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Community with a side of coleslaw

Seventeenth Street Deli serves up new food with old roots

Once a month for the past two years, the Seventeenth Street Delicatessen at Congregation B’Nai Emunah (1719 S. Owasso Ave.) has been serving pickles and pastrami in the name of bringing people together. Cooked by volunteer chefs and served by high-schoolers, this communal-table event brings in a mix of about 30 percent congregation members and 70 percent interested Tulsans, according to Rabbi Dan Kaiman, who started the pop-up deli.

Think Katz’s in New York, where Harry met Sally. (“I’ll have what she’s having!”) Think fresh rye bread holding up a pile of pastrami. Think one day in January when you can sneak around that pesky, low-carb New Year’s resolution.

“Delis are the place Jews start their American journey,” Kaiman said in his office at the synagogue. “Pastrami and deli food is really an American Jewish product. And it’s at the core of many people’s personal and family stories. For example, my grandparents met at a Jewish deli in Brooklyn. My grandfather was a waiter; my grandmother was a customer.”

They probably never imagined that their grandson would create a Jewish deli in the heart of Tulsa.

“People talk about the bagels in New York City. There’s nothing special in the water. Anything you can do there, you can do here.”

Raised in Pensacola and educated in New Brunswick and Los Angeles, Kaiman is a warm speaker with a big smile and a straightforward way of talking. While he presides over the corned beef and the twelve-day-cured pastrami, he hands plenty of responsibility to a crew of volunteers: an emergency room doctor, a pharmaceutical rep, and a computer programmer, among others.

“It’s a place for people who are part of the synagogue to connect with each other,” Kaiman said. “We were really thinking about ways of building community … and we came up with the idea of doing deli food. If our grandparents could do it—there wasn’t some magic sauce they had—we could probably figure it out.”

But it’s not just for Jews. Kaiman considers the deli experience akin to that of walking into an ethnic hole-in-the-wall restaurant and broadening your horizons. While many Congregation B’Nai Emunah members have fond memories of consuming pickles and coleslaw with generous helpings of salted meat, others will be a little outside of their comfort zone.

“There’s no identity check at the door,” he said, smiling. “It’s for people to come together; it’s really that simple. You just come in and have dinner. Then you go on with your life.”

The menu offers three sandwich options: pastrami, corned beef, and egg salad. They serve Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, Black Cherry, and Cel-rey (a celery-flavored soda), along with a bowl of pickles, coleslaw, and French fries, all prepared in the synagogue.

“I like to say, although it’s not exactly true,” Kaiman said, “that the cow walks in and the sandwich walks out.”

While the current iteration of the deli only happens once a month, Kaiman has already expanded it (they used to have one sandwich: pastrami), and he wants to do more. He’d like a food truck someday, but for now the once-a-month model has allowed him to test the methods, the product, and the market.

“I got a call yesterday from a woman who grew up in Brooklyn. Her earliest memories are of a Jewish deli, and she’s lived in Tulsa now for fifty years. She came to our deli last month. She called to say, ‘I haven’t had pickles like that in forever.’”

Calls like that bring the deli’s purpose to Kaiman’s mind: people and tradition coming together to create new moments and memories.

“She gets to connect to her own history, but she gets to do it alongside her grandkids who grew up in Tulsa, who don’t have that same memory, and they’re developing that memory with her. Some people have the nostalgic memory of what a Jewish deli is, but many don’t, and we get to introduce them to this good, tasty food. It’s salty, fatty meat on delicious fresh bread. How can you go wrong?”

The next Seventeenth Street Deli will be held January 28 at 6 p.m. For more information or to make a reservation, visit tulsadeli.org or call 918-973-DELI.

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