Delicatessen Explored at Skirball Center: “I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli”

Abe Lebewohl with a hero from the Second Avenue Deli.


Circling the News Contributor


I could be accused of chutzpah for kvetching about the schlocky workmanship of that nudnik who purports to be the community’s mensch.

Yes indeed, the list of Yiddish words is firmly seeded in the American lexicon. Arriving with the massive Jewish immigration in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, these colorful expressions coalesced around the traditions, customs, connections, and especially beloved recipes transported by the new arrivals.

Like many immigrants today, Jews from Central and Eastern Europe often supported themselves and their families by selling the food that reflected the tastes and customs of the kitchens they left behind.

Vendors set up wooden pushcarts and barrels on New York sidewalks, selling specialty foods of their home countries, such as rye bread, smoked herring, bagels, knishes and pickles.

Those who were successful expanded into storefront grocery delicatessens offering not only kosher cured meats, but also a range of packed and canned goods.

Between 1880 and 1924, more than two million Jewish immigrants made new homes in the United States. The emergence of the delicatessen can be traced to the influx of Jewish immigrants from the Rhineland, and later in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire. The regional Central and European foods such as pickles, knishes, gefilte fish, borscht and rugelach came to be served under one roof.

The story of the Jewish delicatessen and all its rich flavors and central place in the immigrants’ new lives is fully explored in an exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli,” through September 4.

Throughout the early 20th century, Jewish delicatessens opened across the country, attracting both Jewish and non-Jewish customers. By the 1930s, there were some 5,000 delis in New York City alone.

Menus on display from the landmark Carnegie Delicatessen and Lindy’s Restaurant in New York’s Theater District attest to the deli’s role as a hub for Broadway types and theater patrons.

Mid-century matchbooks from LA’s now-closed Junior’s Restaurant in Westwood and Solley’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in the San Fernando Valley are also on view.

While the basic menu offerings provided the much-loved staples familiar to the Jewish immigrants, the abundance of agriculture opened expanded food offerings.

For example, the emerging cattle industry provided the ribbons of beef that are the foundation of the classic deli sandwich.

Kosher slaughterhouses and meatpackers met the needs of Jewish consumers with beef that was produced on an industrial scale.

The Skirball exhibition considers the larger arc of the Jewish experience in the 20th century, tracing the evolution of the delicatessen to the national institutions they are today.

On view are neon signs, menus, advertisements, historical footage and film and television clips illustrating the prevalence of the deli in communities nationwide.

Of particular interest are the examples of how important the Jewish deli has become as sort of secular Jewish spaces.

Hangout places for showbiz folks, the deli at night has provided rich plots for the fascinating characters who frequent them. Visitors can enjoy footage from TV hits such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Seinfeld” and the “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

Following a loose chronology, the exhibition brings the visitor up to the late 20th century and changing trends.

“At the end of the 20th century, ethnic diversity began to serve as a point of celebration in food and new, artisanal Jewish delis have opened across North American and Europe,” says co-curator Lara Rabinovitch.

Eateries around the country are expanding menus that reflect the ways delis have changed in recent years, including incorporating influences from Sephardic and Israeli Jewish cuisine and focusing on justice in running their businesses.

In celebration of“I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli,” the Skirball will present “Late Night! The Jewish Deli,” on Friday, May 20 from 6:30-10 p.m., with exclusive after-hours access to the exhibition and food trucks.

For more information on the Skirball, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., contact (310)440-4500.

Vienna Beef Factory, inspecting sausages.
Photo: Vienna Beef Museum

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2 Responses to Delicatessen Explored at Skirball Center: “I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli”

  1. Kathleen Jensen says:

    Thanks for reminding everyone about the Jewish Deli exhibit at Skirball. After reading this, I remembered that they offer free admission on Thursdays. I’m free tomorrow & will be there. Hope they have a place for lunch that includes kosher pickles!

  2. Betsy Handler says:

    Nothing like a good deli. Wish we had a good one in the Palisades.

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