How Katz’s Delicatessen became a New York icon

—Ted Merwin

When I was growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, school field trips meant being schlepped on a bus to the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue, to a multimedia film called the “New York Experience,” in which a kaleidoscopic montage of New Yorkers of different stripes celebrated both past and present life in Gotham. Nowadays, all one needs to do to get a sense of the real New York is to pay a visit to Katz’s Deli on Houston Street, where a prickly, pickle-y, briny Yiddish gestalt holds imperious sway in a churning sea of multi-racial, multi-ethnic customers and counter people.

And so “The Ur-Deli,” Jordan Weissman’s recent piece in Slate on how Katz’s stays afloat despite charging $20 for a pastrami sandwich, while it ably limns the economic factors that have raised the price of beef (even beef of the non-kosher variety, which Katz’s retails), only hints at what makes Katz’s emblematic of Jewish life in New York. Katz’s is what the peerless French Jewish scholar Pierre Nora would call a lieu de memoire, a place in which Jewish memory itself is staged and constructed—a place in which every neon sign seems to light up a kind of historic Jewish body electric for the benefit of all New Yorkers. Indeed, there is something Whitmanesque about Katz’s, peopled, often around the clock, by a jostling crowd of cab drivers, tourists, politicians and businesspeople. (Of course, if Whitman had ever been to Katz’s, he would have called his magnum opus “Slices of Pastrami” instead of “Leaves of Grass.”)

We may never know which Jewish delicatessen was the first to open in New York; the deli–from the Latin word delicatus, meaning anything that was alluring, enticing, or voluptuous–morphed in successive stages out of the gourmet take-out stores of Europe, only gradually sprouting tables at the turn of the twentieth century and becoming a particularly relaxed and raucous type of restaurant that brought together Jewish immigrants from different Eastern European nations and enabled them to begin to form a collective American Jewish identity while fressing on smoked and pickled meats, crunchy cucumbers, and spongy, slightly sour, seeded rye bread.

But Katz’s, which opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers (the brothers were bought out by Willy Katz in 1910, at the peak of Jewish immigration), was certainly one of the pioneers. Its survival is remarkable, given how many similar establishments went in and out of business on the Lower East Side in those years, and how challenging the restaurant business remains to this day. It has profited hugely from the tens of thousands of visitors who descend on the Lower East Side each year seeking to experience, or at the very least to imagine, what life was like in New York more than a century ago.

True, what cemented Katz’s in the popular imagination is its role in the 1989 Rob Reiner comedy film, When Harry Met Sally, in which Meg Ryan’s vociferous “orgasm” articulated the whole “let it all hang out” ethos of Jewish culture (one summed up, perhaps, equally well by the pendulous salamis hanging behind the deli counter). It was—as another non-Jew, Henry James, called it in his (admittedly highly prejudiced) 1905 survey of the Lower East Side—a “Jewry that had burst all bounds.” This is what Katz’s sells: the celebration of excess, the drive to overturn limits, the claiming of one’s irrepressible due.

Katz’s may thus be not just the most “New York” restaurant there is, but the most American and most democratic one. A flash mob last year recreated the notorious scene from the Reiner film in Katz’s with dozens of (seemingly) non-Jewish women simultaneously reaching “climax” in unison, thrusting the deli even more to the pinnacle of American popular culture. As Katz’s has become ever more a destination restaurant, the little carnival ticket that one uses to purchase one’s food gains entry not just to an eatery but to a buoyant, beguiling and boisterous show. For such a bonanza, $20 seems like a true Lower East Side bargain.

Ted Merwin is Associate Professor of Religion & Judaic Studies and Director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He is the author of Pastrami on Rye: A History of the Jewish Deli (forthcoming in 2015 from NYU Press).

NYU Press wins two National Jewish Book Awards

NYU Press is thrilled to announce that two of our books are among the winners of the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards, selected by the Jewish Book Council!

Congratulations to Hasia Diner and Gennady Estraikh, editors of 1929, and Melissa R. Klapper, author of Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace!

