Ellen Switkes and her husband, Don Shirley. Photo courtesy of Ellen Switkes.

Love at first bite at Langer’s

Last year, my husband asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday. Since he keeps current by reading restaurant reviews, I deferred to him.

“Yesterday, you mentioned a new wine bar that just opened in Silver Lake. Let’s go there,” I said.

This wine bar was quite the scene. Very hip. Very trendy. Lots of glass and concrete. The waiters were all skinny, dressed in black, aggressively gender-neutral. I ordered a glass of wine — a delicious Syrah. But it wasn’t truly a glass of wine; it was more like a splash. After three sips, the wine was gone. It cost $15. I felt cheated — and on my birthday, no less.

This year, as my big day approached, I didn’t mess around. I said to my husband, “We’ve lived in Los Angeles for 35 years. It’s about time we went to Langer’s Deli!”

“Langer’s Deli?” My husband was in shock. “They haven’t been reviewed in years.”

An iconic landmark by MacArthur Park, Langer’s has been a fixture in Los Angeles for decades. In fact, this year marks Langer’s 70th anniversary. According to many foodies, Langer’s serves the greatest sandwiches in America. Its pastrami is world famous, but after all these years, I still hadn’t experienced it for myself.

That’s even more surprising, given that my love for pastrami on rye goes back to when I was a child. At that time — during the ’60s — there was an advertising campaign for Levy’s rye bread with the slogan: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” It served as the caption to a series of photos that included the likes of a Native American and an Asian boy, each with a sandwich close at hand. This ad campaign was groundbreaking. It said so much about Jewish pride: We Jews love our food, and if gentiles also love it, then surely the Messiah will be here any minute.

So when this year’s birthday rolled around, my husband and I walk into Langer’s, and immediately, it feels like reuniting with an old flame. The décor is vintage 1962, back when Formica reigned supreme. The joint is hopping with people representing all corners of the globe. I see dashikis, saris, turbans. There are Asians and Latinos, and even a couple of Nordic blondes in a corner booth. The multilingual hum is just like the Levy’s ad promised: proof that everyone is loving their food.

A waiter comes to our table. I order a cream soda and pastrami on rye with all the trimmings.

The waiter turns to my husband and asks for his order. This could go in so many directions, because my husband is a food extremist. At home, he’s a disciplined dieter and will avoid salt, sugar, fat, butter, citrus, starchy vegetables, red meat, smoked red meat, smoked fish, nuts, chocolate and booze. But in a restaurant, he sometimes throws caution to the wind. I’ve seen him order wine, margaritas, lamb roast, garlic potatoes, tiramisu, chocolate mousse, gelato.

When he’s finally ready to order, I take a deep breath. He wants cream cheese and coleslaw on a Kaiser roll.

He eats his stupid sandwich and pretends to like it. Meanwhile, I’ve fallen in love with my pastrami masterpiece. It turns out that my soul mate is a pastrami on rye!

While clearing the table, the waiter asks, “Are you folks here for a special occasion?”

This question delights me and I answer, “Yes! As a matter of fact, it is my birthday.”

“If it’s your birthday, you get dessert!”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t. After that sandwich, I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, c’mon! It’s on the house. Our gift to you!”

“A gift? To me?”

“Yes. What’s your name?”


“Ellen, try some dessert — you’ll love it!”

The waiter — and this guy is a pro, not some 20-something aspiring actor-director-writer biding his time — is a waiter’s waiter. He returns to our table with a delicious sweet, singing: “Happy birthday, dear Ellen!”

I look out over the restaurant and all these faces from around the world are singing happy birthday to me. It looks like a greeting card from the United Nations. I throw kisses to one and all.

The dessert is delicious. My husband takes a bite and deems it worthy. We leave Langer’s. I’m floating on air. It takes so little to make me happy. And my husband’s happy that I’m happy. And I’m happy that he’s happy. So we’re happy, happy, happy, happy.

As we walk to our car, it gets me thinking: I just saw people of every race and creed coming together in peace and harmony over a deli sandwich. The golden age is within our grasp! All we need are heaping portions of pastrami on rye, plenty of dessert and gallons of cream soda.

And don’t forget the pickles.

Ellen Switkes writes for the page and the stage. She’s with Ladies Who Lunch, a storytelling duo.

Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.

Opinion: Riot/Ride

Last Sunday, my wife, our daughter and I hitched our bikes to our car, drove toward downtown and parked just across from MacArthur Park, otherwise known as Langer’s Deli adjacent.

