Film School

The Great Deli Debate


Today, a friend of mine posted a video on my Facebook wall of a trailer for an upcoming documentary called Deli Man. Seeing it suddenly re-awakened my tastebuds and also my feelings about Jewish Delis. I happily share the sentiments provided in these interviews about how Deli makes you feel.

A little backstory about myself and delis… In 1994, I attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I was a film student. While I cherish my time at NYU more than anything, the truth is this: I really went to the school of “New York City.”

What an amazing time it was to be living in NYC in the mid-to-late 90’s. Coming from Jacksonville, Florida, it was like going from a world that was one color to a universe of infinite variations. The city was filled with so much noise, people, potholes, personality and, most importantly, the most amazing food I had ever eaten up until that point in my life. And by the best food, I mean deli food. Jewish deli.

I come from a conservative Jewish family. I went to a conservative Jewish synagogue. But, I’m from Northern Florida and there’s a slightly different flavor between Northern Florida Jewery and that of the Northeast US and, to the far south, Miami.

While there was one major deli in my home town that had been around since my grandparents’ time, it wasn’t a place my family ever went to that often. In fact, I can’t remember a time that we went there as a family. We just agreed that it wasn’t very good.

Over the years, there was a flashier “New York-style” deli that opened up in Jacksonville. It was plastered with lots of mid-to-late-1980s Broadway glitz and glam. It had the obligatory A Chorus Line and Cats posters, the shiny black tiled walls and some gold lettering. It even had the signed headshots, too. It was more I Heart NY than I heart Pastrami. My father loved that place until the food and the service started to suffer. Once that happened, it failed. Now, a Mexican restaurant stands in its place, serving gooey helpings of cheesy burritos with gobs of spanish rice. It’s been there at least 3 times as long as the original deli.

Once in college, it took me over a year to feel really comfortable with setting out into the city. And it wasn’t until my sophomore year that I finally went to the 2nd Ave Deli. This changed everything. It was like I finally found the place I had always been looking for.

Let me put it this way – if you were a Jewish kid from a faraway place, who grew up hearing Broadway musicals from the 40’s and 50’s and watched PBS documentaries on the great Jewish comedians of early television… if you were a Jewish kid who dreamed of being in a world of really interesting people who were loud, obnoxious, brilliant, and hilarious… if you were a Jewish kid who heard tales of the amazing food that your parents and grandparents ate growing up but those places no longer existed because of a lack of interest and also because of the low-fat diet craze… if you were a Jewish kid just looking for a place to fit in and feel Jewish in the real world rather than in an insular community of your peers… well, this was Jewish Mecca. I guess that would technically be Jerusalem. But you get the point.

I loved that place. I ate there as regularly as I could afford the food. And I made a short video piece about it after it’s owner, Abe Lebewohl, was tragically murdered.

When I graduated from film school, I was looking for a project. One potential was a documentary about Jewish deli. It would be called “The Great Deli Debate” and it would focus on the rivalry between east coast and west coast delis. But at that time, it was too expensive to shoot it on film and video just didn’t have the cinematic quality that I wanted for the piece.

I moved on, got settled in LA. Found Langers pastrami. Got interviewed by my client, Huell Howser, on an episode of his series which happened to focus on tongue sandwiches. And then, I was happy. I felt that I had done my duty to deli.

If Judaism had a flavor and a scent, I think most east coast Jews would agree that it tastes and smells like the food you get at a good Jewish Deli. I hope the filmmaker gets lots of funding with this appetizing trailer and makes a great documentary that can help the institution of Jewish deli survive. No debate there!