New York was once so synonymous with Jewish delis that it was called the “de facto world capital of Jewish delicatessen” in the 2010 book by David Sax titled Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen.
Author Ted Merwin wrote about the same topic in his 2015 book Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, which follows the rise and fall of Jewish delicatessens in American Jewish culture.
Merlin said, “New York may be dubbed ‘The Big Apple,’ but throughout most of the 20th century, a pastrami sandwich was more likely than a piece of fruit to trigger thoughts of New York.”
However, he also explained that the “passionate embrace of the deli has tempered over time as other social and economic factors led Jews away from the deli and toward other, more exotic-seeming ‘gourmet’ and healthier kinds of foods.”
For years, experts have given a lot of thought to the Jewish delicatessen business and why such restaurants are dwindling in number. In the 1930s, there were at least 1,500 Jewish delis in New York. Today, there may be fewer than 12 kosher delis still open, according to Jay Parker.
Save the Deli called Jewish delicatessens “a dying breed,” and in describing the phenomenon, Sax wrote, “Across North America, and in select cities of the Diaspora, Jewish delicatessens are disappearing faster than chicken fingers at a bar mitzvah buffet.”
Parker believes that there were once so many Jewish delis because the type of food served in those establishments was exactly what Jews brought with them to America. Talking about his own grandparents, who made the journey from Eastern Europe, he noted that “they didn’t have jobs. They didn’t have any education. So they fell into whatever they could fall into. As new immigrants, the three things they had to provide their family with were food, shelter, and clothing. So, my grandparents built the deli, lived in the back, and you could work day and night because the only thing you had was your labor. You didn’t have money.”
“The 1,500 kosher delis we once had were probably because so many people were just scratching out a living so that the next generation could do better. And as the community got smaller, so did the number of businesses,” he added. When the older folks left, they didn’t want their kids to go into the same field because they wanted more for their children, he explained. “My father didn’t want me to do this. This is the last thing he wanted me to do.”
Many Jews now opt for trendier and other ethnic foods — Indian, African, sushi — and don’t care as much about the food connected to their Jewish heritage. A major reason for that is assimilation, according to Michael Kane, owner of the kosher butcher and catering establishment Park East Kosher in New York City.
“People who came from Eastern Europe, they loved that food. That’s how they were raised; they ate that food,” he said. “Deli is still very popular in the Jewish community, but as people grow older, they don’t eat like they used to. People changed their diet and eating habits. The next generation is not eating at the same level the older generations were when they first came over to the US from Eastern Europe.”
He added that “the key to survival is diversification, to stay with the trends. Stay with any way you can get business.”
Blecher, who has been eating deli food since he was a kid, agreed that cuisine like the kind served by Ben’s Best is not as popular as it used to be. He told JNS, “Have you ever had a pastrami sandwich? If you ask most people, they haven’t; they don’t know what pastrami is. It’s not like steak, it’s not like chicken. Pastrami is a culture thing. It’s a Jewish culture thing.”
However, he said that one has to also consider an area’s demographics. Talking about the closing of Ben’s Best, in what was once a largely Jewish community, he said, “It’s not even so much the food; the area doesn’t warrant the food anymore. People here are more international. Years ago, this was a European Jewish neighborhood. Thirty years ago, there was a line out the door. Forty years ago, you couldn’t get a sandwich.”
Parker called his restaurant’s closing “bittersweet” and said he has no plans to relocate Ben’s Best and start over somewhere else. He said, “We had something wonderful, great and terrific, and it’s not transferable.” He hopes to travel more, ski, go mountain climbing, and spend more time with his granddaughter in Boston.
“There’s nothing I can do to change it … it’s time,” he said of the closing. “[God] has always been very good to me. He’s always closed one door and opened a couple more. Maybe this is his way of saying, ‘Go out and have a little bit of fun.’ But it’s not really work. If you like it as much as I do, it’s really not work. I haven’t worked a day in my life. This has been so much fun.”