Historian Ted Merwin tracks the beginnings of the Jewish deli not to the old country of Eastern Europe but to the really old country of biblical Israel. In his book Pastrami on Rye, Merwin explains how Temple priests performed ritual sacrifices, cooking meat to be distributed to the community. By Jewish law, “the freshly roasted flesh had to be consumed within two days for it to supply what the rabbis deemed the proper quotient of happiness.” After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis contemplated the acceptability of eating meat on the anniversary of its demise. They decided, “the meat would need to be cured for at least two days in order not to cause undue joy…thereby introducing corned beef into Jewish cuisine.” Thanks to “undue joy” (Zoloft’s new slogan?) we got deli sandwiches.

Joking aside, deli food has a long history and isn’t static. To remain vital, deli owners have adapted to changing tastes without sacrificing the one thing that makes them special: serving food that evokes memory.

“I never intended to be a New York deli,” Zaftigs owner Bob Shuman tells me. With its Rubenesque Nanny Fanny emblem and waiters wearing cheeky t-shirts (got matzo balls?) Zaftigs exhibits irreverent reverence for the past while trying to be something new. “I thought that word was so overused. I think we’re taking an eastern European core of goodness, of soul food if you will, and building kind of a neighborhood eatery around that.”

Zaftigs' matzo ball soup.
Zaftigs' matzo ball soup passes the Jewish deli litmus test.
Evan Shuman

Opened in 1997 (a Natick location was added in 2011), Zaftigs made its mark as a restaurant serving Jewish specialties alongside breakfast, burgers and steak tips. Originally a Barney Sheffs, the location was thought to be cursed after the three proceeding delis failed in the space. But owner Bob Shuman, an experienced Boston restaurateur, found a winning formula by mixing tradition and innovation.

I meet Shuman after the lunch rush as well-fed customers clear out of the mid-size dining room. We sit in a booth near the front door as a waiter drops off the signature freebie bagel chips with cream cheese. Shuman sometimes gets guff for not being more of a traditional deli. But his willingness to be playful and modern is what makes Zaftigs work. And the cold reality is many of the classics didn’t sell. Esoteric items like kishke (Jewish sausage) and kippers (cold smoked herring) never found traction and were abandoned for more approachable dishes. Some things, however, don’t change. In the early days Shuman tried putting cilantro on the kasha varnishkes (bowtie pasta and buckwheat). His clientele was not amused.

It’s not always the customers who put up resistance. Sometimes it’s Shuman pushing back. “Some things I struggle with,” he says. “The barbecue brisket quesadilla would be a perfect example of our little fusion thing. I can’t tell you how many of those we sell a week and I was so anti putting the word quesadilla on our menu.”

Shuman seems the restless type, always trying to improve and find ways to better serve the community. As we wrap up our conversation, an older gentleman walks by the table and thanks Shuman who flashes a smile. “I had a conversation with him before and he said, ‘I’ve been coming here for 20 years’ and I said, 'I have to tell you, I appreciate the support but it will be 19 this June.'”

That the regular doesn’t know how long he’s been eating here proves Zaftigs is, like the old-time delis, a familiar bedrock. Anyway, it’s hard to keep track of time when counting in corned beef sandwiches.

While Zaftigs success draws from breaking the mold of the old delis, the soon to open Mamaleh’s represents the old as new deli resurgence. Last year, the ownership group behind Kendall Square’s State Park announced plans to repurpose their upstairs neighbor, West Bridge, as a Jewish deli. Given the group’s proven ability to serve refined comfort food I was excited to see what they had in mind. One of the owners, Alon Munzer agreed to meet me at State Park.

Mamaleh's gefilte fish being chopped.
Mamaleh's gefilte fish: 86 weird jelly, sub sweet tattoos.
Nir Landau

Munzer is soft spoken with the faraway stare of a full time restaurateur and father of young children. We chat at a table in the bar’s “greenhouse” room. “This is probably the first time I’ve sat down here in four years,” he says before explaining that State Park was originally going to be a deli. “We ended up changing concepts here and it was moved to the middle burner, not the backburner. We knew we wanted it to be our next project but we didn’t know where it was going to be. And then the opportunity came for upstairs.”

As for the food, Munzer wants to have the classics, but tailor them to modern tastes. “We want fresh flavors,” he says. “The stereotype is that deli food is rich and fatty and smoky. And a lot of it is, but we want a nicer balance.” Munzer takes me up to the former West Bridge. Construction hasn’t begun but I get the layout plans. There will be takeout and deli counters at the entrance as well as a formal dining room and, a rarity in a Jewish deli, a full bar. (What cocktail pairs best with a bowl of cabbage soup, I wonder?) Munzer is perhaps most excited about a storage room in the basement where he hopes to host regular comedy shows, mixing Jewish food and humor in “a borscht belt type of thing.”

As for why deli culture isn’t strong here Munzer says, “I don’t know why Boston specifically has less. We have plenty of Jews here. I don’t know where it’s gone, but I’m happy to help bring it back. I just want to be liked by other Jews, I want people at my synagogue to say ‘oh my God, that’s your place?’”

All across the country, the number of delis is dwindling, but those that remain maintain a cross-cultural appeal, providing a conduit to the past and a window into a culture that can appear opaque to Jews and non-Jews alike. I think David Sax, author of Save the Delisums up this sentiment best, so I’ll leave the last word to him.

“The very environment of a delicatessen somehow ensures that everyone inside will eat Jewish (lots and fast), get treated Jewish (with tough, sarcastic love), and talk Jewish (loudly). So long as they do not order mayonnaise on the sandwich or ask for white bread, no one will call them out on their lack of Hebraic heritage.”

Zaftigs - 335 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-975-0075, zaftigs.com

Read Part 1 of Elisha Siegel's exploration of Boston's Jewish delis here.