The moment I entered Schwartz’s deli, I felt like I was at home.
It was cold outside, but warm and almost steamy inside this small restaurant which could barely contain its long counter with round swivel stools, well-worn wooden tables surrounded by crowds of people tucking into heaping piles of fragrant meat and freshly made french fries. While I waited to order, I sipped a dark cherry soda and looked up at the vintage, back-lit menu board mounted on the white tiled wall.
Which was when I reminded that I was not, in fact, on familiar ground. I had not taken a time machine back to the ubiquitous Jewish delis of my New York youth . I was in Montreal, at a Charctuerie Hebraique, on the Boulevard Saint-Laurent. My dark cherry soda was not Dr. Brown’s, it was Cott’s Cerise Noir. I was not ordering a pastrami on rye, but a viande fumée (which is in any event not quite the same as pastrami), and my dill pickle had become a classy cornichon .
Montreal has a reasonably large Jewish community, and Jewish migrants arrived here at roughly the same time in history as they did to northeastern cities the United States. But culture is refined through the prism of place, and Jewish traditions, culinary and otherwise, evolved into something different here.
As I sampled my viande fume, an odd, and not unpleasurable feeling settled over me. Everything felt familiar — nope, I don’t like my Jewish meats extra-fatty – interspersed with jolts of difference – how did this meat get its amazing smokey flavor?
I’d felt this blend of familiar and exotic in my travels before – while touring synagogues in Kerala, India and in Barbados, for instance. I’d even started a file called “There are Jews Here?” Now, both of these places are even more different from New York than Montreal is – but since Jewish food traditions apparently hadn’t filtered into the restaurant scene in India or Barbados, and because synagogue isn’t a big part of my life and food is, my Montreal experience struck me with greater force. It was something I could taste.
Since I’m not at all religious, why do I find evidence of Jewishness far from home so compelling? Why, also, do other writers? To name just one example, The Wall Street Journal, ran a story about Jamaica’s attempts to capitalize on its Jewish history. In Slate, Jack Shafer collects a number of stories of this sort, and calls the genre “Jewspotting”. (He also does a good job of laying out what these stories miss – and by extension, makes a case for why such stories are probably not worth writing.)
Here’s my theory. My family came to the United States from Europe at various times, my mother’s family after the Holocaust, my father’s fleeing Russian pogroms a couple of generations before.
From babushkas to Broadway — that’s the dominant narrative in modern American Jewish history. As a kid, I learned stories from biblical times and then a jump to the minor-key music playing in European shtetls and a cut to the doom-filled moments of the Holocaust, followed by immigration to the U.S. and the founding of Israel.
(I will grant that I might have missed something since I spent most of my time in Hebrew School looking for places to hide and eat cookies.)
I’d never heard much about what happened in earlier Jewish history, after the Spanish Inquisition – which would have featured the Caribbean and Central and South America. I learned very little about Jewish life Asia and Africa, full stop. But my maternal roots do stretch back into Spain, so when I’ve come across evidence of Jewish life in these seemingly out of the way places, it reminds me that my family history could have taken another turn.
I can picture this slightly when I’m touring in a synagogue in Kerala or the Caribbean, but in vivid detail in a deli. For a moment, I can imagine routinely ordering viande fumée avec cornichon, s’il vous plait — in my smooth mother tongue.