There, we hopped on our bikes and joined more than 100,000 other bicyclists, walkers, stroller-pushers and roller skaters for the latest CicLAvia.

I’ll try to describe it, but, trust me, you had to be there.

Ten miles of L.A. streets from southeast Hollywood to Boyle Heights were closed to automobile traffic. We were able to leisurely ride toward downtown on Seventh Street, turn onto Spring, through El Pueblo de Los Angeles and Little Tokyo, and then over the Los Angeles River.

A sea of L.A. humanity flowed with us — of all colors, shapes and sizes. Occasionally we’d pass DJs blasting trance music, or mariachi bands, and even groups playing giant games of street chess. For several hours we got to take in the unhurried beauty of L.A.: the boat-like Coca-Cola Building, the art deco Oviatt Building, the view of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains from atop the Fourth Street Bridge. 

If the Los Angeles Riots, whose 20th anniversary we mark on April 29, realized the darkest vision of what L.A. could become, CicLAvia represents the brightest.

“Twenty years ago, we were rioting in the streets,” Aaron Paley, president of Community Arts Resources (CARS, ironically) and a founder of CicLAvia told me, “and now we’re riding bicycles through them. It is radically different. That’s why I am so inspired by how things have changed in 20 years.”

The idea for CicLAvia originated in Bogota, Colombia, where Ciclovia (Spanish for “bike path”) is now a weekly event that takes over some 80 miles of city streets and draws a million people. Paley first heard of it in 2008 and joined forces with another group to try to bring it to Los Angeles.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got behind the project after one meeting, and his support smoothed the way for the ultimate car city to host the first CicLAvia on Oct. 10, 2010. Today, it is the largest open-street, car-free event in America.

For Paley, it was the realization of a lifelong dream to find the one event that would bring together the city he loves. For years he imagined calling on all Angelenos to gather by the Los Angeles River. Then, he realized, “The river is just one place, but the streets are everywhere.”

Yes: The streets that so often divide us, annoy us, frustrate us — on CicLAvia, they entertain and connect and amuse us.

“We proved that we can all come together,” Paley said.

That, in a sentence, is the story of post-riot L.A.

In our compelling panel discussion put together by Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim and excerpted in these pages, Joe Hicks and David Lehrer cite a study that named Los Angeles the least-segregated city in America.

But most of the other panelists argued that while that may be factually true, L.A. often doesn’t feel that way. Our lives butt up against one another, but they do not intersect.

“It depends on where you’re talking about,” countered civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “It’s gotten more complex. Have we desegregated? Yes, we’re probably the best-desegregated big city, other than New York — but there are very few what I would call integrated communities.”

One possible solution, Rice suggested, is for the private and public sectors to engage schoolchildren in drama, arts and music together, across geographic boundaries:

“You learn music at symphony hall or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion,” Rice said. “But you have a school from Granada Hills, a school from El Segundo, the South Bay, from Watts, and those four areas learn music together.

“When kids learn together something that’s fun — art, theater or they do sports together or mix up the debating teams, the decathlon teams, by income and by neighborhood — you naturally get a mix that exposes them to one another, and a lot of the walls come down.

“I’ve never understood why we don’t use the rich civic and arts infrastructure that we have to help our kids learn about one another and really achieve integration.”

In other words, a kind of educational CicLAvia.

Meanwhile, Paley and the organizers of the street-level one plan to build on its success to make it a monthly event, rotating among different L.A. neighborhoods. 

Paley, by the way, is also the organizer of Yiddishkayt LA, the annual citywide festival celebrating all things Yiddish. What’s the connection between bicycles and Yiddish?

“Me,” Paley said.

That, I suppose, and the idea of connection itself: a people to its past, and people to one another. 

At the end of CicLAvia, I rode back to where our car was parked on Alvarado.

People really need to wake up to the possibilities of this city, I thought. They just need to wake up.

As if my little reverie had an Elmer Bernstein soundtrack, I suddenly heard the blast of a shofar. I thought it must be a weird car horn, but there it was again — definitely a shofar.

I looked around and saw a man not 20 feet away, on the sidewalk. He was Latino, short and squat, and dressed in a too-large cheap blue suit. And he was blowing a long, twisted Yemenite shofar. He let loose a chain of staccato bursts, sounding more Herb Alpert than Yom Kippur, then he let the thing fall to his side and shouted in Spanish, “Wake up! Jesus is coming. Wake up!”

Except for the Jesus part, I had to agree with him. We do need to wake up, and CicLAvia is a great beginning. Let it be only the beginning.

The next CicLAvia is Oct. 14. For video and more information, visit this column at jewishjournal.com.