Book Title

WINNER in the Anthologies & Collections category

1929: Mapping the Jewish World
Hasia R. Diner and Gennady Estraikh, eds.
NYU Press

Book Title

WINNER in the Women’s Studies category

Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940
Melissa R. Klapper
NYU Press

The annual National Jewish Book Awards are presented by the Jewish Book Council. Read the complete list of this year’s winners and finalists here.

City of Promises: A 2013 Top 25 Outstanding Academic Title

NYU Press is proud to announce that City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, edited by Deborah Dash Moore, was selected as one of the year’s top 25 academic books by Choice, in a special preview to the publication’s annual Outstanding Academic Titles list.

Honoring the best in scholarly publishing, Choice‘s Outstanding Academic Titles list is widely recognized in the academic community for its sweeping coverage of the most significant scholarly titles reviewed each year.

Don’t miss the full list in the January 2014 issue of Choice, which features 663 exceptional titles (and may include additional NYU Press books!).

+ Save 50% on the award-winning three volume set by entering code WHITE13 at check-out on our website! Offer expires on January 2, 2014.

Podcast: Josh Lambert on Jews and obscenity in America

In Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture, Josh Lambert navigates us through American Jews’ participation in the production, distribution, and defense of sexually explicit literature, plays and comedy.

From Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller to Curb Your Enthusiasm and FCC v. Fox, Lambert explores the central role Jews have played in the struggles over obscenity and censorship in the modern United States. Below, listen to a conversation with Lambert on a recent episode of Vox Tablet’s podcast. 

[Warning: This conversation contains explicit language and content.]

What’s new about Hanukkah?

—Dianne Ashton

[This post originally appeared on the Jewish Book Council blog on November 26, 2013.]

This year, Jewish Americans will participate in an extraordinary Hanukkah celebration—they will light the first menorah candle on the evening before Thanksgiving. This has never happened before, but we came very close to it in 1888. Then, the first Hanukkah light and Thanksgiving occurred on the same day. That year, the national Jewish newspaper, the American Hebrew, dedicated its November 30 issue to the “twofold feasts.” The issue was as much “a tribute to the historic significance of Chanuka” as to “the traditions entwined about Thanksgiving Day.” The editors hoped readers would find the newspaper to be “a stimulus to the joyousness and gladness upon the observance of both.” In previous years they had described Hanukkah as a festival to thank God for the Maccabean victory, and, seeing both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as occasions for giving thanks to God, they easily encouraged American Jews to enthusiastically celebrate both events.

But most of the time, as we know, Hanukkah occurs at a time closer to Christmas. Most years, the American Hebrew’s Hanukkah message urged its readers not to join their fellow Americans in the national festivities because it was the celebration of Jesus’ birth that enchanted their gentile neighbors. Instead, that newspaper echoed the December messages of most other Jewish publications. Jewish newspapers, synagogue bulletins, women’s and men’s club letters, rabbinical sermons, and the urgings of educators and self-styled community leaders alike urged America’s Jews to make their Hanukkah celebrations as festive as possible.

Again and again, in the years since that early American Hebrew message, American Jews wove Hanukkah’s story into their own contemporary lives in ways that reflected their changing circumstances. Those retellings kept Hanukkah’s meaning alive and relevant. They turned the simple holiday rite into an event which, like other well-loved Jewish festivals, drew families together in their own homes where they could tailor the celebration to fit their own tastes in food and décor, and to reflect their own ideas about the holiday’s significance. They could indulge their children, and be joyous.

Will we ever celebrate Hanukkah and Thanksgiving together this way again? Almost. In 2070 Thanksgiving will fall on November 27th and Hanukkah will begin the following day. In 2165, we will light the first Hanukkah candle on November 28—Thanksgiving Day. But for Hanukkah’s first light to occur the evening before Thanksgiving, as it does this year, is truly an anomaly we won’t see again.

