Finding the Jewish Living Room in My Heart at Greenblatt’s

IMG_1949I once knew a rabbi who was known for being much more of a philosopher than a fundraising congregational leader. At all of our monthly meetings, at which we were supposed to discuss the PR services I provided his temple, we would instead linger for hours over intense dialogue in his library shelf-lined office inspired by the book Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin that he had given me because he thought I would find it interesting. The reason he thought I would find the foot thick tome interesting was because I had told him that all my life I loved hanging out in my Jewish friends’ homes. There was something about the constant chaotic chatter and warmth of their abodes; the way they let their warts and all humanity hang out transparently in public; and the way they seemed to embrace our more complex and shadowy sides of life like sensuality with vulnerability, honesty and humor that made me find comfort in their presence. Of course today I realize I was attracted to the culture of my Jewish friends and their families because they seemed the opposite of my own Catholic upbringing in which you simply didn’t air your dirty laundry or your innermost feelings outside of the household no matter what. To me, hanging out with my lifelong friends the Hetzels, in a living room crowded with newspapers, dogs, candy boxes, loud toilet flushes, books that went on for miles and lots of heated intellectual conversation that sounded like arguing was just the tonic my aching-to-express-fully heart needed. While I was reading the book the rabbi had loaned me, I would often tell him it all made perfect sense to me to which he would reply, “You’re more Jewish than half the Jewish people I know.”

So, it’s no surprise that today, I constantly seek out a version of the comfy Jewish living room – one where you can hunker down without any airs in any old clothes you’ve swiped from your drawers and eat a good meal surrounded by good conversation. One where lazy time and a flutter of activity not driven by a to-do list but by the constant hustle and bustle of alive and awake minds thrives, even if the bodies those minds occupy are currently slumped over a bowl of gargantuan matzo ball soup.

Last week on our first trip to Greenblatt’s Deli in L.A., I sunk down on my plush brown faux-leather booth seat and told the Cute Gardener I wanted to come back forever, as we grew old, bringing newspapers to camp out with under the stark, pale yellow lights.

It had all the essential ingredients to make my heart sing in that Fiddler on the Roof kind of way, including:

-thinly sliced pastrami melding creamily with a slip of Swiss cheese and tangy Russian dressing
-big fat pickles that were crisp, cold and refreshing rather than too sour
-adjacent wine bar with high end bottles aligned like jewels reminiscent of the perpetual gaiety of holiday seasons
-cheaper Reisling by the glass to sweetly accompany my sandwich
-rye that was soft in the middle but harder on the crust
-cooking staff who made no bones about talking loudly across the dining room at each other because everyone was really supposed to be a part of one big dining family so why pretend to shush just for the customers
-drunken suburban college boys with eyes bigger than their stomachs ordering half the menu at ten p.m. because everyone knows where the best comfort food in town can be found
-nonchalant pony-tailed waitresses who talked back to said drunken customers with soft yet firm voices quietly guiding their decorum
-couples long in the tooth who’ve probably been coming for years, tooling around on their iPads while eating big slabs of double chocolate cake
-deli case stocked with black and white cookies, meats, breads and salads to go and large bowls of pudding
-super intimate atmosphere that’s different from the more cafeteria or traditional restaurant styles of Jewish delis in the area—I literally felt I was sitting in someone’s house with staircases leading both up and down from the area where we sat and ate

I think I feel a short story brewing that will take place in a Jewish deli and will require lots of live research in my new favorite pseudo-den.





Langer’s Luscious #19

IMG_0993 With stark Southern California sunshine illuminating the historic area on South Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park with white icicles of light on a post-holiday wintry morning we were on a quest to try legacy pastrami on rye. At eleven a.m. on a Saturday the streets were alive with Latino men and women opening their knock off shops, audio warehouses, trinket emporiums, curbside flea markets and hot food roadside tamale stands. After parking in the lot devoted to the restaurant, we walked the block to Langer’s Deli which sat on the corner no more weary for wear beckoning the throngs of visitors who would come for no nonsense meat and sandwiches churned out like they have been for the last 67 years. Thanks to the conveniently adjacent Metro station, today eaters from all over L.A. can frequent this almost forgotten neighborhood for a bite.

If ever there were a place to belly up to the bar, it was here, where old-fashioned and generously padded, tufted brown faux-leather seats swiveled with a direct view into the glass enclosed counters revealing cooks in white smocks and paper hats carving up smoking hot roasts of pastrami and corned beef, smoke curling up and away into the ethers where cans of tuna, sardines and matzo flour sat aligned on wooden shelves. There are no glass displays of overstuffed baked goods or large rows of bread loaves or cutesy, framed sayings on the walls. It’s a simple joint where people come for that plate of bread and meat accentuated with none other than a simple pickle slice, enough to fuel them up on their way from one place to another. An institution serving lunch to the common man one rapid forkful at a time.

We ordered the famous #19 and a corned beef, both served on the softest beds of rye with a surprisingly thick and sturdy crust that I’ve tried. The #19 was stuffed with buttery, tender slices of pastrami that melted into the warmly sweet Russian dressing and perfectly light-on-mayo cole slaw in a flavorful combination that was all married by the slightly sour tang of a slim piece of Swiss cheese. Although Brent’s Deli in Northridge still boasts my favorite pastrami meat, Langer’s definitely serves my favorite overall pastrami sandwich.

IMG_0992It was also nice to eat in a place where you know you could have been sitting any number of decades ago while encountering the same young Jewish waitress, hair back in a ponytail who watches your first bite to make sure it’s followed by a smile, the same old grey haired server who although getting long in the tooth, still enjoys his smoke breaks outside where he teases all the young senoritas who pass by with tall combs in their hair and the wise-cracking cashier decked out in gaudy jewelry and harsh half moons of cheek rouge who hands you your change in coins with a “Have a great day now, you hear.”

Old school food institutions that actually serve great tasting food are getting harder and harder to come by and as we finished our visit at Langer’s I found myself stepping back out onto the streets, seeing the fresh line that had formed of waiting diners of all different stripes and colors, and hoping that it would be one of those places that lasts. I can see myself visiting again in old age only with a newspaper and an egg cream this time, slowly sitting through lunch in a booth watching the next generations grow delighted by that luscious #19.