When I lived in New York City after college and didn’t have much money, I could stop on nearly any Upper West Side corner and enjoy a hot, filling, pillowy potato knish. Those days are long gone, and great, even good, Jewish delis are fewer and far between. I mourn their loss. Which is why I’m looking forward to June 6 and JArts’ next Kitchen Explorations event, “How Brookline Became Jewish: The Delis That Shaped Us.”

The Jewish deli, kosher or kosher-style, was a landmark in American Jewish history (even if the first delis both here and in Europe were not Jewish, but German and Romanian in their beginnings). The kosher deli was a place observant (and non-observant) American Jews could eat, and delis crowded the landscape of Jewish neighborhoods. They became gathering places, where Jews (and others) shared stories, jokes and even woes, over kreplach, chicken soup, stuffed cabbage and an abundance of meats. Indeed, in the late 1930s, there were some 1,500 delis in New York City alone; there are less than 10 today.


Here in Boston, delis were in the North End and downtown, along Blue Hill Avenue and in Brookline. We’ve lost many of them: Rubin’s Kosher Restaurant and Delicatessen, Jack and Marion’s, Jaffe’s Pick-A-Chick and the B&D Deli, among them.

The “deli demise” has been laid to a number of factors: changing dietary habits, changing neighborhoods with different demographics and new ethnic groups, higher commercial rents and the growth of the fast food industry. (I’ll take a piled-high pastrami on rye over a Big Mac any day. In Montreal last fall, two months after a knee replacement, I walked many blocks on a very hot day with my cane to reach and eat at Schwartz’s Smoked Meats, a long-standing haven for deli addicts.)

But we can’t lay it all on these changes. For me, one of the biggest and most egregious blows, even though I no longer live in New York, was the death last year of Ben’s Best Deli on Queens Boulevard in the Rego Park section. Ben’s Best was a giant among delis, even if the place itself was of modest size (Ben’s Best and Jay Parker, the owner, were featured in the excellent documentary “Deli Man.” Watch it!) It was one of the few kosher delis in the country to get a 4.5 rating from Zagat.

The meats were delicious, the knishes a delight. But Parker, who took over from his father who established it, closed last June after 73 years because—wait for it—the city of New York put in bike lanes that knocked out 200 parking spaces along the street! You had trouble finding a space, and Ben’s couldn’t rely on foot traffic alone. There were protests and attempts to sell but, ultimately, all failed. Such an undignified death for an institution that had traveler’s stopping on their way to the airport to get takeout.

I revel in the folks, young and not-so, who are carrying on the deli tradition—with some great success, it seems. Live long and prosper: Mamaleh’s, Michael’s Deli, Zaftig’s, Our Fathers, Moody’s (we almost lost it), Sam Lagrassa’s and others.

So, deli lovers out there: Join us on June 6 for a journey through Brookline history with Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis (co-author of the seminal history “The Jews of Boston”), Dr. Shuly Rubin Schwartz of the Jewish Theological Seminary (and the granddaughter of the family that began Rubin’s in Brookline) and moderator Jessica Alpert Silber. Not only will you learn about delis of the past, but you’ll discover how food can help shape culture and the social fabric.

And, of course, we’ll have a little kosher nosh on hand to satisfy any cravings you may have.

Find more information about “How Brookline Became Jewish: The Delis That Shaped Us” here.

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