Dianne Ashton is Professor of Religion Studies and former director of the American Studies program at Rowan University. Her most recent book, Hanukkah in America: A History (NYU Press, 2013) is now available. (Read more about the book in this review from the Jewish Book Council.)

Why Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will never again coincide

—Joel Hoffman

[This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post on November 24, 2013.] 

This month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will overlap for a joint celebration that will never happen again. Here’s why. (Try to keep up with me on this.)

Thanksgiving is the 4th Thursday in November. Hanukkah is the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

The 4th Thursday in November can range from the 22nd to the 28th. If the 29th is a Thursday, then so is the 1st, so the 29th would be the fifth Thursday, not the fourth. And if the 21st is a Thursday, then it’s only the third Thursday. On average, then, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th about every seven years. It will fall on the 28th this year, then again in 2019, 2024, 2030, and 2041, or four times in the next 28 years. (It’s not exactly every seven years because leap days throw things off a little.)

The Jewish month of Kislev can currently start as early as November 3 or as late as December 2, which means that the first day of Hanukkah can come as early as November 28 or as late as December 27.

The reason for the broad range of possible dates is that the Jewish calendar is lunar-solar. The months are based on the cycles of the moon. But the calendar changes the lengths of those months, and even how many months are in a year, to make sure that Passover always falls in the spring. This complex system—put in place by Rav Shmuel in the first half of the first millennium CE—ensures that the Jewish date and the secular date match up every 19 years. (By contrast, the Muslim calendar is purely lunar, which is why Ramadan can fall during any time of the solar year. The Christian religious calendar is almost entirely solar, but Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox [around March 21], a calculation that involves the moon as well as the sun.)

Because of this Jewish 19-year cycle, 19 years from now, in the year 2032, Hanukkah will again fall on November 28. But Thanksgiving in that year falls three days earlier, on the 25th.

On average, we would expect the 19-year Jewish cycle and the 7-year Thanksgiving-on-November-28 cycle to coincide about every 19×7 years, which is to say, approximately every 133 years. And they sort of do.

One-hundred and fifty-two years ago, in 1861, the first day of Hanukkah and the 4th Thursday in November were both on November 28th. But there was no Thanksgiving back then.

In 152 years from now, in 2165, Thanksgiving falls on the 28th, and you’d expect Hanukkah also to fall on the 28th, but it doesn’t.

If you’ve been paying attention (and if you haven’t given up yet), you may have noticed that I said “currently” when I explained when Kislev can begin. Remember Shmuel, who fixed the details of our current Jewish calendar in the first place? He, like everyone else back then, though that the year was 365.25 days long. This is why we have a usual year of 365 days, but every 4th year we add a leap day in February to make 366.

But Shmuel—again, like everyone else—was off by a little more than 11 minutes. The year is not quite 365.25 days long, but, rather, closer to only 365.2425 days, or about 11 minutes shorter than 365.25 days. For a long time no one noticed those 11 minutes. For a longer time no one cared. But by the time of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, those 11 minutes per year—or about 3 days per 400 years—had added up to about ten days.

This meant that March 21, which had once been the approximate date of the spring equinox, was now 10 days later than the spring equinox. Or, conversely, the spring equinox fell on March 11. This was a problem for the Church, because the springtime holiday of Easter was shifting further and further away from spring.

Pope Gregory fixed the problem in two ways. First, he lopped off 10 days from the calendar. For Catholics, the day after Thursday, October 4, 1582 was Friday, October 15, 1582. Secondly, he eliminated 3 leap days every four hundred years. He decreed that years divisible by 4 would still be leap years, unless they were also divisible by 100 but not by 400. So 1600 would be a leap year (divisible by 100 and by 400), but 1700 would not (divisible by 100 and not by 400). This became known as the Gregorian calendar, and it gradually spread through the Christian world.

In 1752, the British empire adopted the Gregorian calendar, making the day after Wednesday, September 2, 1752 not the 3rd but rather the 14th. (An 11th day was necessary because 1700 was not a leap year in the Gregorian calendar.)

