Through the rise and fall of New York’s Jewish delis, Gottlieb’s in South Williamsburg stays unchanged.
Gottlieb’s in South Williamsburg is a member of an endangered New York class: the Jewish deli, that establishment of brusque countermen, half-sour pickles, and sodium-packed, brined-meat sandwiches that make thirsty prospects attain for a can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. Its wooden paneling and glass show circumstances evoke the previous, just because the deli hasn’t been transformed because it opened in 1962. Whenever I sit right down to a corned beef sandwich and a plate of pickles at one of its tables, flanked by huddled teams of rabbinical males with flowing payot talking Yiddish, I think about my great-grandparents’ Eastern European shtetl. It appears completely preserved from one other century, save maybe for the chrome fridges and deli slicers.
Gottlieb’s is one of the few Jewish delis nonetheless clinging to a Yiddishkeit period. And as a cornerstone of the neighborhood’s Satmar Hasidic neighborhood, Gottlieb’s is a Glatt Kosher deli—the strictest Jewish dietary classification—a good rarer breed in the shrinking world of Ashkenazi eating.
The quantity of Jewish delis in the United States has plummeted, from 1,550 Kosher delis in New York City alone in 1931 to only a couple hundred delis—Kosher, non-Kosher, and the whole lot in between—in the complete United States. Food chroniclers have lengthy famous their decline, from journalist David Sax’s travelogue Save the Deli to Erik Anjou’s documentary Deli Man.
Jewish delis began out to serve the diaspora from Eastern Europe. But as Judaism advanced in the New World, so did the deli, splintering into Glatt Kosher, Kosher, Kosher-style, and even goyish varieties. But maybe by not altering a factor apart from the occasional menu merchandise because it opened over a half-century in the past, Gottlieb’s has thrived.
Its safety comes from its neighborhood. Gottlieb’s is just some blocks away from the boutiques of Williamsburg, nevertheless it appears like a distinct world. South of the Williamsburg bridge, Fedoras are changed by shtreimel fur hats, and the weekly Shabbat air-raid siren is a callback to a time earlier than Bedford Avenue acquired its first artisanal hot-chocolate retailer.
Gottlieb’s is not a vacationer cease like Katz’s, the place individuals can get an image with their grotesquely giant sandwich below an indication that reads “Where Harry Met Sally…Hope You Had What She Had!” As star delis like Carnegie and Stage, and their non-Kosher pastrami Reubens dripping with Swiss cheese, shut in their extra numerous neighborhoods one-by-one, Gottlieb’s lives on.
The deli’s namesake, Zoltan Gottlieb, was Hungarian, and spent World War Two in a focus camp. After being despatched to a displaced individuals camp in Germany following the battle, Gottlieb moved to the United States in 1949. He based Gottlieb’s as a Glatt Kosher deli in 1962, and it has stayed that approach. His son, Joseph, is now the proprietor, and Joseph’s son, Manesha, runs the operation. When I spoke with Joseph at Gottlieb’s final fall, he informed me that the deli now attracts the occasional “yuppie” and vacationer searching for kosher meals, however principally exists to serve the Hasidic neighborhood. As he put it, the restaurant “fits like a glove in this neighborhood.”
Like Gottlieb, many of the Jews who got here to the U.S. after the Holocaust had been Hasidic, a sect of Ultra-Orthodoxy that adheres to stricter dietary restrictions than different observant Jewish sects. The typical Jewish kashrut legal guidelines embrace not mixing meat and milk, humanely slaughtering animals, and about 612 different guidelines. The Hasidic variation, Glatt Kosher, consists of much more guidelines relating to the smoothness of the lungs of slaughtered animals, in addition to demanding kashrut supervisor known as a mashgiach work on website always.
When Hasidic Jews like Zoltan arrived in the United States, they found that not solely had been current Jewish delis not serving Kosher meals as much as their requirements, however that many of the Jewish delis had been serving forbidden, traif (non-kosher) meals, like the namesake sandwich of Reuben’s on 58th Street, a scrumptious shanda of meat topped with cheese.
The laxness of the dietary legal guidelines had a easy clarification: whereas the Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe had been cloistered in their personal communities earlier than the Holocaust, Jews who had arrived in the U.S. earlier than World War II had spent many years in the American take a look at kitchen alongside different immigrants. By 1962, when Gottlieb opened his restaurant as a haven for the Glatt Kosher-abiding Jews of Williamsburg, the American Jewish deli had already been evolving for practically a century.
The first delicatessens got here to the United States after the Civil War through German immigrants, many of whom had been Jewish. When two million Jews emigrated from the Russian Empire between 1880 and 1920, they introduced their personal meals. The fashionable deli staple of pastrami got here from Romania, for instance, and it was historically made out of goose. The widespread denominator amongst these delis was the Jewish Kosher dietary restrictions (Kosher, not Glatt Kosher).
Pushcart operators would roam the Lower East Side, promoting knishes and pickled herring wrapped in newspapers. However, round 1900, New York’s mayor imposed strict laws to scrub up the casual financial system on the streets, and the first delicatessens opened in response to the new restrictions. Eventually, the Jewish meals of Europe got here collectively below the shared roof of the deli.
In 1960 there have been solely about 300 Kosher and Glatt Kosher delis left in New York. Today there are only a couple dozen.