Lunch at Langer’s With Eddie and Irv

Some Fridays, if I’m lucky, I get to eat pastrami with Irv and Eddie at Langer’s, the great old delicatessen on Seventh and Alvarado streets across from MacArthur Park. Irv and Eddie are in their 80s, so the fight over the check begins before they even order anything.

“You were brought here!” Eddie says. He drove. He grabs Irv’s hand and looks at me. “It’s my lunch, so in that case, eat at will.”

Irv says OK, he will order caviar.

Eddie is a widower living the high life in Century City Woods. He takes gals from Palm Springs to Las Vegas for a night to see Celine Dion at Caesars Palace. Irv just got his first walker.

“I’m entering a new phase,” Irv says with a sigh. His walker has a seat. “Oh it’s very advanced,” he adds. Now he can shop at Costco with his wife, Norma. Everyone knows there’s no place to sit down at Costco. It’s amazing what happens to us.

The two men have that wonderful free-swinging easiness, a kibitzing shtick with each other that is such a kick to be around. Today’s lesson: The DNA of a Blockbuster.

“The Producers” has just arrived at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. In a new book by Gerald Nachman, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s” (Pantheon) impressionist Will Jordan claims Mel Brooks stole the idea that created “The Producers.” The book also says a friend of Jordan’s, Lenny Bruce, did Hitler as a character singing at an audition.

“Now Eddie,” Irv begins before the pastrami arrives. “Would you like to hear something interesting? In 1937, I came out here because Berle’s radio show was from here.” Irv used to write Milton Berle’s radio show and vaudeville act.

“So I came out,” Irv continues, “and Berle had been signed to be the star of a movie at RKO called, ‘The New Faces of 1937.’ He was a new face then. Joe Penner, Parkyakarkas [Harry Parke], Harriet Hilliard — who was Harriet Nelson — a lot of brilliant people in this picture. And the producer at RKO, a man by the name of Edward Small comes to me and says, ‘The script is no good. I want you to rewrite it.’ Now they’re paying me $750 a week for the movie, and $650 for radio. I’m the richest man that ever lived in the Bronx.”

Irv’s recall for names leaves me agog. Then Eddie starts in.

“Oh, the script he said was no good was not yours?”


“So you rewrote it then.”

“It was by Nat Perrin and Philip Epstein, the twin brother of Julius. Both very good men. Anyway, the basic idea was from a Saturday Evening Post story about a producer on Broadway, Will Morrisey, a crook who sold more than 100 percent of the show. That’s where it started.”

“That’s the basic story.”

“That’s ‘The Producers!'”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So I wrote the movie — lousy movie, you know….”

“But the movie you wrote was not on that idea.”

“Yes it was.”

“What was it called?”

“‘New Faces of 1937!’ See the guy was gonna put on a show and make it a flop.”

“Oh, I see.”

“And it turned out to be a hit. What I’m trying to say is, all of a sudden Will Jordan says it’s his idea.”

“Anybody can say it’s their idea!”

“Anybody can say it,” Irv says. “But the guy who did it was the man who wrote the original piece in the Saturday Evening Post. George Bradshaw.”

Again with the names.

“Well, who wrote the picture with Zero Mostel?” Eddie asks.

“Mel Brooks! What I’m trying to say is he took this idea and did apparently a phenomenal job, because all the Jews in L.A. are gonna run and buy a ticket for $200.”

“My son went last week,” Eddie says. “Saw the show. He said, ‘We’re going in August.’ He said it was just wonderful and they brought in some Los Angeles shtick references in the script.”

Plates of pickles and pastrami sandwiches arrive. Irv announces: “I have a deep resentment against the whole project. As a Jew, I don’t think Hitler’s funny. I don’t think anything about Hitler is funny. But I’m in the minority.” He stops the waiter to ask, “Are there any pickles that are more done than this?”

After we eat, I say, “Anyone want to split a piece of chocolate cake? It looks so good.”

“Whaaaaat?” Eddie gulps. “Cake he wants.”

“Cake? Who eats cake in a delicatessen?” Irv asks.

“It’s almost sacrilegious to suggest cake after a corned beef sandwich,” Eddie says with a laugh.

I still have much to learn from these gentlemen. I tell them it wasn’t me, it was the Langer’s double-baked rye bread talking.

“Remember Berle’s great joke?” Irv jumps in. “Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world a Jew dies.”

“He would say that on stage?” I ask.

“To Jewish audiences,” Eddie says.

Hank Rosenfeld is a comedy writer who lives in Santa Monica.