The Jews, of course, didn’t give a damn what Pope Gregory said. They kept using the Shmuelian calendar for their calculations. The Shmuelian calendar and the Gregorian calendar have been diverging at the rate of about 11 minutes a year, or 3 days every 400 years. Furthermore, the year 2100 will be a leap year in the Shmuelian calendar (because it’s divisible by 4) but not in the Gregorian calendar (because it’s divisible by 100 but not 400). So not long after the year 2100, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar will diverge by an additional 1 day—though the details are even a little more nuanced, because Shmuel used a simplification of the final Jewish calendar.

This is why (remember the question from several paragraphs ago?) in the year 2165, when we’d expect Thanksgiving and Hanukkah to coincide again, Hanukkah will actually be one day later. And that is why Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will never again coincide.

Well, almost never. If the Jews don’t ever abandon the calculations based on the Shmuelian calendar, Hanukkah will keep getting later and later—moving through winter, then into spring, summer, and finally back into fall—so that tens of thousands of years from now they will again coincide. But long before then the springtime holiday of Passover will have moved deep into summer, so be on the lookout for a memo with a calendar update in the next several thousand years.

And in the meantime, don’t miss this opportunity to enjoy an exceedingly rare confluence of celebrations.

Happy Hanukkah. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Joel Hoffman is the author of In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (NYU Press, 2004). Hoffman is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post—read more of his entries here.

Fall books available on NetGalley

We’ve got quite a few gems in our NetGalley catalog this fall, all available for advance review now. Book reviewers, journalists, bloggers, librarians, professors, and booksellerswe welcome you to submit a request!

Not familiar with NetGalley? Learn more about how it works.

 
Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee by Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut (September 27, 2013)

We think Booklist said it best: “In this fascinating blend of sociology, ecology, ethnographic research, and personal memoir, the authors range through all of the aspects of the human relationship with the honeybee.”

Ever thought of honeybees as sexy? You might after watching Mary Kosut discuss the sensual nature of beekeeping.

 

Cut It Out: The C-Section Epidemic in America by Theresa Morris (October 7, 2013)

In Cut It Out, Theresa Morris offers a riveting and comprehensive look at this little-known epidemic, as well as concrete solutions “that deserve the attention of policymakers” (Publishers Weekly starred review).

C-sections are just as safe as vaginal births, right? Not true, says Theresa Morris. Watch her discusses this and other misconceptions on our YouTube channel.

 

Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton (October 14, 2013)

Hanukkah will fall on Thanksgiving this year for the first time ever—and the last time for another 70,000 years. Brush up on your knowledge of the holiday in time to celebrate the once-in-an-eternity event. Publishers Weekly, in another starred review, promises a “scholarly but accessible guide to the evolution of the Festival of Lights in America.”

Stay tuned for our interview with the author!

 
Browse all of our e-galleys available for review on NetGalley.

Another kind of women’s work

—Melissa R. Klapper

The current media fascination with women and power, sparked by elaborate controversies over Yahoo executive Marissa Mayer and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, might seem both disappointing and amusing to the legions of American women engaged in social and political activism during the first decades of the twentieth century. The disappointment is easy to understand. Why, they might ask, after more than 100 years of feminism, are we still disconcerted by women in positions of authority? And why do we still have to confront systemic conflicts between work and family? And why don’t women support each other more, and better?

The amusement may require more explanation. Much of the commentary in recent weeks has assumed that there was once upon a time a golden age when women didn’t work, when men provided for the families women took care of. Only after the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s did everything fall apart as women entered the workforce. Any undergraduate in a women’s history class can tell you how very wrong this understanding is. Women have always worked, out of both necessity and desire; not all women have had a male provider in their lives; one individual’s wages have rarely been sufficient to support a family.

Apart from this critical perspective, I think there is another element of the historical record that demands attention. There is no denying that some women, typically of middle and upper class status, did not work for wages. That does not mean, however, that they did not work. During the early twentieth century, the mostly unpaid but extremely professional women who belonged to voluntary organizations affected every level of public life in the United States.

