Erik Anjou’s cinematic ode to the Great American Deli is solid, informational, and guaranteed to make you crave a mile-high pastrami on rye. But the real surprise here is the subtle, poignant way the film tackles those big-picture questions, like how traditions are created, changed, and, sometimes, disappeared.
The majority of Deli Man is set up like a classic docu, with behind-the-counter action shots, history-rich file footage, and experts waxing poetic about the Jewish art of sandwich making. Still, the story-within-a-story is that of Ziggy Gruber, a modern-day deli man (living and working in Houston, Texas, no less) who is dead-set on keeping the tradition alive. In one way, Gruber’s story is a sweet, triumphant tale about a man who is bucking trends and heroically defending a way of work — and life — that his ancestors championed for generations. On the other side of the argument, though, is that Gruber is living his life in the past and, perhaps, to the detriment of himself. At one particularly moving point in the film, Gruber and his father stroll through their old New York City stomping grounds and happen upon the sushi joint currently occupying their former synagogue. “Don’t you think it’s sad? It’s like they’re washing away our Jewishness,” Ziggy asks his dad. “No,” the older Gruber replies. “It’s not sad. It’s nature. Nothing lasts forever. We don’t. Neighborhoods don’t.”
Agree with him or not, Ziggy Gruber proves to be the heart and soul of Deli Man. He’s a sweet, charming, and hilariously “displaced” individual who looks, acts, and sounds like the much older interview subjects the film features. In between his story, we’re treated to a barrage of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and old-world deli tales from the people who lived them way back when. It makes for surprisingly entertaining film watching. Just be sure to pack a snack.