Despite growing up in a family with a strong sense of Jewish identity, I hadn't had a taste of American-style Jewish deli cuisine until only a couple years ago. Blame the fact that I live in Berlin, where being Jewish is a bit more complicated.
Several years ago, a diner opened around the corner from me in Berlin. Run by Americans, it proudly proclaimed to deliver an authentic American experience. One day on a whim, I ordered their pastrami sandwich. Despite being of Jewish descent and having lived in the States, I'd never had one. Nothing will ever compare to that first glistening pile of meat: mustard so spicy it prickled all the way up my nose, beautiful pink beef that was marbled with fat throughout.
I began to wonder why I had been missing this for 25 long years. After all, my grandparents were Jewish and we have family living in New York. I angrily figured that as my American family had happily been munching on pastrami for all these years, we'd been stuck with dense wholemeal rye, slathered in butter and topped with thin, nondescript slices of meat. I felt deprived of a vitally important Jewish experience.
Many Holocaust survivors were left with no family mementos once the war was over. No recipes, no photos, no trinkets to hold on to. So they cooked.
Food is intensely personal, a combination of all the senses; it's able to conjure memories long thought forgotten. Many Holocaust survivors were left with no family mementos once the war was over. No recipes, no photos, no trinkets to hold on to. So they cooked. They cooked to recreate that feeling of safety, to recreate the taste of home—even if home no longer existed.
Jewish identity played a big role in our family, but when I was younger there wasn't much I was able to relate to. While politics, history, and the new Jewish memorial were often discussed at dinner—which never consisted of Jewish food—my grandparents' heritage was not passed on through their cuisine. I so fervently wish that I knew just one recipe that stems from the repertoire of my Austrian great-grandmother or was handed the secret key to the stuffed cabbage rolls I like to imagine my Swabian kinsmen and women prepared for centuries.
After World War II, my grandparents were not alone in their decision to return to Germany as Jews who had previously been ostracized and persecuted. They, along with many members of their community, hoped that by taking part in the reconstruction they could at least begin to leave some of their horrendous history in the past. Both my grandparents, particularly my grandfather, were outspoken about their Jewish heritage and traveled to schools to talk about their experiences, functioning as Zeitzeugen, and upheld a strong identity as German Jews.
In contrast, my great-aunt's family in New York is deeply involved with food. Her husband owned a sandwich shop and café on Varick Street in SoHo. Today the sandwich shop is run by his daughter, my great cousin, who also owns a catering business. Where our family seemed to ignore food and all the culture it implied, our New York counterparts fully embraced it. When I visit my great aunt in New Jersey, my poor deli-deprived belly gets sent home with several plastic takeaway containers packed to the brim with chopped liver, bagels, and gefilte fish.
Mention Jewish humor to anyone in the States, and they will at least have an inkling as to what you're talking about. Say the same thing to a German and you're met with blank stares.
David Sax, author of Save the Deli and The Tastemakers, tells me that the Jewish delicatessen, in its popular North American form, came about during the 1880s and 1890s, when large numbers of Eastern European Jewish immigrants came to the States. Unlike German Jews, they were usually rural, poor, and uneducated. Their delis, which were opened in droves in New York's Lower East Side, were often less refined than that of their German counterparts. Throughout the 20th century, the Jewish deli became emblematic of America as the immigrants embraced their new lives in a truly unprecedented fashion, and Ashkenazi Jewish culture became an integral part of American culture.
Things didn't happen that way across the Atlantic. An example: Seinfeld only aired in Germany for two years, because German viewers didn't get the humor. Mention Jewish humor to anyone in the States, and they will at least have an inkling as to what you're talking about. Say the same thing to a German and you're met with blank stares.
After World War II, the socialist GDR reasoned that they would not support capitalists, even Jewish Holocaust survivors who had lost their businesses under the Nazi regime, so they redistributed most commerce.
Sax notes that as Jewish entertainment grew into the acceptable American mainstream, so did its deli culture. Soon it became as American as pizza or Chinese food. In Europe, however, the Jewish Delikatessen was a form of local food, just kosher—and so became defined by the hostile, racist regime as "the other."
