For many Jews, feeling connected to their community means attending temple, hosting Shabbat or even just wearing a Star of David. For me, though, I feel the most Jewish destroying a pastrami on rye — a surprisingly difficult feat that gets harder the farther I am from home.
The American Jewish deli is a core part of modern Jewish identity. First- and second-generation German immigrants began opening delis across America in the mid 1800s. At first, delis only sold products at the counter and didn’t have table service. Only in the 1920s did delis start to become restaurants where people could sit and eat. After World War I, many Jewish immigrants found their community in delis. Delis allowed Jewish people to have a safe space to form a community that didn’t feel as intimidating, conservative or religious as going to temple.
Walk into any Jewish deli and there’s a good chance you’ll see a group of sweet old ladies waving at every baby that passes by, various pickle variations and a superhero waitress that runs around the place and calls you sweetheart. At least, that’s what the local deli where I grew up around looked like. The Bagel Cove was a six-minute drive from my home and just four minutes away from the other Jewish deli, Mo’s. In my hometown of Aventura, Florida, the great debate raged around which Jewish deli was the best; the quality of the coleslaw, the service, and even the people who went to the deli were all factors to be considered. Talking to members of my community, I am constantly surprised by how passionately someone can talk about bagels and lox. These debates might seem frivolous, and that’s because they are — they’re just an excuse to start a conversation about our community and what we love about it. Through our passion for pickles, pastrami and corned beef, we are just expressing how much love we have for these community establishments.
Now living in Barcelona, Spain, I find myself a long way from any Jewish delis. It’s even a problem to find bagels in the supermarket, let alone fresh ones. While there are some kosher restaurants — even a Michelin-starred one — I haven’t been able to find that perfect Jewish deli sandwich just yet. For months, I’ve been dreaming of a bite of tender pastrami that feels like butter on the tongue — only to then be hit with a blast of spicy brown mustard.
I don’t know if I’ll find the genuine deli experience abroad. But in searching for it, I uncovered a community here in Spain that, though it does things differently, feels a little bit familiar.
On any street in any neighborhood in Barcelona, you’re likely to find a couple of bars. Bar culture is a big part of living in Spain. These bars serve as a local watering holes; they’re open from breakfast to dinner, probably with some siesta down time somewhere in between. These bars are much more than places to get a beer. They serve coffee and food, too, and often function as a place where families get together, and where it’s common to find a neighbor or a friend. I go to these establishments to cure my homesickness for a little while.
These bars might trade pastrami sandwiches for bocadillos and coleslaw for olives, but they achieve the same scene as a Jewish deli. These magical places provide a space for banter, storytelling and education. There’s something about these spots that provides me with the peace of mind to know that in this ever-changing world, there are still places that value human connection, and that one day I, too, might be able to be the old man at the deli with crazy stories.
Delis were created in the United States in order to give Jewish immigrants a place where they felt comfortable and at home. Today, they’ve evolved to welcome all types of Jewish and non-Jewish foodies searching for a savory meal served with lots of chutzpah and love. Even across the world, I’m finding similar places that serve the universal need — community — that delis have been able to fill for the Jewish communities of America.
As for my pastrami craving… well, did I mention it helps when your Jewish mother schleps multiple pounds of pastrami across international borders to make her little boy happy?