Politics and pastrami

This week two topics are dominating the conversation of Westside Jews: the election and Wexler’s Deli. And they are not as unrelated as you think.
May 25, 2016

This week two topics are dominating the conversation of Westside Jews: the election and Wexler’s Deli. And they are not as unrelated as you think.

The California primary is less than two weeks away, on June 7, a Tuesday. And Wexler’s Deli opens at 6th Street and Santa Monica Blvd in Santa Monica on May 27, a Friday. 

The lead-up to the primary has brought in a steady stream of candidates and fundraisers. But going strictly by the number of tweets, Instagram posts and emails over the past week, I’d say Wexler’s is getting more buzz.  

“… I drove by Wexler’s deli that opens next Friday,” my friend Bryan texted. “(I’m foaming at the mouth just thinking about it) we should all go next week — can’t wait.”

Eater LA did a breathless curtain-raiser. LA Weekly tweeted out a picture of chef and co-owner Micah Wexler with his face semi-hidden behind the counter, as if his full glory won’t be revealed to us mortals until this week.  MSNBC gave the deli an on-air shout-out.

What’s the deal? There are many delis west of the 405. Izzy’s, less than a mile away, has been around for 40 years — you’ve seen Larry David hold kvetch there on many “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episodes. Fromin’s, on Santa Monica Boulevard a few blocks from the new Wexler’s location, has been a mainstay of the Elders of Brunch for years. What’s the big tsimmis with Wexler’s?

In a word: authenticity.

From the moment Wexler and his business partner, Mike Kassar, opened their first small outlet in the revitalized downtown Los Angeles Grand Central Market, authenticity set Wexler’s apart.  They smoked their own lox, cured their own pastrami, pickled their own pickles. Their breads and bagels are co-crafted with local artisanal bakers. If pickled herring was on the menu, guess who pickled it?

Delis that return to the techniques of handcrafted food had opened in other cities — Miles End in New York, Wise Sons Jewish Deli in San Francisco, to name a couple — but never before in L.A.  One reason is L.A. didn’t lack for delis, many of them classic.  Another reason, as Wexler himself explained to me, is that it’s very difficult, expensive and time-consuming.  

But it’s also the reason Wexler’s is a success. Authenticity. Coming of age at a time when much of life is virtual — from texting to sexting, the millennials, in particular, yearn for something real. That’s where food comes in — it’s the one big thing left that can’t be digitized. It’s something they can literally sink their teeth into. The more their world is coming to them as-if, the more they demand their food be true.

On May 15, when Sandor Katz, author of  “The Art of Fermentation,” led a workshop on DIY sauerkraut in the Grand Central Market basement, just below Wexler’s, guess how many people showed up? 50? 100? Try over 1,000 — most of them young. 

I volunteered as an assistant to Katz and helped walk giddy 20-somethings through techniques familiar to their great-great-grandparents, lost to their moms and dads.

“That’s it?” a young woman asked as I handed her a finished jar of pounded cabbage and salt. “So cool!”

And that’s why everyone is talking about Bernie and Donald, too.

The two candidates who are the real story of Election 2016 are not polished politicians. To the overwhelming percentage of millennials who’ve voted for Sanders and turned out to his rallies, that’s what attracts them to the man. He screams authenticity — especially when he screams. True, Bernie has been a professional pol most of his life, and Donald Trump is anything but a rube. But you can describe each of them using words that just as easily describe the kind of food millennials love: raw, unfiltered, homemade, salty, sour, tough.  In a world of political tenderloins, they are brisket.

Now, if you’ve read this column before, you know what I think of Trump. His authenticity is a ruse. Don the Con, aka Con Man Trump, aka Conald Trump is none of what he claims to be — not anti-gun or anti-abortion or pro-middle class or pro-Israel. He knows far better than his gullible followers that there will be no wall, no deportations, no end to NAFTA or Obamacare or the Iran deal.  

By contrast, Bernie believes the things he says. He may have a less-than-illustrious Senate record, but he’s creating a grass-roots movement by aiming for the treetops — and perhaps, if he knows how and when to turn his true believers into effective activists, he will have accomplished something big.

That leaves us with Hillary Clinton. She’s a brilliant woman with deep experience and a long record of accomplishment, whether you agree with her or not. Polls show a majority of Americans think she’s not trustworthy or honest. Millennials disdain her for her lack of, yup, authenticity.    

One could make an argument that Hillary’s travails are more about her inability to project the real Hillary than they are about the real Hillary. But, in any case, that’s her task — to get raw and real at a time when those are the flavors people crave.

Disagree?  If you want to argue it out, you know where you can find me this Friday. After all, elections come and go. Lox is forever. 

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

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