This mouthwatering new exhibit at New-York Historical Society celebrates Jewish deli culture

Warning: You’re bound to feel hungry after exploring this new exhibit at New-York Historical Society Museum & Library all about Jewish deli culture. Pastrami sandwiches, knishes, bagels, pickles and babka all get their due in “I’ll Have What She’s Having: The Jewish Deli,” a show that’s both delightfully fun and deeply meaningful.  

The exhibition examines the important role of the Jewish deli through the immigrant experience, during World War II, as a refuge for Holocaust survivors, in pop culture and today. It’s on view November 11 through April 2, 2023 at the historical society on the Upper West Side.

Here are seven things not to miss. 

James Reuel Smith (1852-1935), Louis Klepper Confectionary and Sausage Manufacturers, 45 E. Houston Street, New York, ca. 1900.
Photograph: Courtesy of Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society / James Reuel Smith (1852-1935), Louis Klepper Confectionary and Sausage Manufacturers, 45 E. Houston Street, New York, ca. 1900.

1. A historical approach

It’s the New-York Historical Society, after all, so history underpins every part of the exhibit. The story begins between 1880 and 1924 when more than 2 million Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe made new homes in the United States. Many immigrants supported their families by selling food on city streets often from wooden pushcarts and barrels. Some of those blossomed into delicatessens, which began serving foods like pickles, knishes, gefilte fish, borscht and rugelach. 

“The Jewish deli brings together foods from a huge geographic stretch under one roof in the immigrant context,” said Lara Rabinovitch, a renowned writer, producer and specialist in immigrant food cultures who co-curated the exhibit for Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles where it debuted.

Over the years, the deli served as a lifeline for many of the 4,000 Holocaust survivors and refugees who came to the U.S. The deli provided a livelihood, as well as a space for community. 

By the time the late 20th century arrived, as some delis closed, other artisanal deli options arrived often reimagining the classic menu items. 

“Deli is a story of tradition and change, adaptation and resilience,” Rabinovitch said.

A sign reading "send a salami to your boy in the army."
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

2. The intel on ‘send a salami to your boy in the Army’ 

To this day, Katz’s Deli displays a sign reading “Send a salami to your boy in the Army,” and if you ever wondered about the history of that, here’s the background. Delis and kosher butcher shops heavily promoted the idea of sending kosher hard salami to Jewish service members during WWII.

The exhibit even includes a letter from a service member who enjoyed the gift from home. In April 1944, he wrote, “I had some tasty Jewish dishes just like home. My mother sent me a salami. … the taste still remains in my mouth.” 

A neon sign reading "Billy's Restaurant Deli"
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

3. Neon signs and other vintage relics

A pink neon sign, an antique cigarette machine, a vintage clock, old menus and ads fill the space, each one transportive to another era.

“This is a trip down memory lane for sure,” Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical Society, said. “A testament to the power of food to evoke memories.”

A digital display where you can make a virtual sandwich.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

4. A chance to play with your food

From a cool digital interactive where you can build your own deli sandwich to a collection of food-themed props, you can have some fun with food.  

“Food is a wonderful vehicle for cultural exchange,” co-curator Laura Mart said. “The deli is a community based on food where everybody is welcome.”

A pink dress and a blue dress.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

5. Costumes from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

The deli plays a big role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The exhibit features a dress worn by Midge Maisel during a scene at the Stage Deli, as well as a costume worn by Verla, a waitress at the deli. During the show’s scenes at the deli, Midge connects with booking agents while classic deli dishes like the Reuben sandwich, matzo ball soup and knishes get some screen time, too.

A miniature version of Katz's Delicatessen.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out

6. A miniature Katz’s Deli

A teeny tiny version of Katz’s Delicatessen depicts the deli just after the hubbub of another busy day. Peek inside to see a “Closed” sign, tables ready for busing and a broom in the entrance. Brooklyn-born miniature artist Alan Wolfson created the scene of the beloved Lower East Side deli.

“We’re part of such a specific food tradition but something that is universally eaten and enjoyed,” Katz’s Deli owner Jake Dell said.

Jake Dell from Katz's Deli with the iconic "When Harry Met Sally" scene.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan / Time Out | Jake Dell from Katz’s Deli with the iconic “When Harry Met Sally” scene.

7. Pop culture references

From “Mad Men” to “Seinfeld,” the Jewish deli has made a popular setting on screen. But there’s perhaps no scene more iconic than the hilarious moment in Katz’s Deli during When Harry Met Sally about “faking it.” Meg Ryan’s, ahem, performance is so captivating, the whole deli falls into silence and a woman at the next table says, “I’ll have what she’s having,” inspiring the title for the show. That clip and several other deli scenes play on a loop at the exhibit, and it’s impossible not to stop and watch.

Why does the deli feature so prominently on the screen? 

Mart believes it’s because scenes in a deli can explore Jewish culture in a non-religious way. “It’s often been said the deli is a secular synagogue,” she said.

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