The Spectator

Where Is the Schmaltz of Yesteryear?

Christmas Eve in a Jewish deli.

The Second Avenue Deli

When I first heard about the rebirth of the Second Avenue Deli, I had a feeling the place was stalking me. For years when I lived downtown, this pastrami palace—one of New York City’s last iconic, non-tourist-attraction temples of schmaltz (not the metaphoric kind but the liquid chicken fat that infuses so many of its dishes)—was a siren song. For this nonobservant Jew it was perhaps the most tangible aspect of my Jewish identity, a Proustian connection to the vision of shtetl life one finds in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work.

Not just the food but the whole aura of the place, the locale in the heart of the former Yiddish theater district where you could find gold stars with the names of the one-time luminaries of that once thriving, now virtually vanished world, embedded—in imitation of the Hollywood Walk of Fame—in the gritty sidewalk of lower Second Avenue in front of the deli.

In addition I felt some karmic connection with the place, as it was located just two blocks from the hospital where I’d been born; somehow I felt it had been patiently waiting for me to return from the WASPy environs of that college in New Haven, Conn., to see me claim my birthright mess of pottage, or in this case potted brisket.

Although this kosher meat version of a Jewish deli faced off against a rival, equally iconic kosher dairy establishment, the tiny but revered B&H Dairy restaurant across the street, it was the rich, meaty, stewlike amalgams at the Second Avenue Deli that kept drawing me back: the giblet-studded chicken fricassee just like my mother made, the last relic of her family’s past in the Pale of Settlement. (Although, truth be told, Swanson TV dinners were her specialty.)

And the stuffed cabbage and the stuffed derma (if you don’t know what the latter is you don’t want to), the stuffed breast of veal, everything stuffed and soused with heavy gravies—I couldn’t stay away. All transcended by “the Second’s” inimitable cholent, a food so dense it deserves a special place on the periodic table of elements somewhere between lead and plutonium.

By the time the deli closed in 2006, I was stuffed too. Back in 1998 I’d moved farther up Second Avenue, and it had taken me several years to lose the weight I gained from the close proximity to the chicken liver and chicken fat.

But I didn’t regret it—even after I discovered that there was better chopped liver and smoked sable at the Upper West Side’s funky-chic deli Barney Greengrass. Philip Roth ended his best novel, Operation Shylock, there, and I engaged in a shamefully trivial but bitter three-way feud in print with Daphne Merkin and New York magazine’s Gael Greene over whether Barney’s chopped liver was the best in the city. (My position was triumphantly vindicated by the authority on New York Jewish culture, I.B. Singer’s old paper the Forward, but Daphne and I only recently reconciled. I don’t think Gael Greene will ever speak to me again.)

So, yes, I’m a little over-the-top passionate about these matters—overcompensating I’m sure for my inability to be more than a secular humanist lover of my fellow Jews and Jewish culture. And despite my defection to Barney’s chopped liver, the Second was always first in my heart.

In fact, the moments I was most acutely conscious of my Jewish identity were the Christmas Eves I spent at the Second Avenue Deli, a place where Jews congregated to huddle against the alienating loneliness of a Christmas-song-saturated city. “Silent Night” for us was a noisy night of chomping and slurping, a steamy communion with the matzo ball soup that so far surpassed the neon yellow concoctions of the theme-park Jewish delis on Broadway. There was something so pure and unalloyed about the ethereally pale essence of the Second’s soup and the perfect texture of its matzo balls—not too fluffy, not too dense, just chewy and grainy enough—which has been the subject of more Talmudic disputation than many salient Torah passages.

And then it closed. Some say the spirit went out of it when some thug murdered owner Abe Lebewohl on the street near his restaurant in 1996. The perp was never caught, and for 10 years it stayed open with the wanted poster prominently affixed to its door posts, greeting you with unalloyed tragedy whenever you entered its doors. (It’s there in the new place, too.)

But this past summer, word got out it was going to reopen on the iconic Noo Yawk corner of 33rd and Third, which was a little spooky because I was at 33rd and Second, which is why I say I felt the place was stalking me. I could feel my waistline expanding as I approached it on the morning of opening day, just a week before Christmas Eve.

