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Jewish Life in Los Angeles as Told through Delis

Delis are an indelible part of Jewish life and culture. On plate after plate and celebration after celebration, the story of the Jewish community and its impact on the greater population of Los Angeles unfolds.

Learn more about the role of delis in Los Angeles on "The Migrant Kitchen" S3 E1: The Jewish Deli. Watch now.

“Deli is fascinating, so are kebabs and hummus today,” says David Myers, professor and Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish history at UCLA’s Luskin Center, “The way in which this tradition of culinary innovation reflects the arrival of different immigrant groups over the years, over the generations.” Myers has observed how different threads or layers of Jewish immigration framed different culinary traditions. “In my neighborhood, you have a classic Ashkenazi deli, you have a bunch of Persian restaurants, and you have Israeli restaurants reflecting the different cultural origins of the diverse Jewish communities.”

The delicatessen has become so ingrained in Los Angeles that, in his book, “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen,” author David Sax makes a bold claim: “Los Angeles has become America’s premier deli city.”  Sax believes that L.A. boasts more high-quality delicatessens that any other city in the United States. He writes that the deli scene here is thriving with examples big and small, many open for decades, including the deli with the best pastrami sandwich on earth.

Migrations and Re-migrations: The Birth of the Deli in Los Angeles

Tracing the migration of the Jewish people in the United States may conjure up images of Ellis Island and the influx of Jews moving to New York in the 20th century, but in Los Angeles, the history of Jews moving to America begins further back.

Myers explains, “The first eight bachelors as they were known, Jewish men, came to Los Angeles in the 1850s. They established the first synagogue and burial society in 1854. They launched the first wave of immigration to the new Anglo Los Angeles, populated by Jews of German origin. The predominance of the population, which numbered by the end of the century in the single-digit thousands, was German-Jewish.”

Myers explains that when the Jewish community in Los Angeles began to grow. “The wave of immigration that gave L.A.’s Jewish community its demographic heft occurred much later in the second and third decades of the 20th century,” says Myers.  “It was largely Eastern European.” Soon the restaurants opened to feed to Jews that moved here, who craved the food they left behind in New York and Europe.

Most arrivals to Los Angeles in the first third of the 20th century did not come directly from Europe but via another American city. Thus Los Angeles was a site of re-immigration or re-migration. Jews moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast and the Midwest.  “Jews brought with them their culinary traditions. It’s my understanding that’s where the deli culture of L.A. was born during that time period,” says Myers. “That second major wave of migration is the one that really provided L.A. with serious demographic gravitas. Making it an important Jewish city in its own right.”

Langer's Deli | Courtesy of Langer's MKs3
Langer's Deli | Courtesy of Langer's

Going West: Tracing the Deli’s Journey

Much of the activity in the Jewish community of this time centered in Boyle Heights. “It is important to note,” says Myers. “That Boyle Heights was never exclusively or even a majority Jewish. It was about 50 percent Jewish. That estimate may be high. There were very large populations of [people of] Japanese and Mexicans. One of the consequences of that, [which] the late Jonathan Gold spoke of, was the Latino Chicano love for pastrami, which is a known phenomenon. [It] emerged out of the cultural mélange that was Boyle Heights in this period.”

Canter's circa 1948 | Courtesy of Canter's MKs3
Canter's circa 1948 | Courtesy of Canter's

From the 20s to the 40s and into the 50s, Boyle Heights was the site of intense Jewish political and cultural activity. The population began to taper in the 60s with the postwar move towards suburbanization. Jewish developers started to build properties in the valley where there were no restrictive covenants on Jews.

Growing affluence and a focus on higher education rates also began to influence Jews to move further west. “There are many stories of students from Roosevelt High getting into UCLA. And the path from East to West was set,” Myers adds. As the Jews and synagogues in Boyle Heights moved westward, the food businesses followed suit. Fairfax became a major center of Jewish cultural activity in the 60s and 70s.

