Pastrami. Rye. Mustard. Pickle. Heaven? Perhaps. Or the quintessential meal at a Jewish deli. Nothing speaks louder than an overstuffed sandwich and a vinegar-y cucumber spear to the meat of the deli experience. Yet this very institution, inextricably linked with American Jewish culture, is experiencing a crisis. Deli Man, the latest film from Erik Greenberg Anjou, chronicles the rise and fall of this very central part of Jewish life.

Food, as we well know, is meaningful to our tradition. So what does it mean when the number of delis has plummeted from more than 3,000 to less than 200, with more closing each year? In New York in 1931, there were more than 1,500 kosher delis, and at least that many non-kosher ones. Today, there are 20 total.

This is not to say that deli fare itself has fallen out of style. Rather, Jewish culture, and American culture, has changed and progressed, spelling the demise of the fresh-off-the-boat, Old World shop, and it is lost forever. The deli, then, is perhaps an apt metaphor for Jews in their new homeland: from Lower East Side shtetl to Hollywood.

Larry King talks deli in "Deli Man"

Larry King talks deli in “Deli Man”

Nu, enough of the apocalyptic talk. Deli Man is an energetic film, following the blintz-filled story of Ziggy Gruber, a proud and overworked owner of a hugely popular deli in Houston. Ziggy, a self-proclaimed “deli maven,” is a full-bodied, fascinating anachronism. He speaks Yiddish, is a classically trained French chef and felt the calling of the deli in Texas after growing up in his family’s deli businesses in New York.

Delis, as we learn from the film, with Ziggy as our guide, began with the great influx of German Jewish immigrants in the mid-1800s, who served knockwurst, smoked fish and liver. At the turn of the century, Eastern European Jews arrived, with little in common with their German counterparts. They took to the deli, but added their own Russian twist: potatoes and beets and knishes and lots of organs.

This heady mix proved incredibly successful, and delis popped up on every corner in cities across the US (and Canada). Big fans of juicy cuts of beef, non-Jews began frequenting the restaurants—and (shh!) adding cheese.

But as Jews moved from city to suburb, from stringent kosher to fans of bacon, the old-fashioned deli could not thrive. The deli industry today still has heavy hitters, like Katz’s and 2nd Ave Deli. These large operations are, however, more often than not filled with visitors and tourists than neighborhood denizens.

Ziggy and his cohort, however, will not let this demise get to them. Full of passion, they preserve history and tradition by way of culinary culture. The restaurant business is a tough one, we learn through interviews with Ziggy and other dedicated deli men (and women). All across the country, owners and managers detail dedication to their craft, as a way to carry tradition into the twenty-first century.

Today, delis seem to fall into two camps: those that adhere to tradition as much as possible and those that might be described as “deliventurous.” There’s a new wave of delis that bring avant-garde creativity to Jewish foods. Deep-fried kugel? Sure. Local, sustainable, organic, gluten-free; it’s all there. Young owners are bringing fresh ideas to the deli, carrying with them the food of their ancestors while also staying abreast of current food trends.

Deli Man was screened in February as part of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, now in its twenty-fifth year. After the showing, the film’s director chatted with one of these local, artisanal, contemporary Jewish deli owners: Nick Wiseman of DGS Delicatessen. Located in Dupont Circle, DGS opened a few years ago and has encountered nothing but success. It house-cures its own corned beef and serves hazelnut-crusted salmon and a dish called “schmutzy fries.” The Reuben can be ordered with in-house smoked tempeh. The atmosphere is clearly geared toward the Millennial.

Innovation and invention are key, Wiseman noted during the conversation, for bringing in new, young customers with a discerning eye—and stomach. Pastrami scrapple, challah French toast and Reuben egg rolls just might save the deli. But as we can see from Ziggy’s success, tradition has a way of deliciously marching on.

The 25th annual Washington Jewish Film Festival took place in February and featured 11 days of more than 100 screenings of dynamic films in the greater DC area. Celebrating its 25th year exploring the best of international cinema through a distinctly Jewish lens, this year’s festival presented over 80 films and over 100 accompanying events to a crowd of more than 12,000 attendees, making it the largest Jewish cultural event in Washington and the largest international film festival in the area. The full line-up can be found online

Deli Man is being screened on May 3 at the Washington DCJCC as part of the WJFF Spring Redux. See here for more information. 

Top photo: Ziggy Gruber. All photos courtesy of Cohen Media Group.