Documentary ‘Deli Man’ connects Jewish culture, food

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The first time my sister and I traveled to New York by ourselves in fifth grade, our grandpa decided it was important he take us back to the roots of where our family — like most Eastern European Jewish immigrants — started their lives in the United States: the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

We traversed through the roaring, rushing underground towards wonders unknown. Once we emerged, he pointed out buildings and street names to us — we paused at Ludlow and Rivington, or as he chuckled and said, “the real way to say it, Ludluv and Rivink-ton” in a thick accent. The surrounding decrepit apartments resembled the tenements in which my family originated. Finally, we arrived at our true destination: lunch at the iconic Katz’s Delicatessen. Sitting a few tables away from where Harry met Sally, I ordered a classic pastrami sandwich. A veritable mound of savory, melt-in-your-mouth slices of cured meat, ringed in peppercorn, overflowed between the tangy, fresh rye bread slathered in mustard which, instead of astringent, tasted almost sweet.

We made the journey to Katz’s for years and years after, going for the corned beef, potato salad, coleslaw, hot dogs. Sometimes he’d take us to other establishments and treat us to Matzo ball soup and egg cream sodas at 2nd Ave Deli. These trips played a large role in shaping my relationship with my Jewish identity and family history. Sweet, smoky, or brined — every taste told of an intergenerational sharing of culture and history behind the glass countertop.

This is the central theme in filmmaker Erik Greenberg Anjou’s documentary “Deli Man,” a lively film which follows Houston-based deli owner David “Ziggy” Gruber and other connoisseurs (including late night talk show host Larry King, introduced as “Deli Maven”) from across the country. Most of the interviewees are third-generation deli men; everyone, it seems, relates their involvement and devotion to the business to their grandfathers.

“When I cook, I feel my ancestors around me, and it makes me happy,” Gruber says in the film. “When I smell that smell, I feel my grandfather right next to me. It’s like times past, and that’s what makes me happy. That’s what drives me.”

In straightforward, charming interviews that range from behind-the-scenes in kitchens to seated at booths, deli men and customers from across the country tell stories of famous recipes, business struggles and family histories. With historical black-and-white footage and photographs of old menus, the film delves into the emergence and history of delis, acknowledging both the hardship and joy they represented as a product of the influx of Jewish immigrants in New York who fled poverty and violence in Eastern Europe. Like my grandparents, these Jews worked in sweatshops and factories in the Lower East Side. By 1931, there were thousands of delis in New York. “Deli Man” explores the sharp decline of this number, which is down to only 150 in all of North America. Furthermore, those interviewed ponder the future of what is to come, due to rising meat prices and gentrification of old neighborhoods.

One deli featured in the film is Wise Sons, located right in San Francisco. Unfortunately, they were devastated by the recent Mission Street fire, but they continue to operate out of their locations on 24th and Mission streets and the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

“Deli Man” weaves a wonderful tribute through historical footage and heartwarming, diverse interviews, and is packed with the same nostalgia and humor that many may see in their own Jewish roots. “Deli Man” perfectly presents the essence and personality of being “culturally Jewish” — a little kvetching, a little reminiscing and a lot of food.

Deli Man is 91 minutes long and was recently shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Winter Fest. It opens on March 6 and will be screened at Elmwood in Berkeley.

Contact Sarah Goldwasser [email protected].