Many more Jews moved to Los Angeles in the early 1900s before World War II and increased in numbers throughout the century. The timeline of deli openings illustrates the movement of the Jews in the city of Angels.

Though Boyle Heights was originally the center of the Jewish Community, Greenblatt’s opened by Herman Greenblatt in 1926, purchased by Kavin family in the early 1940s and has been run by three generations of their family in West Hollywood. The Canter family relocated to Los Angeles in 1929 and opened Canter Brothers Delicatessen in Boyle Heights in 1931 before moving west to Fairfax 1953.

More significant delis followed. Nate ‘n Al opened in 1945 in Beverly Hills. Al Langer began Langer’s in 1947 in MacArthur Park. His son Norm Langer runs their popular deli today. Factor’s Famous Deli opened in 1948 on Pico Boulevard and was purchased by the Markowitz family in 1969. In 1957, Art’s Delicatessen opened their doors in Studio City. Junior’s Deli in Westwood opened in 1959 and closed December 2012. The building is now home to a deli called Lenny’s. Ron Peskin bought Brent’s in Northridge in 1969. Izzy’s Deli has been on Wilshire in Santa Monica since 1973. Isaac Starkman founded Jerry's Famous Deli in 1978 at their original Studio City location. From east to west and eventually spreading throughout L.A. county, delis followed and fed the Jewish community.

After World War II, many Jews living in New York migrated to the warmer climates they discovered during the years they spent on location in the military, and delis began to open in L.A. with their own West Coast-style and, in some cases, ingredients. Delis became gathering space for people who enjoy eating Jewish food and congregating in centers for Jewish identity.  “The food we think of as being Jewish deli food that we attribute to Eastern Europe, in Poland, Romania, and all of those countries, it really wasn’t what Jews ate there,” says Ted Merwin, author of “Pastrami on Rye,” which chronicles the history of delis in the United States. “It wasn't the everyday fare of your average impoverished shtetl dwelling Jew.”

Merwin adds, “There is something mythical and romanticized about the notion of ‘this was the food of our ancestors.'”  Was it more the food that was translated into what would sell in a restaurant in New York? Yes. Meat was prized in Eastern European culture. Jews could not eat it on a regular basis. When they moved to the United States, beef was much more readily available. It had an air of luxury about it. That maybe it still has to a certain extent. The deli as a place, the temple of Jewish meat.”

Delis Past and Present

Laurence Roth, a professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University, experienced the L.A. deli landscape first-hand during his childhood surrounded by Jewish books. He is currently writing a memoir inspired by growing up in his father’s Jewish bookstore, J. Roth Bookstore on Pico Boulevard at the Western edge of the fast-growing Jewish population there.

Roth explains how deli became a symbol of the American dream. “Coming to California, being in this new landscape that was wide open and full of opportunity. Originally, delis catering to members of their own community used the delicatessen as a space to articulate this new American Jewish identity,” says Roth.

Roth remembers delis in the neighborhood near the bookstore. Businesses like Factor’s opened in 1948. Label’s Table started in 1974. These businesses began before the area started to become more orthodox. Then in 1985 Steven Spielberg’s mother Leah Adler opened the Milky Way, a restaurant with an all-dairy menu. “I do remember we would, of course, go to Canter’s. We would go to Factor’s. I remember there was a deli in what is now the Ethiopian section of Fairfax. That was the non-kosher deli. I went to Hillel Hebrew Academy as a kid. All of my friends went to the kosher delis, and we went to that one.”

To this day, Canter’s Deli on Fairfax continues to be a neighborhood spot and a stop on many tourist maps. What began as a family business in Jersey City found its true home in Los Angeles. When Ben Canter and his brother lost their Jersey City deli in the stock market crash of 1929, they moved to California with $500 and opened Canter Brothers’ Delicatessen in Boyle Heights two years later.

