By Spencer Ackerman
You may have heard that several of the Jewish contributors to this blog who criticized Israel’s bloody and counterproductive invasion and bombardment of Gaza are hostile to their “inheritance” as both Americans and as Jews. Go know. I’ll speak for myself here for a moment: one “inheritance” I most certainly am hostile to is a fraught pseudo-inheritance. That is, the idea that Middle Eastern food — your falafel, your hummus, your shawarma — is in any sense Jewish food.
Jews, and lots of them, eat this stuff, and it’s delicious. But it’s the food of the Arabs — Sephardim are a complex case that, like a real early-21st century Diaspora Ashkenazic would say, I’ll bracket for now — not the Jews. If there’s no conceivable schmaltz involved, we should say thanks to our Arab brethern for creating it, and it’s tasty and all, but we’ll be happy to give that back to you during final-status negotiations. Our culinary traditions are what warmed our ancestors’ insides in the Pale of Settlement: boiled or pickled root vegetables, fatty or leathery meat, deliciously leavened bread. No one in the camps cried out for baba ghanoush.
My problem is that there aren’t enough proper Jewish delis in this city. (Ben Adler — with whom, along with Mandy Simon, I ate at a fucking Benihana’s last night — will back me up here.) Morty’s is by far the best I’ve found, and conveniently near where my girlfriend lives, but that doesn’t really help during lunchtime in Dupont Circle. Loeb’s, on 15th and I, sort of sucks. Today, however, I found nourishment for my noonday Yiddishkeit: Eli’s Restaurant on 20th, just south of N St NW, a proper New York-style deli, owned by Iranian Jews, presumably the sort that Amir Taheri lied about facing classically-antisemetic discrimination.
I tried out Eli’s after a colleague mentioned that friends of her friends own the place, and walked the frigid 15 blocks from my office — it’s cold in the district today — dreaming of an overstuffed sandwich. Eli’s really looks the part: it’s dismal, like a real Jewish deli ought to be, as if the interior is about to drone endlessly about its health problems. Standing around me was a sight I have rarely seen in this city, even working in the Jew-run media: fat dudes with long beards, yarmulkes, and bad eyesight. Back hair, presumably. Our people. I felt ashamed of my tattoos.
Without getting into an argument with the readership here, I figured I’d test Eli’s by ordering something that every self-respecting deli should be able to pull off: a hot corned beef sandwich on marble rye, cole slaw and a pickle. I’m sort of kicking myself over not getting a knish, but it was the first date, and I makes sense to ease into these things. Testing Eli’s mettle, I didn’t specify what I wanted on my sandwich. What would appear when I peeled off the bread?
A quick walk back to the office later, I discovered: nothing. Nothing between my four fingers of corned beef and glorious marble. Inside my plastic bag were a few packets of Goulden’s Spicy Brown and a solitary container of mayonnaise. That’s how a Jew does it, I thought — a sop to the prospective bad taste of the customer, but with firm, clear indications that you are to put mustard, and only mustard, on this magnificent creation. Good signs.
The sandwich was great. A bit leathery, ensuring the besogged bread in your mouth will stick a bit to your teeth, but with just enough remnant fat to ensure that the integrity of the sandwich stands tall. The pickle — oh god, the pickle. A cold, crisp, crunchy sour pickle, like the kind your sandwich wants you to enjoy, not this limp goyische crap that acts as an afterthought at every heat-lamp-scalded lunch spot in the city. The cole slaw, unfortunately, was pretty bad, an undistinguished lump of mayonnaise interrupted by cabbage and even — horror — a bit of iceberg. So you know, nothing’s perfect. What do you want for $10?
It made me think of my Israeli cousins — tall where I’m short, cleareyed where I’m bespectacled, declarative where I’m mealymouthed, decisive where I’m equivocal, brave where I’m cowardly. Those poor bastards are eating the food prepared by other people’s grandmothers. The diaspora, like everything beautiful in this wretched world, is problematic. But its food has a heritage that I can claim, an inheritance that I can embrace. Surely a step toward peace — if I can paraphrase the Holy Qu’ran for a second — requires Ma’rifah, or self-knowledge. If we’re going to appropriate aspects of Islamic culture, let’s take that one, as well.