Ruben, Israel’s “first authentic Jewish deli,” is now a few months old and about to open its second location. The question, says Gil Shefler in Forward, is whether pastrami on rye will stick in the land of falafel on pita. “Food critic Janna Gur, author of ‘The Book of New Israeli Food: A Culinary Journey,’ is doubtful. ‘Ruben is a fun place which serves good food, but I find it hard to believe deli foods will gain widespread popularity in Israel—it just doesn’t fit the mentality,’ she said.”

Classic Jewish deli food is “not quite Ashkenazi food from ‘the Old Country,'” explains Shefler, who says that huge pastrami sandwiches and baseball-sized matzo balls are distinctly Jewish-American. “Eastern European Jews invented them only after their arrival in the New World, around the turn of the 20th century, and combined Old Country staples with local favorites and ingredients.” In fact, most customers at Ruben don’t even realize the Jewish roots of the food, writes Shefler. David Sax, author of Save the Deli, weighs in:

‘The climate made it very difficult for people to grow the produce, especially raise cattle for such a meat-based food,’ Sax said in a telephone interview from New York. ‘Also, the food itself doesn’t suit the climate as much. Then there was the clear philosophical break Israel’s founding fathers made with the Diaspora, and [the indigenous] falafel became the official food of Israel.’

What would Sax’s ideal be for the future of the Jewish deli in Israel? “Hopefully, they won’t be like the delis in New York but would inspire a local, Israeli version.” Ruben’s menu already includes the option of harissa on sandwiches, so it sounds like Sax’s dream might be taking shape.

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