Since its debut at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles last year, “I’ll Have What He’s Having: The Jewish Delicatessen” has resonated with Jewish educational institutions and history museums across the country.
It was only a matter of time before this tribute to a uniquely American Jewish cultural institution found its way here, to the land of Kaufman, JB, Manny and dozens of others.
Arielle Weininger, chief curator of collections and exhibitions at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which is hosting the exhibit through April, is local deli royalty. His cousin, Bette Dworkin, runs Kaufman’s Bagel & Delicatessen near Skokie after her family bought it from founder Morrie Kaufman in 1984. Her family placed a photo taken with Dworkin at the Passover Seder on the exhibition’s photo wall.
“I had to experience a little moment of family pride here,” he says, pointing to the painting.
“I’ll Have What He’s Having” features many original memorabilia from Skirball’s original exhibit. But once the exhibit arrived in Skokie, Weininger and the museum’s curatorial team found ways to enrich it with relevant Chicagoland history: the birth of the Vienna Beef at the 1893 World’s Fair and Election Day at Manny’s rightly get notices – and make inquiries about area delicatessens’ ties to the Holocaust.
Nearly all of Chicago’s oldest existing delis began in the war or postwar period. The chain migration of Jewish refugees to major urban areas meant that there was a growing appetite for the hearty Central and Eastern European, mostly Ashkenazi, foods that remained the bread and butter of Jewish delicatessens (rye).
Also, all these immigrants needed jobs. Kaufman became a center for Holocaust survivors on both sides of the counter. So is Bagel in Lakeview; owner Danny Wolf who died last yearHe was born in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Survivors of Auschwitz are both non-existent and Thorndale Delicatessen at Edgewater and Hungarian Kosher Foods in Skokie, the world’s first all-kosher supermarket.
But when Weininger began compiling a comprehensive list of Chicagoland delis past and present, he quickly realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. First of all, how should one define “Jewish delicatessen”? And given the spotty paper trail of mom-and-pop businesses, how can his list be reliable?
Still he continued with the guide, guided by some “scarecrows”. Weininger decided that a business where customers could dine in and offer more food items than a single item was a good fit. (Just bagel stands were a no-no.)
Crowdsourcing has proven to be a greater help in the creation of the series than any press release ever could have done. Weininger solicited suggestions and photos from various Facebook groups in the Chicago area. The heated debate in the comments sections prepared him for the deep views and deep-rooted partisanship he would encounter when his list went live. So, to avoid the inevitable “whatever,” he added a hilarious disclaimer: “We get it. You want to love. Your favorite deli spot isn’t featured here… Be manly and write that on your order ticket at the gallery.”
As an added bonus, “I’ll Have What He’s Having” finally gave Weininger a chance to talk about “The Blues Brothers,” where evil “Illinois Nazis” weren’t so far-fetched when the film was released in 1980. Just a few years earlier, the American Nazi Party had threatened to march in Skokie, inspiring a landmark First Amendment lawsuit and the eventual creation of the Holocaust Museum. But a beloved Chicago deli also secretly appears in the film: Nate’s Delicatessen on Maxwell Street, dressed as a “Soul Food Café.” (This is where Aretha Franklin sang “Think”; the original sign can be seen briefly.) an external shot Bluesman John Lee Hooker is busking outside.)
Nate’s true story is equally ready for the big screen. In his youth, Nate Duncan first got a job at what was then called Lyon’s Delicatessen. After working for a Jewish client for years, Duncan learned Yiddish and took over the business in 1972. Obituary in the Tribune in 2006 It features him as an important transitional figure, as the area around Maxwell Street changed from predominantly Jewish to African American. To convince Duncan to let them film at the deli, the “Blues Brothers” producers offered to finance a new sign for Nate’s; that sign hung outside the deli until Duncan reluctantly sold the store’s storefront to the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1994. exhibition.
Visitors can check out other delicatessen items that stand out in popular culture nearby. This includes the infamous scene in “When Harry Met Sally”; but it took some creative thinking to include this scene while keeping the exhibit family-friendly.
“Directional speaker. That’s our answer,” says Weininger.
“I’ll Have What He’s Having” leaves viewers with mixed guesses about the future of the Jewish deli. A tribute to important closures — And you, Carnegie Delicatessen? — and the list of legacy delis on Weininger’s list is longer and denser than the list he extends.
But where there is tradition, there is innovation. The exhibition sheds a particularly bright light Sam and Gertie’sAn Uptown eatery that claims to be “the world’s first vegan Jewish deli” with seitan corned “beef” and sun-dried tomato “läks.” (Equal Received approval from PETA.)
Nor did purist visitors disdain the idea of a meatless, fishless, dairy-free deli, at least within earshot of Weininger. He says visitors often leave the “I’ll Have What He’s Having” sign curious and hungry.
“It’s this wonderful piece of Jewish culture that I think people find really heartwarming. “It’s like a bowl of matzah ball soup,” says Weininger.
“I’ll Have What He’s Having” runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through April 14, 2024, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie; $6-$18, free last Friday of each month; ilholocaustmuseum.org
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.