Pastrami on Rye

Ted Merwin NYU Press, 245 pages, $26.95

"Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli" is one of the first scholarly histories of the Jewish delicatessen. Ted Merwin, a professor of religion and Judaic studies, after more than 10 years of research and writing, shows that delis have been a rich part of the story of Jewish assimilation in America. The first delicatessens sold mostly German food. For early Jewish immigrants, deli meats were an indispensable reminder of home. When kosher beef prices in America jumped from 12 to 18 cents a pound in 1902, riots broke out in Jewish enclaves throughout the Northeast.

Delis were popularized as restaurants by a new generation of American-born Jews. After his Broadway shows, Al Jolson, a famous Jewish singer, would invite the whole audience, Jew and gentile alike, to join him at Lindy's delicatessen. But just as it had started to coalesce, this vibrant world of intermingled classes and races began as suddenly to dissolve. Merwin cites many causes: emigration from cities, concerns about calories and cholesterol, the spread of supermarkets, and a tendency among mid-20th-century Jews to downplay their ethnicity. Merwin writes that there are now only 15 proper Jewish delicatessens left in New York — down from about 1,500 in the 1930s. Tourists flock to some of the originals. Hip new restaurants serve embellished classics. But it would be impossible for them to recapture the excitement of Jews' triumphant entry into American society.