When thinking about Jew-ish businesses in New York, Zabar’s immediately comes to mind.
The iconic gourmet grocery store on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has been owned and operated by the same Jewish family since 1934 and is an intrinsic part of many Jews’ day to day life. But, interestingly enough, it was never a proper Kosher supermarket.
Movies, books, TV shows and lifelong New Yorkers point to the store when listing examples of businesses that have been able to shape the city’s culinary culture alongside what it means to be a Jew in New York.
Questions follow: what is the key to the success of Zabar’s? What, exactly, makes Zabar’s one of the most Jewish businesses in New York?
"The Zabar's brand is the Zabar family," says Scott Goldshine, who has been the general manager at the store for over 45 years. "It is hugely important."
In the early 1920s, Louis Zabar moved to the United States from Soviet Ukraine and bought a stall in a farmer's market in Brooklyn. In 1927, he married Lilian Teitlebaum and they had three children: Saul, Stanley and Eli.
Years later, in 1934, the couple opened a 22-foot-wide shop in Manhattan, where the store still stands now, albeit much larger than its original iteration, on West 80th Street.
The delicatessen quickly gained notoriety for the types of foods it carried and their unrivalled quality. Zabar's was one of the first stores of its kind to serve drip coffee, it also earned a reputation for its top-notch smoked fish and caviar offerings, plus a slew of classic Ashkenazi foods that folks still rush to the space to get their hands on today.
When Louis died, Stanley and Saul took over the business while Eli went on to open his own line of specialty shops, including the flagship Eli's Market across Central Park on the Upper East Side.
Since then, the siblings' kids and, in turn, their offspring, have worked at the store and maintained control of the business making Zabar’s a true mom-and-pop shop despite its years in the business and profound and widespread cultural reach.
According to Goldshine, the family’s decision to continue owning the business and limiting its expansion (the Zabar’s brand, it seems, has never been interested in franchising opportunities) is paradoxically what has made it so successful for so long.
"When people talk about Jewish delis, we're a landmark," says Goldshine. "Even though we're very different from Katz's, we get mentioned in the same vein when talking about famous Jewish establishments and I think it's because we’re all family owned. It seems like the one common denominator in these businesses is that they are family-owned, independent and not chained. They are big-small-businesses."
Although video maker Daniel Geneen, who recently worked on a video about the business, agrees that Zabar’s is part and parcel of the city’s tapestry, he believes that a portion of that fame is related to the store's ability to sell to the masses and not restrict its audience.
"I would say that the reason it is such an institution is because people don't see it as just Jewish but as New York,” he notes.
Lindsey Frances Jones, a mixed media artist who has worked on prints depicting Zabar's, feels the same.
"It's definitely a store you always knew about," she says. "It has that old New York charm but offers everything you might need today."
And yet, as noted by Jones, that “old New York charm” is intrinsically embedded in a specific kind of Jewish identity, in addition to the myriad of other cultures that have laid a claim on the city. To properly represent the New York of yore, it is inevitable to stumble upon some New Yorkers’ relationship to Judaism—especially when it comes to food.
"As a non-Jewish person who used to live in New York, Jewish food was always a big part of the culture so Zabar's represents the classic New York while also showcasing the diverse culinary scene," says Jones.
"Were still the go-to store in New York when it comes to Jewish holidays," says Goldshine. "But we're also major when it comes to Thanksgiving and Christmas, we cover everything. We have never lost our identity. We're both a Jewish deli and the place to go to in the morning for nova."
And so, perhaps, the answer to the question of how Zabar's has shaped Jewish life in New York is by, well, shaping New York.
Judaism is the second most practiced religion in the state and the Jewish community in New York City is the largest outside of Israel. It follows, then, that the two identities—that of New Yorkers and that of Jews—are intrinsically connected.
Jews outside the US may not fully grasp the hold that New York has on the American Jewish community. From coast to coast, delis and bagel shops owe their existence to food trends that started in the Big Apple.
And that’s perhaps why Zabar’s has come to represent not just Jews but New York. Just like the city, its loud, proud and Jew-ish.