In some ways things were the same. The matzo brei (a pancake of eggs, onions, and chopped matzo) I had for breakfast that morning was heartwarming, the chicken soup I had for lunch unchanged in its clarity, and the egg barley—an entirely underrated concoction of plumped barley grains, delicately sautéed onions, and assertive black mushrooms with a subtle touch of schmaltz—just superb.

At dinner the next day I did have some nitpicking complaints. The chicken fricassee that used to contain a stingy but welcome number of tasty, rubbery textured chicken giblets had none, as in not a single one.

Still, the new deli has been a smashing success. The day after opening day I tried to go there at lunchtime but found it thronged by hungry mavens in a line that stretched half a block long. It was almost like Jewish Woodstock!

But after the initial rush I found there was an aspect of going there that had changed, at least for me. Or maybe I had changed. Spending time there over the week before Christmas Eve I found myself increasingly fixated on the array of framed photographs from the Yiddish theater days that line the walls of the back room. Some of them depicted actors in traditional European Jewish garb, but the ones that got to me were the photos of Yiddish actors and actresses in then-modern dress, circa the 1920s. There were these flashy, sharp-dressed farceurs who recalled the con-artist lotharios of Singer’s New York stories. And the pert and perky, flapper-type, liberated Yiddish theater ingénues, some of them making sly eyes at the sharpies onstage, some even arrayed in Rockette-like kick-line formations.

There was an inexpressible joy and hopefulness to those photos when they were taken, a buoyant sense that the actors could combine their Yiddish theatricality with Roaring Twenties Americana, that made me wish I’d known them and known the language and could have experienced the pleasure they radiated. The hopefulness that came from not knowing that within a decade or so, the fertile civilization of Yiddish Poland, which had given birth to and sustained their art, would be cut off at the root, slaughtered in the camps. The Yiddish theater in New York withered like an amputated limb. (Indeed when the original Second Avenue Deli opened in 1954, the Yiddish theater was already on its last legs, so there was a Remembrance of Things Past aspect to it from the beginning.)

I hate to bring the tragedy of the European Jews into this, but that’s what I mean when I say my reaction to it might have had something to do with the way I changed. In the years since I’d moved away from close proximity to the Second, I’d published a book called Explaining Hitler and edited an anthology called Those Who Forget the Past on contemporary anti-Semitism.

Looking at the hopefulness of the Yiddish theater boulevardiers and flâneurs through those retrospective lenses evoked something infinitely sad. It gave a kind of theme-park vibe to the place, a whistling-past-the-graveyard, schmaltzy nostalgia for schmaltz. With nothing left of that Golden Civilization—except a few noble revival companies, our only means of communion with it is the food.

I was glad the food was there. I was glad they still offered three kinds of tongue—regular, center cut, and “tip of the tongue.” But the real tongue—the Yiddish tongue that flourished so brilliantly and whose last gleams can be found most heartbreakingly in Singer’s masterpiece, Shadows on the Hudson—that tongue has been cut off.

It’s funny, over the holidays I found myself transfixed by a YouTube version of a Christmas song I never really knew before. In general, I am no fan of Christmas songs, except Darlene Love’s “Christmas”—which, of course, was produced by a Jew named Phil Spector. But this one (which I found linked from a Bob Dylan Web site) was so mournfully Irish, it might as well have been Jewish. It’s the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl doing “Fairytale of New York,” and it’s the saddest, most heartbreaking Christmas song you’ll ever hear.

I was listening to it all throughout the days leading up to Christmas Eve, when I made the block-long pilgrimage to the Second on Third. I got myself some egg barley and matzo ball soup at the counter and couldn’t get the song out of my head. The song—which is also about once-hopeful immigrants who lost their dreams—made me think of those Yiddish flâneurs and flappers on the wall, and the doomed “Fairytale of New York” they lived in the Golden Age of Yiddish culture in this city.

When you go to the Second (and I think you should), pay your respects to those lost souls on the wall who never knew what was coming. And make sure you tell the waiter you want giblets in your chicken fricassee.