Delis had been widespread for a easy cause: They had nice meals for excellent costs. Ben Parker was 18 when he opened the first iteration of Ben’s Best in the Bronx (which, at the time, was 80 p.c Jewish, in response to Sax). His son, Jay Parker, informed me in a cellphone interview that when Ben’s Best began to turn out to be profitable, his father went out and acquired a used Ford for $50. (He needed to park it 5 blocks away, although, as a result of his prospects would have informed him, “If you can afford a car, you must be charging too much.”) Ben would go on to open the extra well-known model of Ben’s Best in Queens, which closed final summer time after 73 years. According to Jay, who took over from his dad in 1979, he couldn’t maintain the deli open anymore as a result of new bike lanes reduce into on-street parking.
Over time, although, Judaism in the U.S. started to outgrow its legal guidelines. Kosher observance had already been declining, with every era shedding points of observance. Between 1914 and 1924 alone, 30 p.c of Jews stopped keeping kosher, as Ted Merwin writes in Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. In 1960, two years earlier than Gottlieb’s opened, there have been solely about 300 Kosher and Glatt Kosher delis left in New York, and at the moment, there are only a couple dozen.
Although delis began out as a option to meet Jewish immigrants’ dietary wants, they quickly melded into New York’s culinary and cultural scene as the non secular facet of the meals pale. Delis turned synonymous with present enterprise, with Manhattan Midtown staples reminiscent of the Carnegie Deli serving Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner as they began out in tv writing. The Stage Deli, simply down the road, named sandwiches after Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Manson. These delis had little interest in keeping strict (and costly) restrictions in its kitchen. If DiMaggio needed a corned beef sandwich and a slice of cheesecake, he was going to get it. These delis turned “kosher-style” delis, as in, not kosher in any respect.
Just as the kosher-style deli reached its cultural zenith, although, the Jewish deli in its myriad types started to precipitously decline. Sax writes that the rise of supermarkets in the 1950s meant that folks now not needed to go to the delicatessen to select up their groceries and cease for a nosh. He additionally suggests white flight from historically Jewish neighborhoods reminiscent of the Lower East Side pushed Jews into the suburbs. Prices of historically low cost cuts of meat like brisket and tongue skyrocketed with the rising recognition of Texas BBQ and a brand new export market in Asia. This, mixed with ever-rising actual property costs in New York and the value of kosher inspections, led to more and more skinny margins.
When it opened, Gottlieb’s was already considerably old school in the world of Jewish-American delis. With the exception of Borscht-infused ripples from the Soviet Union, Zoltan Gottlieb was half of the final massive wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. The authentic function for the deli had receded. Still, regardless of opening his deli at the finish of a century-long custom of Jewish culinary innovation, Gottlieb based a restaurant that may final for many years.
Jewish delis all the time had a legendary standing in my house rising up. Visiting Carnegie Deli once I was 13 years outdated was simply as necessary a ceremony of passage into reform Judaism as my Bar Mitzvah. My father—an avowed vegetarian—makes a degree of stopping at Katz’s Deli exterior of New Haven at the very least twice a yr to eat a mixture corned beef-pastrami sandwich.
After shifting to South Williamsburg, I noticed that not all delis are echoes of the previous, slowly being swallowed by acculturation. Gottlieb’s nonetheless exists for the identical causes the authentic Jewish immigrants created delis: out of non secular dietary necessity. I eat at delis out of a way of nostalgia, however Gottlieb’s clientele eat there as a result of few eating places in the metropolis serve Glatt Kosher meals. Gottlieb’s does. It has a captive buyer base.
Of course, there is some appreciation of custom concerned. Gottlieb’s may prepare dinner every other meals—Glatt Kosher delicacies doesn’t have to be Ashkenazi classics reminiscent of potato kugel, shlishkes, and lukshon with brazel. For instance, Gottlieb’s added a number of Chinese dishes to the menu, together with hen lo mein. (When I requested Joseph Gottlieb about the lo mein, he shrugged.) They take delight in their meals. As Gottlieb says, “it must be good if we’ve been here for 56 years.”
Other Glatt Kosher institutions that don’t serve conventional deli meals have popped up round South Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and different Hasidic enclaves of New York. For instance, after Hasidim found that tuna nigiri is a tasty different to gefilte fish, they started to open sushi spots en masse. The Borough Park restaurant Glatt a La Carte has a menu together with pulled beef tacos, jambalaya, and hen marsala.
Everyone enjoys the soothing embrace of custom once in a while, although, and Gottlieb’s satisfies on each the nostalgic and spiritual fronts. Perhaps as a result of the shuttered Jewish delis of New York delivered solely on the former, they’d much less endurance.
Even so, many surviving delis are adapting. Katz’s, for instance, turned a deli superstore and offered its air rights and neighboring heaps for $17 million so a luxurious developer may construct an 11-story rental subsequent door, guaranteeing that it could actually survive the skyrocketing costs of the Lower East Side. The 2nd Ave Deli opened a cocktail lounge that options mulled Manischewitz and mezcal. Mile End Deli’s menu has some progressive twists, reminiscent of gourmand pigs-in-blankets (with maple mustard). David’s Brisket House was purchased by two Yemeni enterprise companions, who reworked the restaurant in the 1990s into what they describe as the solely Halal Jewish deli in the world, catering to a singular buyer base of religious Muslims, secular Jews, and Bed-Stuy’s predominantly African-American neighborhood.
Gottlieb’s and different Glatt Kosher delis like it could be considerably of an exception in the story of the Jewish deli. Since the first Jewish immigrants got here to the United States, delis have restructured, rebuilt, and reinvented themselves. German meals melded with Romanian and Russian. The Bronx moved to Scarsdale. The pushcart turned the storefront. Kosher turned Kosher-style.
Gottlieb’s has endured unchanged as a result of of the loyalty of its Hasidic neighborhood. The neighborhood wants it, and it wants the neighborhood. There they continue to be, for now, locked in a mutual embrace of schmaltz, salt, and custom.
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