In 1953, the family moved their business to Fairfax Avenue starting in a smaller space and changing the name to Canter’s Deli. In 1953, they purchased the Old Esquire Theatre up the street, which remains their current spot today. The large space houses the deli, bakery and Kibbitz Room Bar. What began as a family run business offering a Jewish deli experience became a landmark for Fairfax Avenue and a nostalgic setting for the community.

L.A. Artist Gary Baseman has fond memories of the smells of freshly baked rugelach at the Canter’s bakery. The son of two Holocaust survivors, the Baseman family lived in Boyle Heights when he was born. Soon after they moved to the Fairfax District and his mother Naomi got a job selling baked goods at Canter’s and Brown’s bakeries.

Gary Baseman at Canter's | Julie Wolfson MKs3
Gary Baseman at Canter's | Julie Wolfson

Eventually, Naomi Baseman began to work full time at Canter’s and continued there for more than 35 years.  “She loved it. She loved working. She needed to be doing something,” says Baseman. “My dad was the storyteller. My dad was such a character. My mom, if you pushed her, she would talk. Then again you are also dealing with Holocaust survivors who learn to keep a lot of things to themselves.”

As an adult, Baseman would continue to visit his mother at work. “I would find out when she was taking her break, and I would meet up with her,” he remembers.  “She would always sit in these smaller booths in the back. I would sit with her and talk. She would always try to give me her meal. She was always trying to feed me. That was all she ever wanted was to make sure I ate.”

When making plans to meet his siblings for a meal, the Baseman siblings often find themselves sitting at Canter’s ordering the foods that remind them of their mother and childhood in the Fairfax District. And they always take home a few sweets.

In the years since its opening, Canter’s became a whistle stop for politicians from Mayor Tom Bradley to President Barack Obama as well as frequent choice for celebrities. Buddy Hackett, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Sydney Poitier have eaten at Canter’s. For most of their 85 years, Canter’s has stayed open 24 hours a day making it a favorite late-night spot for rock musicians.

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South of Canter’s on Pico Boulevard, the Markowitz family knows firsthand what it takes to run a family business. Opened on Pico Boulevard in 1948, Herman and Lili Markowitz bought Factor’s Famous Deli in 1969. Now run by their daughters Suzee and Debbie, Factor’s Famous Deli continues to be family-owned and operated.

Over the years, continues to grow and expand, a testament to the loyalty they inspire in their customers. They have expanded by adding a large garden patio and deli counter for take out. They also opened their event space, The Mark, down the street.

Generations of families have shared chopped liver, sipped chicken soup, and eaten corned beef sandwiches at Factor’s. These families have counted on Factor’s to make deli trays and plan catering for bris, baby namings, b’nai mitzvahs, birthdays, weddings and shivas. One five-year-old boy’s dream birthday party was to eat waffles with his friends at Factor’s. They made his birthday wish come true.

Factor's | Courtesy of Factor's MKs3
Factor's | Courtesy of Factor's

During the High Holidays, the Factor’s staff kicks into high gear. They make countless trays for holiday events and fully cater meals for often one hundred people in private homes. By Yom Kippur, they close the deli and set up a refrigerator truck behind the restaurant. Then it is all hands on deck. “They start at midnight the night before, and they make trays all night until 5 p.m. the next day, “ says Markowitz. “The production is so big, it is like five full days of being open in that one 18-hour period.”

This year, they had more than one hundred orders. After this major undertaking, Factor’s then opens the deli to more than 200 family and staff, who share a break the fast meal together.

Heading East to Alvarado Street in MacArthur Park, Langer’s remains one of the only union restaurants in the city that is not part of a hotel. Opened in 1947 by Al Langer, they joined the union 1970. They currently have 40 employees. In 1993, when the Metro Red Line opened, the influx of new customers nicknamed the train the ‘pastrami express.’ On any given morning, it’s not unusual for its owners to be met with a line waiting for them to open.

