Delicious ‘Deli Man’ is the whole schmear

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The documentary “Deli Man” opens with a view of the alley behind a New York delicatessen. Lively klezmer music plays as the deli man takes delivery of produce and meats before the shop opens for the day. “This isn’t a glamorous business,” he tells us. “It’s how we make a living.”

Then words appear on screen: “In 1931, there were thousands of Jewish delis in the five boroughs of New York. Today, there are 150 Jewish delis in all of North America.”

How could this be? As a devotee of delicatessens, this writer mourned the closing of any of St. Louis’ too-few Jewish delis. Who knew this was happening around the country, even in New York?

Although “Deli Man” eventually delves into the reason for that change, the documentary is actually a celebration of the Jewish deli. Director Erik Greenberg Anjou takes us on an affectionate, mouthwatering tour of the history of the delicatessen, visits two classic New York delis, and looks at the food and the families who cook it. If this charming film does not make you hungry, check your pulse. 


The documentary features some famous fans of delis such as talk show host Larry King and comedian Jerry Stiller, who talk about what makes a great deli. 

“Deli Man” delves into the deli’s role in the Jewish immigrant experience, Jewish-American life and even American culture in general. It makes use of a cast of deli experts, archival footage, visits to operating delis and, of course, interviews with “deli men,” as the owners call themselves. 

Some of this history might come as a surprise, which is part of the enjoyment of this well-made, entertaining and informative film, which tells the stories of famous delis, past and present, such as Katz’s, 2nd Ave Deli, the Carnegie and the Stage in New York, as well as delis in places including Toronto, California and Texas. 

Experts on the history of delicatessens as well as people who grew up around or in them talk about what makes a good deli. 

“The key to being a good deli is simple,” one deli man says. “Buy good food, cook it well and, above all, be a mensch.”  

In a deli, the personality of the owner matters as much as the food, which is traditional Jewish comfort food: pastrami, chicken soup, blintzes, kugel and foods made with plenty of schmaltz. Eating healthy isn’t the highest priority.

Proprietors are second-, third-, even fourth-generation deli men. Some are mom and pop businesses, some are run by brothers. 

At the center of this documentary is David “Ziggy” Gruber, a youngish, grumpy but likeable third-generation deli man with a surprising story. Ziggy’s brother tells us that “since (Ziggy) was a little kid, he has been like an 80-year-old Jew. He came out in the wrong generation, because he sounded like he got off the boat in the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, and that was it.” 

As a kid, Ziggy’s best friends were his grandparents, who had fled Hungary and Czechoslovakia. When they spoke Yiddish, Ziggy joined in. 

“I liked speaking the old language because I felt like I was in this club,” he says,  describing his deli as a bubble. “The rest of the world goes by, but you are in this bubble, the modern Issac Bashevis Singer. That’s the way I live.” 

Maintaining those cultural traditions are part of Ziggy’s aim in his delicatessen, but good food comes first. Footage of his deli’s giant pastrami sandwiches and of Ziggy preparing other classic treats in his kitchen help make the delicious point.

Clearly, there are those dedicated to keeping the Jewish deli alive. One bright spot is that on the film’s map of Jewish delis still remaining, there is a dot for St. Louis. 

This warmhearted, delicious documentary might prompt you to cherish — and frequent — Jewish delis more, with a pastrami on rye, a knish and a can of Dr. Brown’s cream soda.