The tragedy of Erik Greenberg Anjou’s delightful documentary “Deli Man” is this: You can’t, after 90 minutes of torment watching some of the most delicious-looking Jewish deli food prepared and served in North America, leave the North Park Theatre and go next door for a feast. Nor can you go down the street to assuage your inflamed hunger either.
You could – sort of – once upon a time. Buffalo’s legendary Jewish deli Mastman’s was only three blocks away on the corner of Hertel and Colvin avenues. So was Risa’s (now on Delaware Avenue and closing at 3:30 p.m.). Right next door to the North Park used to be where Stumpy’s – the forerunner of Risa’s – kept Jewish deli cuisine alive. It’s now the estimable Bertha’s diner serving only breakfast and lunch (ahhh, chicken and waffles), but none of the glorious kosher deli food you see in orgiastic profusion throughout “Deli Man.”
As this is being written, word comes of the permanent closing of a major Jewish deli – Nosh Cafe in Williamsville. And that’s what the movie is about.
“Deli Man” is two things: an elegaic history of the vanishing Jewish delicatessen in America and a biography of one slightly mad deli proprietor named David “Ziggy” Gruber who has a deli in Houston you dearly wish you could go to after seeing the film. His place is called Kenny and Ziggy’s. (We never meet or hear about Kenny; there’s a story there no doubt.)
We hear about Gruber’s life, from his early, completely anomalous childhood love and attachment to his deli-master grandfather in New York to the film’s satisfying ending, as we see our nice Jewish boy marry both the woman of his dreams and the Eastern European tradition whose food he has devoted his passionate life to.
And that’s the point of these deli men we meet throughout “Deli Man.” They’re all a little nuts about what they do – sweetly, wonderfully, beautifully nuts in their passion to present an Eastern European culinary tradition completely dependent on their passion.
Dennis Howard, proprietor of New York’s legendary Carnegie Delicatessen, casually reports “you either have to divorce your wife or divorce your deli.”
David Sax, author of the marvelous book (and website) “Save the Deli” says, “It’s not a respectable, comfortable middle class profession … only meshugenahs [crazy people] go into it.”
Lifelong showbiz deli fans are front and center to get nostalgic and pledge their fidelity – Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Fyvush Finkel. Great stories are told about deli life – comedian Henny Youngman, for instance, being such a cheapskate, says comedian Freddie Roman, that he “never paid a penny” for his food. He just told the waiter two jokes and thought that was “ample pay” for his lunch.
These are people who will tell you that “schmaltz [chicken fat] is the WD-40 of the kosher kitchen … It’s the K-Y of the Jewish marriage.” They’re people who “want to save the world one sandwich at a time.”
The ethic they live by, says one, is to offer “great food, prepare it well and be a mensch.”
Which is what we see them all do, above all Ziggy, who is shown to be a schmoozer, a charmer and kibitzer with his employees but also more than a little bit of a fanatic boss who wants to give his customers stuff where you can, as he says, practically taste the diaspora.
So, as they talk and as the filmmaker tells the cuisine’s history (we learn we can thank Romania for pastrami), you watch these guys slice fish, make mountainous pastrami sandwiches, braid challah dough, ladle chicken soup for the matzo balls, chop the liver, etc.
They crack jokes, declare their unhinged love of what they do (you’ll believe it), and when the movie is finished you’ll practically plotz because there will – literally – be no place in the city at night where you can buy such heavenly stuff afterward.
You’ll just have to wait for a couple of places to open in the morning.
As I said, torment. Sweet, sweet torment.
Starring: David “Ziggy” Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Larry King, Fyvush Finkel
Director: Erik Greenberg Anjou
Running time: 90 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for language.
The Lowdown: The history of kosher delicatessens in America and the passion of one Jewish deli proprietor in Houston.