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Jewish delis serve up a sense of history

The term “Jewish deli” is a curious culinary designation. Cultural affiliation, it turns out, plays next to no part in either owning or frequenting one. Many delis, tied closely to the popularity of the Reuben sandwich, worry not about mixing meat with dairy — a violation of Jewish dietary law. And you can score sliced bread stuffed with corned beef and melted cheese from many a culturally-neutral general store. But the Jewish deli serves up a sense of history: an insight into the life of early-20th-century, Eastern European immigrants. Touring the region’s most notable Jewish delis reveals a slender common thread but the allure of the cuisine is easy to grasp.

One dish close to the heart of Jewish deli cuisine as the pastrami on rye. As an easy-to-prepare mainstay, you needn’t travel far to find a serviceable example. But to behold the creation as was intended, a short schlep to Moody’s in Waltham is mandatory. The two-year-old eatery defies distinction as a Jewish deli — links of cured Italian pork dangle freely above the counter. Yet the shop’s best seller, The Katz, is as much homage as sandwich; built around pastrami that’s house-smoked for nearly a day. Owner Joshua Smith’s bestseller mines nostalgia from his childhood in suburban New Jersey. Back in those days, Jewish or not, families would venture to the nearest sandwich shop to share in a collective experience. It was a bond Smith wanted to re-create with his own son, and he happens to have stumbled upon the best way to encourage junior to put down the smartphone and engage with his immediate surroundings: juicy, finely-fatted beef fried on the griddle, and served on seeded, slightly-toasted rye bread.

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To wade more authentically into Jewish culinary tradition, follow the Mass Pike 30 miles west to land at Weintraub’s in Worcester. Here you’ll come face-to-face with the deep cuts; chopped liver, homemade matzo ball and cabbage soup, and a whole lotta schmaltz — that’s rendered chicken fat spread to the uninitiated. the shop’s facade is worn and tired, its interior disheveled, with bottles of spicy mustard and sauerkraut lining the carving station, and a smattering of unevenly hung Patriots memorabilia joins black-and-white family photos on the wall. The faint smell of smoked fish hangs in the air. Don’t expect to find tablecloths in an establishment like this. But the adventurous are rewarded with inimitable flavors prepared by a family that’s been producing them for decades. Looking around, you’re sure to notice regulars that have been coming here for nearly as long. Half sour pickles and tomatoes accompany the sandwiches, all made without cheese. Unlike so-called “kosher-style” delis, this place is the real thing and to be cherished.

The Jewish deli is championed by guardians in neighboring states. Rein’s New York Style Deli in Vernon, Conn., is a family-run eatery with the feel of an old-school cafeteria. For over 40 years, Rein’s has been plating the classics, as well as taking the time to demystify the cuisine for inquisitive newbies. A staffer will illuminate the inner workings of their handmade kasha knish (it’s a savory turnover filled with buckwheat, onions, and smashed potatoes) and patiently explain the difference between lox (salt-cured salmon) and nova (cold-smoked salmon).

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Up in Burlington, Vt., Feldman’s Bagels dedicates itself to the pre-noon rituals of Jewish dining. Something of a forgotten subcategory to the deli, is the “appetizing” store, best described as an eatery specializing in the foods that accompany bagels. Feldman’s reimagines this vestige of New York’s Lower East Side along the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, bringing whitefish salad and scallion spread to bagels and bialys considered by devotees to be as good as anything you’d find in New York.

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It’s hard to ignore the image of the Jewish deli as an institution struggling to hold on. On the East Side of Providence, for example, an urban pocket once swelling with such fare now counts Davis Dairy Products as the state’s last remaining Kosher grocer and deli. Owner Joslin Davis has been behind the counter for more than 70 years, and it might be that he knows each of his customers by name. They’re all too happy to support the man and his business, unsure of where to turn for smoked fish and house-cured brisket if he ever called it quits.

Rosen’s Full Belly Deli, Portland, Maine’s only Jewish deli, organized a successful comeback after shuttering earlier in the year. Living up to the name, the local institution is revered for single sandwiches sizable enough to feed multiple mouths. In Portsmouth, N.H., Bubby’s NY Style Delicatessen promises more of the same when it opens before year’s end.

Some of these delis are downright gritty. But their charm holds true, tapping some forgotten common nerve. Whether they’ve been in the neighborhood for three generations, or three months, they have an indispensable role in their community. The Jewish deli belongs as much to a collective culture of Americana as it does to any clearly defined ethnic category. Crowding around a simple table, sharing an abundance of comforting, straightforward cuisine. The drive-thru tendencies of contemporary life threaten to recast these notions as relics of a bygone era. To keep them alive, you must actively seek them out. Savor every sandwich. Find your own Jewish deli. And inside it, a sense of history served best on rye.

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Brad Japhe can be reached at braphe@gmail.com.