I am half Jewish (father), but I was raised Christian. I always identified with Christianity. Until I stopped identifying with anything.
That changed when I came to New York City to live in 1975.
I was lucky. I arrived in New York at a time when the old Jewish culture was still alive in Manhattan, especially on the Lower East Side. It wasn't nearly as vibrant as it was years earlier, but it was still there. I moved to 10th Street, in the East Village, between Second and Third Avenues. On 12th Street and Second Avenue there was a Yiddish Theater. On Second Avenue and 10th Street was the incredible Second Avenue Deli. A mere three minutes from my apartment, this was my grammar school, my high school and my college for all things Jewish in New York City. It was probably the most famous Jewish deli in New York—neck and neck with Katz's—and was acknowledged to serve the best food.
On the sidewalk in front, were embedded the names of the stars of the Yiddish theater along with other names I did not know. In the evenings, old people would have dinner at the Deli and slowly walk the two blocks to that last Yiddish theater to laugh or cry or both listening to a language that was slowly dying but—not yet.
The Second Avenue Deli was the perfect place for a sheltered, Christian-raised Virginia boy to get an education. It was raucous, it was noisy, it was crowded. The waiters were old, distracted and determinedly not polite. I did not know what 95% of the food they served was.
But if your first taste of pastrami was at the Second Avenue Deli between two pieces of rye bread, then God favored you. I don't even think I knew what pastrami was or corned beef, for that matter. A waiter must have told me to try it.
Holy Mother of God. As Mel Brooks once put it, "My tongue just gave a party for my mouth." I feel fortunate to have discovered and relished this food before I became burdened by the knowledge of its unhealthiness. I only experienced the joy of it.
|Heaven, I'm in heaven...|
And the people! The owner was Abe Lebewohl. He was everywhere, cajoling, ordering, inspecting, admonishing, greeting. Pudgy, with decreasing hair and unlimited energy, he really did seem to be three places at once. I heard him say to someone once: "I'm gonna be on Channel Five tonight! I made a huge Empire State Building entirely out of chopped liver!" R.I.P., Abe.
What Fyvush Finkel, a famous actor in the Yiddish theater, said about eating in another Jewish restaurant two blocks away could well apply at the Deli, "I ate there for 30 years and never got what I wanted. The waiter always talked me out of it." Indeed, they did. That world! So liberating from my tight-sphinctered Virginia Episcopalian origins. People raised their voices! People gestured! People disputed! People were alive! I felt like I'd been given a purge of chicken fat and matzo ball soup. Ahhhhhh. Slowly but surely, simply by living in New York City, part of me became distinctly Jewish. It still is.
The deli is closed now, has been for years. A bank occupies the space. (The Deli relocated in Midtown, but I haven't had the heart to go. I only want the original.) But it will always be there, in my heart. A cholesterol-laden heart, I'm sure, after eating so much of that calorific, delicious food. But not so laden as to not always to have a place for the Second Avenue Deli.
I remember one day, after a typical heavenly meal, stepping up to the man behind the cash register to pay my bill. He looked to be in his sixties, was dressed in a faded shirt and tie. I recognized that tie!
"Hey!" I said. "I have a tie exactly like yours!"
"If I were you," he said wearily, "I wouldn't be so proud."