Dishing Up Deli History at the Skirball Cultural Center

Being from the west coast and growing up in the 90s, the idea of the Jewish deli wasn’t a big thing around me. It wasn’t until I started watching and paying attention to television shows and films set in New York that I really began to understand this cultural phenomenon. With the rise of foodie culture, and the popularity of the show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Jewish deli, once a major staple in the 1950s and 60s, has seen a revival, so much so that Los Angeles’ Skirtball Cultural Center decided to do a whole exhibit about it.

Exterior of the Skirball Cultural Center. A post-modern style building with a wide staircase leading up to walls of glass.

Myself standing in front of the banner advertising the Jewish Deli exhibit.

Neon letters read "I'll Have What She's Having" on a blue wall, below white letters read "The Jewish Deli"

While small, the exhibit still packs in a lot of history, from the immigration waves into New York, the development of the deli, and its migration to the west coast, as well as its presence in popular culture, such as the infamous scene in When Harry Met Sally, which is where the title of the exhibit gets its name from.

One thing the exhibit makes very clear is that the Jewish deli is a product of immigration, and, in many ways, is the epitome of the American Dream. From 1880 to 1924 over two million Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States. Many establishing delicatessens, creating cultural centers for those in the Jewish community and introducing new foods to other Americans. Many of the items that we associate with the Jewish deli are not directly from Europe, but are in fact they products of the Jewish community adapting to find foods that fit within the Kosher dietary needs of their religion.

By the mid-1930s, New York City had over 5,000 Jewish delis, including the famed Reuben’s, which operated from 1908 to 2001, with many celebrity customers. Meanwhile, Canter’s in Los Angeles catered to celebrities as well, along with its adjoining bar, the Kibitz Room, becoming a food haven for the Jewish community and rock ‘n roll royalty.

A wall features a photograph of a Jewish deli in New York.

A wall features an enlarged copy of "The Fair Price List" showing various items and their suggested price. Displayed on the wall are magazines for deli owners and a photograph from a deli owner meeting.

Neon sign for Hebrew National. Pink neon reads "Hebrew National" below blue neon Hebrew script inside a yellow neon oval.

A large display showing the various foods offered at Jewish delis.

Menu from Reuben's in New York, from 1952.

Glassman's Deli & Market apron, from the 1970s.

1956 Canter's menu.

Canter's cash register and pink waitress uniform. Displayed on the wall behind is the uniform worn by Kaye Colman at Nate 'n Al's from the 1990s.

2nd Avenue Deli apron on a mannequin"

Lighted plastic sign reading "Zion Kosher Deli, New York" and a neon clock from I. Goldberg & Son's deli.

A slip of paper which features the title of the exhibit at the top, and printed "Write down your favorite deli food or memory on an order ticket and pin it up on the order line!" with pencil hand writing below reading "My friend scattered her father's ashes (per his instructions) under his favorite table at Junior's in Westwood.

Neon sign reading "Billy's" in blue script and "Restaurant Deli" in pink letters below.

Black satin jacket for Factor's on a mannequin.

Myself standing in front of a large neon sign reading "Delicatessen Kosher" in blue letters, a large red arrow points downward with a neon gold Jewish star and "Meats" in white neon letters inside the arrow.

Several items on display belonged to businesses started by Holocaust survivors, such as Drexler’s Deli of North Hollywood and 2nd Avenue Delicatessen and Restaurant in New York City. Factor’s Famous Deli would later go on to be owned by Lili and Herman Markowiz. Lili was a Holocaust survivor, married Herman and later moved to LA, purchasing Factor’s from the original owners in 1969. While 2nd Avenue and Factor’s are still operating, Drexler’s closed after nearly 40 years of operation.

Two of my favorite museums also played a role in this unique exhibit. The Hebrew National and Billy’s neon signs are on loan from the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, which I highly recommend visiting, you can check out our visit, as well as their unique neon cruises here. The third neon sign, reading “Delicatessen Kosher Meats” is from Drexler’s, and on loan from Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, another fantastic museum I suggest you check out! You can take a look at our visits here.

Myself standing in front of the banner advertising the Jewish Deli exhibit.

Learn about the world of the Jewish deli (through September 4 of this year) at Skirball Cultural Center is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles. After the exhibit leaves Skirball it will head to New York, where it will be on display at the New York Historical Society (November 11, 2022 – April 2, 2023) followed by the Holocaust Museum in Houston (May 4, 2023 – August 13, 2023), and lastly the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie (October 22, 2023 – April 14, 2024).

For more details on the Skirball Cultural Center including hours and tickets, please visit their website.

In Southern California and now hungry for a bite at a Jewish deli? I recommend Canter’s in Los Angeles, and Sherman’s in Palm Springs.

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