City historian Christoph Kreutzmüller explains that before World War II, Berlin was not only the epicenter of business, but particularly of Jewish commerce. The Cold War is the main reason why that number failed to increase once the war had been lost. In Frankfurt, another major commercial center, Holocaust survivors or their families were able to claim back their business or were compensated by the government for the fiscal loss. In Berlin, however, properties were not returned, nor were families compensated. The socialist GDR reasoned that they would not support capitalists, even Jewish Holocaust survivors who had lost their businesses under the Nazi regime, so they redistributed most commerce.
The Jewish businesses that did exist thought of themselves as a dying breed. The few remaining kosher Delikatessen catered to a rapidly aging demographic and largely became obsolete. Berlin lost its business function after 1949; even today it remains a de-industrialized city. The nonexistence of Jewish businesses, paired with the fact that returning Jews weren't keen on proudly displaying their heritage, led to a culture that took place behind closed doors. This is a stark contrast to the American Jewish deli, which had established itself as a meeting place and which created a space where everyone, not just Jews, were able to celebrate their food and culture. Because who would say no to fatty, smoked meat, a warming soup, and pickles so sour they make your mouth pucker?
Alexa Karolinski—a filmmaker who directed Oma & Bella, a documentary portrait of two elderly Jewish women in the German capital—was raised in Berlin but now lives in LA. "I'm pretty sure I'm connected to every person of Jewish descent in Berlin via a maximum of one to two people," she says, highlighting the difference between living as a Jew in Germany versus in the States.
Although Berlin is becoming more diverse, a German Jew is still seen as exotic and special, which goes hand in hand with Jewish identity issues. "The ignorant, racist shit people in Germany say to you stems from educated humans," Karolinski says. "In the States, at least, most of the time they'll be less educated—but it's the worst when educated people ask you stupid questions."
When Karolinski feels a craving for some matzo ball soup in LA, she has seemingly endless options, including the blissfully uneventful Greenblatt's Deli. In Berlin, you little option but to make your own at home or to go to Mogg & Melzer. (In fact, the matzo ball soup served at Mogg & Melzer is in part inspired by Oma & Bella. One hot summer afternoon while Alexa was filming, one of the owners, Osker Melzer, became privy to the art of matzo ball soup by Oma herself.)
Mogg & Melzer is not the only one serving Berliners classic Deli food. Originally from Boston, Laurel Kratochvila began baking bagels in the tiny kitchen of Shakespeare & Sons, the bookshop she co-runs with her husband Roman. After tasting one too many bad German bagels, she took matters into her own hands. Today she runs Fine Bagels, where you can get the best everything bagel this side of the Atlantic. Laurel doesn't see much Ashkenazi influence in Berlin's food, not like in Poland where you'll find a freshly baked challah readily available in even in the smallest one-shop town. But don't ask if they're kosher, she says: Adding a kosher certification to Kratochvila's bagels would not improve the taste of her product—it might even diminish it. It would only serve to reassure customers that, yes, they are eating "authentic" Jewish food.
What we need is more diversity. Let food be the vehicle for that!
German-Jewish culture is still trying to define itself. While this is exciting for those of us helping to define it, there is something to be said for living in an already established place where you easily fit in and don't feel at odds with your Jewishness. "At times, I find it frustrating to wait," Karolinski says. "There's a lack of humor because of the history, and a certain forcefulness of people trying too hard to get over something." Indeed, Germany's attitude towards the Holocaust is that it is something to be dealt with, only to be put away and labeled as "over." But that's not going to happen for a long time, and we need to be able live with our history without it hindering new developments.
People like Laurel Kratochvila and Oskar Melzer are creating an environment in Berlin where Jewish food culture can flourish without it being a gimmick, or "Jew food in a zoo," as Kratochvila so deftly puts it. What we do still very much need, however, is a place that serves challah French toast.
We need more. Germany needs Jewish culture—more jokes, more food, more shticks. What we need is more diversity. Let food be the vehicle for that! Food is intense, easily shared, and encourages human interaction without preconceived notions. If we continue to snack on pastrami while encouraging a dialogue, we'll be just fine.