In praise of pastrami

Food writer Janna Gur’s “Book of New Israeli Food” is one of several recent cookbooks celebrating the rich diversity of Israeli cuisine, with recipes from the far corners of the Jewish Diaspora: kibbeh, North African Fish stew, and chopped liver, too. But would it be too much to ask for a nice pastrami sandwich?

As generations of American Jews have been shocked to discover, the dishes considered most heimish back home — bagels, knishes, deli sandwiches — are hard to find in Israel. The few delis that do exist, like Ruben’s in Tel Aviv, are more foodie curiosities than cultural staples.

Ted Merwin’s new book “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” cogent resolves the conundrum of why there are so few delis in Israeli. Even if the New York deli seems as Jewish as Rabbi Akiva, Merwin, a professor of religion at Dickenson College in Pennsylvania, shows it to be a quintessentially American institution.

Based on a wealth of archival research and interviews, “Pastrami on Rye” tells the story of the kosher deli from its origins among Eastern European Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, its spread — thanks to expanding Jewish communities — across the United States, and, in the face of changes in Jewish aspirations and tastes, its eventual decline.

But Merwin is not concerned merely with how deli conquered the continent. “Pastrami on Rye” is a cultural history of American Judaism told through a particularly revealing cultural lens. If Merwin sometimes seems to overstate his case, implying, for example, that the deli’s origins might lie in Jews’ “long-standing connection with sandwiches” — e.g., the “Hillel sandwich,” eaten as part of the Passover seder — his nuanced reading of the deli’s rise and fall is also a serious meditation on Jewish culture in America.

Read the full review of Ted Merwin’s “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli” from 2015 in Haaretz.