Ph.D. Octopus

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Deli in Israel inspired by Montreal

with one comment

by weiner

I always wondered whether Israel had any real North American style Jewish delis. Wonder no more. This post from blogger Phoebe alerted me to the existence of Ruben’s, a North American style deli in Tel Aviv, soon to open a second location in the city.

Phoebe is right to note the Zionist rejection of galut, i.e. Exile, as a prime cause for the lack of deli in the Holy Land:

The traditional Israeli wariness about the Diaspora probably lumps together presumed-self-hatred, 19-year-olds without hot bods, and matzo ball soup, rejecting all of this in the name of creating and sustaining the New Jews.

Phoebe is a bit off track, though, when she notes that “if this deli is inspired by NY delis, it will be somewhat like the delis in NY.” For a closer reading of the article makes mention of another important deli city:

“Ruben’s success has exceeded our expectations,” bragged Gavriel Zilber, 31, one of the restaurant’s owners. “I think we’re successful because Israelis recognize the quality of our product. But also, it reminds them of visits to New York and Montreal.”

Indeed, Zilber admits that his inspiration came not from Kats’s in New York’s Lower East Side, but Schwartz’s, Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen.

Most Israeli customers at Ruben are unaware of the Jewish roots of the food they’re eating. Zilber, a native-born Israeli, downplays the connection, although he admits that his inspiration is the legendary Schwartz’s deli in Montreal.

“I was working as a chef at a restaurant in Montreal, and every night after we closed, we could help ourselves to all the steak and caviar we could eat. Still, we’d end up going to grab a bite at Schwartz’s,” Zilber recalled. “That’s when I said we have to have something like this in Israel.”

Beyond my Montreal deli pride, I think something important is emerging here. It’s interesting that a lot of Israelis aren’t aware of deli as Jewish food, but I guess this is because deli, as we understand it, is an American invention. As Gil Shefler of The Forward notes:

Delis serving hallmark fare like oversized sandwiches and matzo balls larger than baseballs are a distinctly American creation. Eastern European Jews invented them only after their arrival in the New World, around the turn of the 20th century, and combined Old Country staples with local favorites and ingredients.

As David Sax, author of Save the Deli and the blog of the same name, writes, political as well as geographic reasons led a separate Israeli culinary tradition, and “falafel became the official food of Israel.”

This all reminded me of an interesting conversation I had with an Israeli student in my department, who told me that in Israel, the stereotype of the “Jewish mother” is called the “Polish mother.” This makes sense, as most of the mothers in Israel are Jewish, but it showed that American Jewish culture doesn’t always resonate in the same way in the Jewish State.

That’s why Zilber emphasizes the “quality” of his deli as the major selling point. He does, however, also recognize the familiarity for those American and Canadian ex-pats living in Israel. I think the latter factor may more important than he realizes. And an Ashenazi North Amerian style deli might have even more success in Jerusalem than Tel Aviv.

In the Emek Refaim area of Jerusalem, there are tons of American Jews doing study abroad. Walking around that neighbourhood, one almost hears more English than Hebrew. My rule of thumb there is that if I see a yarmulke or a long skirt, it probably means the person is American.

I suspect that these Americans would love to have a real good kosher deli to remind them of home.

Of course, the tragedy is that those Jews who abide by the Orwellian money-making scam that is glatt kashrut have likely never tasted Schwartz’s or Katz’s or any real good deli. Though maybe this is an advantage, because even if Ruben’s isn’t up to those lofty standards, the kosher-keeping customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2010 at 10:25

One Response

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  1. I did notice there was Montreal influence, but now that you mention it, it’s not clear at all why Sax thought it would be NY-style. Given how good Mile End is, it sounds promising!


    May 16, 2010 at 11:27

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