In my new book Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940, I explore the many roles Jewish women played in the suffrage, birth control, and peace movements. Whether as individuals committed to a cause, members of inevitably politically active Jewish women’s organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women, or members of international women’s activist groups like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Jewish women accomplished with pen and paper and the occasional telegram or phone call what huge NGOs strive to do today.

The millions of American women who participated in social movements traveled constantly, lobbied public officials, attended innumerable meetings, read voraciously and participated in study groups, drew up position papers and set policies, monitored the press and wrote frequent letters to editors, and sustained voluminous correspondences, usually without secretarial help. Freedom from paid labor enabled these women to do this kind of work, and they often began by trying to improve the circumstances of other women who had fewer choices.

Civil society depended on women’s volunteer efforts, and the success of these women in making change in government at every level from municipal to federal played a critical role in the development of the responsive government and social welfare provisions we take for granted today. So I think that the activist women of the early twentieth century would also be amused by today’s controversies. Why, they might ask, would anybody think that women have not always grasped the opportunity to shape the world they live in?

Melissa R. Klapper is a professor of history, Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. She is the author of Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women’s Activism, 1890-1940 (NYU Press, 2013).

City of Promises named Jewish Book of the Year

Awards season is officially in full swing, and we at NYU Press couldn’t be more proud to announce our latest achievement. Our landmark publication, City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, was selected by the Jewish Book Council as the Jewish Book of the Year in its’ 2012 National Jewish Book Awards!

Three cheers for the trilogy, and congratulations to Deborah Dash Moore (editor of all 3-volumes), the authors, and everyone at the Press who worked so incredibly hard on this absolutely beautiful set!

The annual National Jewish Book Awards are presented by the Jewish Book Council. Read the complete list of this year’s winners and finalists here.

NYU Press award-winning book designs!

We are so excited to announce that the NYU Press has won three design awards in the 2013 New York Book Show!

Sponsored by the Bookbinders’ Guild of New York, the New York Book Show celebrates excellence in book design and production. The event is a North American competition, with only five awards given per entry category. Thus, we have some prestigious company, including Alfred A. Knopf, McGraw Hill, Oxford University Press, Penguin, Princeton University Press, Random House, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Congratulations to our design team! Here are the winning book designs:

Winner in Scholarly/Professional Book Design
Designer: (our very own) Adam Bohannon

Winner in Scholarly/Professional Cover Design
Designer: Charles B. Hames (also from NYU Press)

Winner in Scholarly/Professional Book Set Design
Designer: Kathleen Szawiola

Announcing our Spring 2013 Catalog…

NYU Press Spring 2013 Catalog is now online, featuring an exciting range of new books in history, media studies, law, and more!

Highlights include:
TWO PRESIDENTS ARE BETTER THAN ONE: Making the case for a two-party, two-person presidency, this “pipe dream of a book” presents a “novel and provocative thesis worth hearing out” (Kirkus Reviews).

A DEATH AT CROOKED CREEK: Marion Wesson, author of best-selling and prize-winning legal novels including Render up the Body, combines drama and intrigue  with cutting-edge forensic investigation techniques and legal theory in this superbly imagined historical novel.

CAPITAL OF THE WORLD: Charlene Mires tells the dramatic, surprising, and at times comic story of hometown promoters in an extraordinary race to host the U.N. headquarters at a pivotal moment in history.

(You can also click here to access this catalog via our website, or find our catalogs available on Edelweiss.)

Celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

Happy Jewish New Year! Check out the video below from Deborah Dash Moore, editor of City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York. And be sure to take a peek at our book sale on the NYU Press website for 20% off selected titles!

Also, join us at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this Thursday for a City of Promises event… Hasia Diner introduces Tenement Museum Vice President, Annie Polland and co-author Daniel Soyer for a talk and performance on Emerging Metropolis, the second volume in the City of Promises series. It’s a great way to celebrate the holiday and watch the story of urban Jewish immigrant society come to life!