Book Review: Save The Deli by David Sax
I have to say, up front, that I am not Jewish. (My partner Ron, who is, sometimes refers to me as his “Louisiana goyim”.) And it was primarily for Ron that I brought home David Sax’ 2009 release Save The Deli, though as it happens I ended up reading it first and decided to write a review. Sax, a free-lance writer originally from Toronto, Canada and now living in Brooklyn, New York has been a big fan of Jewish delicatessens dating back to his childhood. And for the past two years he has been on a quest to Save The Deli.
As Sax explains, three different factors have lead to a sharp decrease in the number of Jewish delicatessens: First, as Jews have increasingly assimilated and dispersed into the larger population, Jewish enclaves are increasingly rare, depriving delis of their traditional base clientele. Second, increasing real estate values have made it much more difficult for mom and pop type operations to compete. And finally, consolidation, in the way of large restaurant chains and factory farming have made the economics of the traditional deli menu increasingly unprofitable. In December 2007 Sax set out on what might be called a census of delis throughout North America and Europe and much of the book is given to detailing the many delis he visited, and telling the stories of deli owners.
The book is well-written and Sax does an excellent job in educating readers about the history of the Jewish people and how delicatessens came to be the home of their traditional foods, and by the final chapter chances are you will be rooting for delis to survive, even if you have never eaten a knish, don’t know what kreplach is and haven’t a clue about keeping kosher. My one criticism is that while Sax is a passionate advocate for delis and Jewish community building he is somewhat blind to the larger community and the world around him. I was, honestly, incensed and infuriated when in a very emotional passage in the final chapter while at the Birkenau concentration camp he quite excluded gays from this list (Poles, Gypsies, Russians and Jews) of peoples the Nazis tried to do away with in their concentration camps. Given the author’s attitude over the course of the book I suspect this is more a question of ignorance rather than malice but nevertheless it quite stung.