Langer's Deli on its 65th anniversary | Courtesy of Langer's MKs3
Langer's Deli on its 65th anniversary | Courtesy of Langer's MKs3

Langer’s union is a manifestation of the way the Jews have created a familial atmosphere in Los Angeles.  Caroline Luce, a Ross Postdoctoral Fellow at UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, says, “It’s an opportunity to think of bakeries and delis as institutions from within a community from which solidarity can emanate,” says Luce. “That these businesses themselves can help raise the consciousness of consumers.”

Luce says she is happy to see the resurgence of interest in artisanal methods. “I am delighted that bread is back ‘in,’ that we are talking about quality and craftsmanship again. And rye being ‘in.’ Toothsome loaves. I love it all. I just hope that with it will come a model of conscious consumption that takes workers’ rights into as much consideration as it does the quality of ingredients and the ‘cleanness’ of the food,” says Luce. “Because then you’ll see a truly reinvented Jewish food chain like the one that existed a hundred years ago where these consumers, producers and business owners were all connected in this mutually beneficial relationship that become such an important part of cultural and community life more broadly.”

Rye bread became an important conversation for Michael Wexler and Mike Kassar when they opened Wexler’s. With so many multigenerational deli families in Los Angeles, Micah Wexler knows he and Mike Kassar did not take the traditional journey into the deli business. “[The] food I cook is always a personal journey. You cook what is in your heart and what you feel like putting on a plate, and you hope the public is going to enjoy it and buy into your vision.”

Originally, Wexler and Kassar had teamed up to open Mezze, a Mediterranean restaurant that brought them a lot of attention and many regular customers, but their pop-up, which served traditional Jewish foods and deli-inspired dishes on Sunday nights proved to be extremely popular. When they closed Mezze, a call came in from Grand Central Market offering them a space at the market. The market was open to any kind of food they would like to serve, but the request was to consider opening a deli. Wexler and Kassar remembered the success and excitement around the Sunday night menus and concluded that a deli was the plan. Their version would serve only meats and fish that they smoked in-house. They obsessively planned with a baking team to make the bagels and rye bread to their specifications.

While formulating his plans for opening Wexler’s, Micah Wexler thought back to some happy childhood memories. “My greatest deli memories were going with my grandparents and driving down 6th street to Langer’s about once a month, and eating pastrami sandwiches and drinking chocolate phosphates. That informed so much of my consciousness of what great deli is supposed to be and what great bread and pastrami is supposed to be. I have a lot of respect for everything that Langer’s does. It is a very important influence for us.”

At Grand Central Market and their other locations in Century City and Santa Monica Wexler and Kassar take on classic Jewish food, using artisanal techniques to make traditional favorites. “That’s the way I approached Wexler’s. What happened very quickly is I had all of these Jews coming to the restaurant,” says Wexler. “It spoke to them at such a high level. We made it kind of cool. We are playing hip-hop. The audience is younger than your traditional deli. I have people come up to me saying they are happy that someone is celebrating our culture and doing it in a way that is not nebbishy or trite.”

“I realized this has become something much bigger than just me and what I was trying to do with my food,” add Wexler. “That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of it hearing people say this speak to me and my story too.”

Cultural Value of Jewish Delis

If after visiting many cities and countless delis, it is no wonder Sax believes that Los Angeles has become the best deli city in the country. New Yorkers may want to wave their flags to say they created this style of restaurant and interpretation of Jewish cuisine, but L.A.’s many delis tell the story of a rich history and a thriving and diverse deli scene in Southern California.

“The deli is where you go to be Jewish,” Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold told Merwin. “You live a secular life, but you show up at Junior’s in Los Angeles on a Sunday morning, and suddenly all your Jewish stuff comes out.”

That’s the beauty of the world of delis in Los Angeles. Multigenerational deli families, alongside the popularity of pastrami throughout the city, with new young chefs joining in to carry on the traditions in a diverse multicultural city.” Patrick Kuh told Merwin, “You might hear Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, or Tagalog in an LA deli, but everyone is essentially talking Yiddish.”

Top Image: Canter's bakery section | Courtesy of Canter's

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