Save the Deli: The day the delis stood still

Atonement on Yom Kippur for the precarious fate of Jewish delicatessens.

Pastrami Sandwich 311 (photo credit: stock photo)
Pastrami Sandwich 311
(photo credit: stock photo)
Each fall, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, most every Jewish deli closes up shop.  Steam trays, usually piled high with fragrant meats, sit cold and empty.  Slicing machines lie dormant, their blades at a standstill. The normal flying circus of roving trays, spattered mustard, and heated kibbitz has been given a day of rest. Now there is only darkness and silence.
By morning, deli owners, their families, and customers are already hungry.  The ritualistic fast, which began after dinner the previous night, is full on. Within minutes of consuming the last bite of brisket, pangs of hunger materialize. The collective kvetching of the children of Israel soon begins, working itself into a wailing gripe that torments even the angels in heaven.
A day without food hardly sounds terrible to most, but to Jews it is a soul wrenching trial.  Picture a day without drink to Britons, a day without TV to Americans, or soccer for Brazilians. Denied our most essential pleasure, we turn upwards for help, asking God, “What have I done to deserve this hunger?  How can I make it up to you?”
And God replies, “Look, you haven’t exactly been saintly this year.  You were greedy (three helpings of chopped liver at the Feingold Bar Mitzvah), you were violent (pushing Mrs. Blumstein aside to get a booth at Corky and Lenny’s), you were dishonest (you didn’t lose your number at Hobby’s takeout counter, you never got one), and you took my name in vain.  How many times did I have to hear ‘I didn’t ask for this goddamn sandwich on goddamn seedless rye’?  You were bad, but now you feel a little hunger and you want me to bring you something to ease it?  Well tough it out and start groveling, because you ain’t getting so much as the watery discharge from the mustard bottle until I see some serious repentance.”
And so the Jews stand and sit, sing and chant, and read aloud from the italicized words in their prayer books.  They strike their heavy hearts with closed fists when naming off sins, listen solemnly to the rabbi’s sermon, stand, sit, stand, sit, stand and sit. At one point the service comes to rest on the Unetanah tokef, a poem vividly describing the Day of Judgment for all humankind: 
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
…and so forth.  Leonard Cohen does it best.
Sitting in his seat, the delicatessen owner begins to think and reflect on his pastrami serving contemporaries.  Thanks to cultural assimilation, changing dietary habits, food trends, and economics, the entire Jewish delicatessen business has been in decline for much of the past half century.  He contemplates his own struggle to keep his small deli alive, the one his father and grandfather ran, the one he told his kids not to go into, and he prays to himself:
On the butcher paper it is written,

And at the register it is sealed.

How many delis shall close and how many shall open,

Who shall reach the end of his days (retiring to Florida with his kids running the shop) and who shall not (his deli bankrupted before his very eyes),

Who shall perish by debt and who by fire codes,

Who by rent and who by diet fads,

Who by kosher meat prices and who by health violations,

Who by hurricane and who by lawsuits,

Who by the younger generation moving away and who by a dying clientele,

Who shall have abundant Passover catering and whose oven shall break,

Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued by the bank,

Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented by kvetching customers,

Who shall be rated in Zagat’s and who shall be called “tired” by critics,

Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.  Or failing that, maybe my son in law will buy me out.
Then the deli owner rises to say kaddish, the prayer of mourning for all those in the congregation with family members who died that year and in all the years previous.  A list of names is read aloud, and the deli owner reflects on all those delis he has seen fall in recent times.  And he prays for their souls, saying in Hebrew Alav Hashalom…Rest in Peace.
Alav Hashalom Rascal House, Wolf’s, Reuben S’, the Brown Derby, Phil Gluckstern's, Arnold Reuben's, and Lou G. Siegel's. 
Alav Hashalom Maven’s, Pastrami n’ Things, Bernstein’s-on-Essex, Pastrami King, Stacks, and the Noshery.
Alav Hashalom Breakers, Dash’s, Coleman’s, and Ulitsky Delicatessen, Koppel's, Lyon’s, Nate’s, Leavitt's, Wolfie’s, Posin’s, Hofberg’s, and Duke Zeibert’s.
Alav Hashalom, Zager’s, Old Tyme Delicatessen, Rosen’s, Segal’s, Halpern’s, Abe’s, Plymouth Avenue Deli, Brochin’s, Solomon’s, Max C’s, Ben’s…and on and on and on for the thousands that were and the hundreds that remain.
Alav Hashalom Jewish delicatessens. Rest in salty Peace. 
David Sax is the author of
Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. He also runs the blog and works as a freelance journalist in New York.