Tucked away in a dark, claustrophobic basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse is not just "the most wonderful terrible restaurant in New York" or a "permanent underground bar mitzvah," as it has been labeled in the past, but a time capsule of old-world Jewish nostalgia.
It's my first experience at Sammy's and I'm sitting at a dirty table in the back corner, nursing a tall glass of Russian vodka and thumbing through a water-stained menu stapled to a manila folder. I'm listening to my uncle—who has been coming here since he was my age—question our server about the restaurant's storied past. He cannot believe that this waiter doesn't remember when Sammy's boycotted the sale of Stolichnaya in the 1980s. This was during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had been denying its Jews exit visas to Israel and the United States.
To my uncle, it doesn't matter that the bottles of Stoli are back at Sammy's—frozen in big, cloudy blocks of ice and poured with a heavy hand—or that our waiter is far too young to recall such trying times for the Jews of Eastern Europe. This is history, part of the legend of Sammy's Roumanian, and we would all do well to remember it.
On the table, there is a maple syrup dispenser full of schmaltz, which our waiter jokingly refers to as "Jewish guacamole" before drizzling the chicken fat over a mixing bowl of chopped liver. There are plates of half-sour pickles, stacks of crispy latkes, and bottles of seltzer and chocolate syrup for "make-your-own" egg creams. Of course, one does not come to Sammy's for the cuisine so much as the ambience: the ancient photographs plastered to the walls; the old man behind the keyboard singing Sinatra songs flavored with Yiddishisms; the ring of customers dancing the Hora to "Hava Nagila." They come, in a word, for the kitsch.
While Sammy's is not the oldest Jewish eatery in New York City—and certainly not the best—its continued allure represents a larger desire among some American Jews to remain connected to the culture of generations past through food. Since I moved to Brooklyn roughly two years ago, dining in these kinds of establishments has allowed me to rediscover my own Jewish identity, despite years of apathy and neglect.
The un-bar mitzvahed product of an interfaith marriage, I have rarely felt Jewish enough even for my own family. But by grabbing a ticket at Katz's Delicatessen, or sliding into a booth at Barney Greengrass, or waiting in line at Russ & Daughters—all of which have been serving Jewish food in New York City for over a century —I am indeed overtaken by a very real sense of history and belonging.
"Jews have come to associate this [food] with Jewishness and with a kind of sense of 'the world that was,'" explains David Kraemer, a professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, and the author of Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages. "These restaurants developed during that first generation, when this massive Jewish immigration was [taking place] in New York. And then most of the next generation moved elsewhere, they moved to the suburbs and even beyond."
It's not like you have to listen to the rabbi's sermon. You go and have a good meal, and you can observe that part of being Jewish.
"The nostalgia was for what was left behind on the Lower East Side, in New York City, which is as far back as their memories went," he continues. "That explains the importance of these restaurants."
Truthfully, I know little about my Jewish ancestry. We are from a part of Eastern Europe where the borders were continually changing—sometimes Russia, sometimes Belarus, and so on. But perhaps more important than our roots in the old country is the fact that we began anew, here, in the five boroughs. My grandmother grew up in the Rockaways and my grandfather was raised in the Bronx. Their parents were part of some 3 million Jews who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe between the late 1800s and mid-1920s in search of a better life.
Though both my grandparents passed away when I was a child, and the majority of my family is not overwhelmingly religious, eating latkes on the Lower East Side with my uncle does make me feel, in some small way, like I am part of a greater cultural heritage and familial tradition, like I am no longer a man without a country.
"The Jewish deli and dairy restaurant, and then the return to those things recently, both emerged at a time when Jews were secularizing," Kraemer says. "The second and third generation [Jews], they already had virtually no Jewish practice, and so the way they maintained their identity was through their connection to this particular cuisine, which is just an alternative way of doing it."
Indeed, Jewishness is not just a set of dogmatic principles taken from the Torah, but a diverse cultural experience open for a wide berth of interpretations. Beyond the obvious importance of the dietary restrictions of kashrut, or kosher law, cooking has always figured prominently in Jewish life. Food is a vital aspect of perhaps every culture, but as Jews have become synonymous with New York City over the decades, so too has their cuisine. Few establishments are more iconically New York than the Jewish deli or dairy restaurant, and even fewer have been able to flourish for so long in such a rapidly transforming metropolis.
"Food is very easy," says Gary Greengrass, the third generation owner of Barney Greengrass, the 107-year-old restaurant and appetizing store on the Upper West Side. "It's not like you have to listen to the rabbi's sermon. You go and have a good meal, and you can observe that part of being Jewish."
"These are the customers," he adds. "Whether [or not they held] onto their Judaism, they held onto this part of their culture, of being a Jew."
Before fixing me a sandwich (whitefish and lox with vegetable cream cheese, onion, and tomato on a toasted bialy) Gary sits me down in a booth to chew the proverbial fat. He tells me about the time the renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz paid for his order by playing a few notes over the phone; how the actor Al Jolson used to fly Barney Greengrass sturgeon into his country club in California. He reads me the note Groucho Marx sent the family after his grandfather died in 1956. Jerry Seinfeld once stood in line for a table for 15 minutes, and then, of course, got fed up and left. Surely there is history and culture here that cannot be recreated at the Starbucks around the corner on Columbus Avenue.
"There's something to be said about our business, that [customers] recognize the specialness of us," he says. "It's an old world. Besides obviously the food, just the whole appearance of the place is old. Some people may not like it; it might be a little weathered to them. But it's just an unbelievable thing that people can move out of the city and 20 years later walk back in and nothing's changed."
Even so, the concept of permanence is practically oxymoronic in Manhattan, and Kraemer predicts that the traditional recipes found at restaurants like Barney Greengrass may finally fall out of vogue in New York City sooner rather than later.
"I don't think they'll survive beyond this generation, which can remember it from their grandparents," he says. "I mean, they may or may not; it depends upon food style. But I don't think they'll retain their power in any particular way, any more than what was once Jewish cuisine in so many places around the world. After those populations moved on, they didn't retain their power."
I, for one, pray this never happens. A delicatessen is a long way from a synagogue or a yeshiva, but this food has offered me something of an introductory course in Jewish identity, the necessary spark to set me on my way. Perhaps this is all just nostalgia, a romanticized vision of days bygone. But for better or worse, these restaurants have become an inexorable part of Jewish-American history, and life in New York City as a whole.
Earlier this year, while hunched over a bowl of matzo ball soup at Russ & Daughters Café—the new restaurant on Orchard Street opened by the legendary, 101-year-old appetizing store—an older Jewish woman and I struck up a conversation at the counter. "Is this the food of your heritage?" she asked me earnestly, extending a friendly hand.
This question has stuck with me for months, and for the longest time I couldn't figure out why. I realize now that it's because the answer finally felt right. "Yes," I said. "This is the food of my culture."