Crown Heights Deli, Like Jewish Community, Endures

Crown Heights Deli, Like Jewish Community, Endures

The Brooklyn Jewish delicatessen holds a special place in the culinary consciousness: a place where the food takes on the context of its surroundings to become more than mere nourishment. Just as the marriage of seasoned brisket, fresh bread and spicy brown mustard elevates the individual ingredients to the gestalt of the pastrami on rye, so the combination of food, culture and history lends the Brooklyn Jewish deli its enduring mystique. Nostalgia plays a role as well – the once ubiquitous institution has seen a marked decline from its mid-century heyday, as many New York delis closed in the wake of cultural assimilation and the decline of Jewish urban neighborhoods.

But in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, a thriving Jewish community keeps old traditions alive. A stroll on Kingston Avenue between Eastern Parkway and Empire Boulevard reveals a bustling commercial corridor, where Orthodox women pushing strollers and black-hatted Hasidim frequent dozens of family-owned businesses. Among these storefronts, one delicatessen has been serving Jewish classics for 38 years.

House of Glatt has stood on the corner of Kingston Avenue and Crown Street since 1977. Owner Aaron Tzivin bought the deli from his father-in-law, the original owner, in 1980 and now operates the store with his own son-in-law, Ben Gaerman.

Trays of fried chicken rest in the window, luring in passersby. The modest storefront gives way to a sparse interior – no tables or decoration, just a display cooler stocked with choice cuts of meat opposite a deli counter offering old Jewish standards, such as knishes, brisket and kugel, alongside some options from outside the traditional canon, like Chinese-style chicken and vegetables and spaghetti Bolognese. The black and white checkered floor and Tzivin’s long white coat signal House of Glatt’s old school authenticity. The emphasis here is squarely on the food, prepared the old-fashioned way with a devout commitment to heritage.

As the name suggests, all of House of Glatt’s offerings meet the high religious standards required to qualify as glatt kosher, which formally relates to the smoothness of an animal’s lungs but is used colloquially to describe food held to a more stringent kosher standard. This standard is upheld by the Beis Din of Crown Heights, which requires kosher businesses to submit to regular inspections to maintain their certification. The Beis Din’s stamp of approval carries significant weight for members of the rigorously observant community. “They’re in here all the time,” said Gaerman, referring to the Beis Din inspectors. “If there’s a box that looks like it doesn’t belong, they want to know what’s in it. They’re very strict.”

Despite preparing food to meet the exacting standards of the neighborhood’s devout Jewish community, Gaerman said the deli’s customer base also draws from Crown Heights’ West Indian and Hispanic populations. “They like it because it’s something different that they’re not used to – old, traditional Jewish foods,” he said. “Glatt meat is more expensive. You’re paying the rabbi to be there through the whole process, so it’s going to bring the price up. I’ve never had non-kosher meat, but I’ve heard other people say that glatt meat is higher quality and better tasting, so they’re willing to pay for it.”

For many, the name Crown Heights carries with it the shadow of racial division and animosity. In 1991, violence broke out in the neighborhood after a car driven by a Hasidic man struck and killed a black child. Long-simmering tensions between the West Indian and Jewish communities exploded, resulting in the stabbing death of a Jewish man and three days of violence that injured 43 civilians and 153 police officers, according to the New York Daily News.

Reflecting on the neighborhood’s divisions, Gaerman, who grew up a few blocks from the deli, initially said that race relations had improved, but then stopped himself. “It sometimes doesn’t feel like it, but we are separated,” he said after a long pause. “Growing up, the Jewish kids go to Jewish schools and the black kids go to public schools, so the kids have their own friends.” This hasn’t changed since he was in school and won’t change anytime soon, he said. The continued separation of Jewish and black youths in school makes it hard for Gaerman to imagine a more racially integrated Crown Heights.

Crown Heights’ Jewish community and businesses like House of Glatt have withstood suburban flight, racial tensions and, more recently, the slow and interminable march of Brooklyn’s gentrification. Asked to explain the community’s strength and endurance, Gaerman, his customers and others walking on Kingston Avenue all credited the influence of one man: Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The influential rabbi, who led the Lubavitch movement for over 40 years, died in 1994, but his impact can still be felt in the form of his followers, who make up a significant portion of Crown Heights’ Jewish population. Rabbi Schneerson’s bearded visage still watches over the neighborhood in the form of portraits proudly displayed in the homes and businesses of his followers.

Alongside stalwart delis, bakeries, wig shops and hatters, a new wave of Jewish storefronts has appeared along Kingston Avenue, including an ice cream shop offering “kosher treats” and even a kosher sushi restaurant. But even as tastes have changed and evolved, customers can always go home again to House of Glatt.

As the deli nears its fifth decade in operation under its third generation of management, it maintains the traditions and flavors of Jewish culture in Brooklyn with every pastrami on rye.

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