A Jewish Tale of Woe
To some, paradise is a place where cherubim cavort and heavenly choruses rejoice. To others, it’s a hot kosher corned beef sandwich on Jewish rye.
By Mary Beth Crain
As I’ve mentioned in a few previous articles, after 30 years in Los Angeles, I recently moved to the little town of Hart, Mich., to be near family and take care of my aging mother. I soon discovered that being a Jew in Hart is a far different experience from being a Jew in L.A., or New York, or Flatbush. There’s no synagogue, and no Jewish community, but far more important—there’s no Jewish deli.
Yes, if you ask me, the deli—and by deli I do not mean those pathetic packaged sandwich sections in the supermarkets and 7-11’s—is the real place of Jewish worship. A genuine Jewish deli is not simply a wondrous locale, it’s a wondrous experience.
Let me tell you about Junior’s, for instance. Junior’s is a big, friendly restaurant in West Los Angeles that bustles at all hours of the day and night with Jews and non-Jews alike, seeking solace and refreshment in a chopped liver on rye, matzoh ball soup, the kippered whitefish platter. It has a huge deli with every conceivable kind of delight, from egg bread, bagels and ten different kinds of fresh baked rye breads to mouthwatering briskets of beef, fragrant and juicy hot pastrami, big mounds of gefilte fish, lox—of course lox—and a selection of desserts that would rival anything on the boulevards of Paris or Vienna. You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a Junior’s Napoleon—five layers of puff pastry alternating with whipped vanilla cream and crowned with a European chocolate icing—or a Junior’s Dobos Torte—seven delicate layers of almond cake filled with mocha cream and iced with a dark chocolate glaze. Oy. I’m fainting just thinking about it.
Then there is Canter’s, the deli mecca of Los Angeles. Located in the heart of the Fairfax district, aka “Little Israel,” Canter’s dates from 1908, is open 24 hours seven days a week, and was the favorite noshing hole for the likes of Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye, George Burns and many other celebs. Canter’s is sort of like Jerusalem—if you are a Jew, you have to make a pilgrimage there at least once, to be able to say you’ve been on original deli soil before you die.
And let’s not forget Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills. You can see plenty of stars there too, diving into their towering mile high sandwiches and sipping Brooklyn egg creams. And when Jerry’s Deli in Pasadena closed, well, it’s a wonder the flags weren’t at half mast. It was like the death of a great historical figure.
Well, anyway, all this is by way of saying that I’ve been in Jewish deli withdrawal for over a year now. So, when my brother Dave told me about this great Jewish deli in the quaint little tourist town of Beulah, some 70 miles up the pike, my heart was like to leap right out of my chest.
“A real Jewish deli?” I said. “In Michigan?”
“Yeah, it’s wonderful. They’ve got great bagels.”
“And chopped liver? And hot corned beef? And…”
“They’ve got everything.”
What better excuse, then, to take my 86-year-old mom, Hazel, on a day trip up north, with the promise of lunch at a bona fide Jewish deli?
So, yesterday, we packed Hazel and her wheelchair in the car and took off for Jerusalem.
We chose the scenic route, through the country. I settled back to luxuriate in the gorgeous day, the emerald green countryside and shining lake districts, and the promise of hot kosher corned beef on real Jewish rye slathered with spicy brown mustard. Is there another definition of paradise?
By the time we got to the L’Chaim Delicatessen, I was so hungry it was all I could do to keep from jumping over the counter and burying myself in hot corned beef.
L’Chaim is a cute little place with tables and chairs on the sidewalk outside, and very plain, matter of fact décor on the inside. This is a good sign, typical of real Jewish delis. They’re never fancy schmancy—the food, not the ambiance, is what matters. Another good sign is their menorah logo, along with a big sign on the door that says “SHALOM.” Hazel laughed with delight. She was sure we’d landed in Israel.
I checked the menu. There it was. “The Classic,” it was called—a corned beef sandwich on Jewish rye. Thank you, Lord.
“I’ll have the Classic,” I told the waiter.
“On what kind of bread?” he asked.
“What do you mean, on what kind of bread?” I said. “On Jewish rye. What other kind of bread is there?”
“Sorry, we’re out of rye.”
I sat there stunned, unable to utter a sound. A genuine Jewish deli, with no Jewish rye?
“How can you be out of rye?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t bake on Sunday and we had a lot of people in this morning.”
I didn’t know what to do. Hot corned beef without Jewish rye is like, well, strawberry shortcake without the shortcake, or beef barbecue without the barbecue, or Christmas without Jesus.
“OK,” I said at last. “I’ll have an onion roll.”
“We’re out of onion rolls too.”
Well. Wasn’t this my lucky day. “How about white bread?” I muttered.
“Sure. Corned beef on white. No problem.”
Oh yes, there was a problem. A problem bigger than this green, pimple-faced youth could ever comprehend. I had set out for Jerusalem, and ended up in, well, Beulah. I should have known better. I should have.
But hot corned beef with sweet, tangy Jewish spicy brown mustard was still something to savor. Then my sandwich arrived. There, in a tacky plastic basket, was a COLD corned beef sandwich, on dry, stale white bread, with a snooty little dab of Dijon. And worst of all—it wasn’t kosher corned beef! It was crappy old Boars Head!
If you want to know the difference—kosher corned beef is rich, savory, full of wonderful spices, marbled with delicious fat, and melts in your mouth. It may not be healthy, but what a way to die. It has to be served hot. Period. Non-kosher corned beef is dry, salty, lean and…blech! You might as well be eating pressed turkey from the package.
I managed to eat half the sandwich because I was so hungry. I couldn’t believe I’d paid $6.50 for that insult to my stomach and the Jewish people. And it didn’t even come with a single side!
Nobody else seemed bothered, though. Hazel was happy with her Reuben on dry, stale pumpernickel and my brother enjoyed his “West Bank” turkey and swiss with Thousand Island dressing. I realized that I’d lived in L.A. too long. I had diamond tastes in a rhinestone town.
Well, that’s my Jewish tale of woe. Of course, without all that rich, fatty Jewish deli food, I might stand a chance of living longer. There. If I keep telling myself that, maybe one day I’ll believe it.
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Mr. Wizard: In Memoriam.
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