiro film, “The Comedian”) just announced that it will shut its doors at the end of this month after 73 years in business. One wonders if there are simply not enough tourists to keep these “destination delis” going.
Or is it the other way around? Are hordes of tourists to Jewish restaurants driving away the locals and redefining what Jewish food is? Jeremiah Moss, author of “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul” (HarperCollins, 2017), suggested last year in his blog that New York City residents with valid ID’s should have priority for getting into Katz’s Deli. Otherwise, what he calls the “worldwide pandemic” of “overtourism” threatens to overwhelm his favorite deli, especially since the Carnegie Deli, the former magnet of all magnets for global tourists, is no more. But the problem is not just being unable to get in the door, but the food that is served once you do. The more tourists who flock to Jewish restaurants, the more that the menus will inevitably cater to their tastes. And then, when they’re eating salami and mashed potatoes, as at Ben’s, why do they need Jewish restaurants at all?
Ted Merwin, whose column appears monthly, covers theater for the paper. He is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”