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An Ode to Jewish Delis

October 7, 2018 | by David Kilimnick

Nothing says American Jewish tradition like the deli.

Nothing says American Jewish tradition like the deli. Somehow it happened that in America, deli is the only true Jewish food. But our tradition is under attack! Falafel and shawarma have begun to displace the deli. And to make matters worse, when I went to New York recently I found them serving sushi at what was my favorite deli. I feel like Jewish life has been ruined forever. Now nothing is Jewish anymore.

So I am here to remind you some of the reasons why we, American born Jews of tradition, love the deli.

The deli smell is as close as you can get to the smell of sweaty socks.

The Smell

It is as close of a smell as you can get to socks, after they have been through a marathon in the rain and then ran in again, and then left in the room with the windows down. Yet, it still smells great. It is the closest you can get to a stench that both unbearable and appetizing at the same time

It Is Jewish

Every deli reminds a Jew of the Lower East Side. Jews came from Europe and this is the food they took on the ship with them. The pickling connects us to that tradition, as any pickling process done right can keep food fresh for well over a century. Perhaps that is where the deli smell comes from – Europe, a hundred and twenty years ago.

Salami That Hangs

Salami doesn’t smell that bad. But you leave it hanging for two years, something is going to come of that.

The Tiled Floor

A restaurant that smells pickled, with a checkered floor that looks like a 1950s washroom. Décor does not get better than that.

Carpet that Hasn’t Been Cleaned

If you don’t have the bathroom tiles, it’s decked out in speckled red and blue carpet that looks maroon. This way, we cannot tell how much kishka, stuffed-derma, gravy has spilled on it. I love the thriftiness of not needing somebody to clean the place.

Pictures of Random Immigrants

A picture of a guy pushing a wagon in the Lower East Side of New York, in the early 1920s, that every deli owner is related to. And then another picture of a guy standing behind a counter, whose face we can barely see behind the hanging salami. These two pictures unite every deli. Whoever the ancestor in that picture is that every person who opens a deli is related to, it is tradition. We love it.


A whole menu that is not FDA approved.

Wait Staff

The only place in America where nepotism still lives. That is how strong tradition is in the deli.

The Deli is As Old as the Jewish People Ourselves

The branding looks old. Pictures of Jewish mothers from the 1930s, in apron, and Biblical writing in English on the package. It reminds you where Jewish life started.

Like the Torah, the deli doesn’t change with time. Abraham was probably eating a corned beef sandwich on rye.

My Mother

My mother makes that same food. This guy gives it to me and doesn’t tell me how heavy I am getting. I am willing to pay extra for that.

Old is Beautiful

It looks old. That is tradition. In a world of plastic surgery and everybody searching for the fountain of youth, the deli is the only place you can go where looking old is praised. You walk in to a deli for a meal, you have aged two years. Old is beautiful and the deli represents that.

List of Some Jewish Foods & Other Stuff That Deli Made Amazing (Inspired by Lenny Bruce’s Jewish-Goyish)

Maybe this will help you understand a bit of what makes delis our tradition:

Pizza is Jewish. Food that New Yorkers liked in the 1980s is Jewish. Food that New Yorkers only knew about in the 1990s is not Jewish. Burritos are not Jewish. Pickles are Jewish. Jalapenos are not Jewish. Olives are almost Jewish. Whitefish is Jewish. Herring is Jewish. Sauerkraut is Jewish. Food you can spell is not Jewish. American food is not Jewish. European food is Jewish. Coleslaw is Jewish. Cabbage is not Jewish. Cabbage wrapped around ground beef and rice is Jewish. Salad is not Jewish. Knishes are Jewish. Perogies are mostly Jewish. Bourikas are Middle Eastern. Food made with potato is Jewish. Food made with cantaloupe is not Jewish. All deli is Jewish. Deli wrap is heresy. Deli sandwich is Jewish. Rye bread is Jewish. Club is Jewish. Baguette is Jewish because it holds deli well. Pumpernickel is not Jewish. Turkey is not Jewish. Turkey-pastrami is Jewish Cel-Ray is Jewish. Black Cherry Soda is Jewish. Cherry Soda is Not Jewish. Any soda that was made by a doctor is Jewish. Deli is Jewish. Shul is Jewish. Synagogue is mostly Jewish. Picture from the 1920s is Jewish. Picture from the 1950s is Jewish. Picture from the 1990s is not Jewish. Steakhouse is not Jewish. Smokehouse is not Jewish. Deli is Jewish.

A Deli Revival?

There is so much more about the deli. The deli is our tradition. It is the connection with the past. Our connection to Abraham. The tradition passed on from generation to generation of saturated fats. The tradition of eating in a living room that has not been cleaned. For this, the deli that we love, the only place that says aging is beautiful, I fight to keep it alive. If you have a Jewish heart, you will join me and fight for the deli!

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