NEW YORK -- Who knew? From such a place as the Second Avenue Deli, which is maybe this city's premiere kosher delicatessen over the last half-century or so, who knew that one day a vision of the American melting pot would arrive?
Mention the Second Avenue Deli to several generations of New Yorkers and it conjures up fading images of the Lower East Side in all its first-generation immigrant hustle and bustle, some of which is devoutly to be missed and some of which you say, "Feh! Good riddance," such as entire families spending nights sewing garments in cold-water tenement flats to make a few extra pennies.
Also, though, not to be denied, are stories handed down in families across the years: About the aroma of kreplach and kishke filling the air, about the pushcart peddlers around Hester and Delancey streets offering bargains that evoke an entire lexicon of Yiddish humor.
"How much for that thread?" asks a lady of a street peddler, in a classic story.
"For this?" says the peddler. "A penny."
"A penny?" says the lady. "Too much."
"Too much?" says the peddler. "So make me an offer."
The Second Avenue Deli has always seemed to hold onto that sense of edginess, that nervous energy which arrived with bits of chicken fat hanging from its fingers. Even now, two mornings ago, a Sunday, there are yarmulkes atop heads at various tables, and verbal inflections that seem to arrive across generations:
"So, how are things in the hat business?" a waiter asks, leaning over a seated customer he seems to know pretty well. But the customer, glancing up from a bowl of matzo ball soup, looks a little confused at the inquiry. He appears to be maybe 2 years old. But he's got this pencil in one hand with a hat on the end of it, so the waiter finds it a vehicle to open a little conversation about an entire industry, and maybe the 2-year-old's father has something to add.
There is an intimacy here originally based on perceived exclusion which all minorities feel: The world at large has no use for them, so they'll make their own little world. It happens everywhere. From this, we established neighborhoods called Little Italy, or Chinatown. America's not a melting pot, it's a mosaic, in which we venture out of our little communities when necessary and venture back for comfort.
The places like the Second Avenue Deli became not merely a kosher restaurant, but a place for Jews to argue the world with each other, knowing everyone in the place came, if not from a common mind-set, at least from a common sense of being an outsider.
"The very menu of the Second Avenue Deli," the Jewish comic Sam Levenson once said, "is a remembrance of things past, of a Jewish way of life all but destroyed by upward mobility."
Thus we arrive at today's Second Avenue Deli: What happens to a culture when so many who practice that culture have fled for suburbia? On Lombard Street in Baltimore, you find yourself asking the same question. You eat at a place like Attman's, for example, and right away Seymour Attman, proprietor for the last half-century, is visiting your table to kibitz. But so many of those -- who once visited Lombard Street have long since moved to the counties. To sense the way things used to be, you have to consult old photographs on Seymour Attman's walls.
So it is here, at the Second Avenue Deli. There's an overlay of Yiddishkeit, but also this: Behind a counter, there's an Asian waiter, who's singing loudly and with passion. He's singing, "American Pie." Why not, it's his America, too. There's a waitress who's from Scotland. She's wearing a Santa Claus pin on her lapel. No, you can't get a glass of milk with your corned beef on rye, she tells a customer, and goes on to explain that the combination breaks the various kosher dietary laws.
In another time, the mere thought would have invited much wringing of hands. Today, a waitress who wears a Santa Claus pin shrugs it off good-naturedly. If you want, she says, you can order cream cheese on a bagel, though it's nondairy cream cheese.
The Second Avenue Deli provides a new function now. Today's immigrants arrive from places like Long Island, or even Baltimore, looking not merely for a piece of kishke, but a whiff of yesterday. Even more of it has vanished than was expected.