Act British, eat Yiddish? Phoebe Maltz Bovy defends eating deli food regardless of what Netanyahu’s up to

“Could I really write about a Jewish restaurant given the current political turmoil?”

So went the thought process of Guardian restaurant critic Jay Rayner. This is in his March 31 review of Freddie’s “a New York-style non-kosher Jewish deli” in Hampstead, London, England. As he explains, “this review almost didn’t happen.” Why? Was Freddie’s closed the day he went? No.

But the exact nature of his concern is hard to parse.

Rayner worries he’d “get abuse for” writing about a Jewish restaurant. Again, a Jewish restaurant, in an Ashkenazi style that predates 1948, not even an Israeli restaurant (save for its “Bloody Mary shakshuka,” evidence that Israel did happen, with a diffuse cultural impact on Jews everywhere, even the proper British ones). He’s worried about being cancelled or whatever (I think?), this is part of it. “Hence comments are closed.”

But he’s also deeply concerned about other people, maybe. Or maybe primarily concerned about how he comes across on the basis of how he performs this concern. I don’t know, I do not read minds. What I do know is that he wrote this sentence: “The horrendous campaign of the government and armed forces of Israel in Gaza cannot be allowed to make being Jewish a source of shame.”

On the one hand, he’s right that one should not self-flagellate for one’s Jewishness even if, like Rayner, one “deplore[s] what Israel is doing.” (Rayner allows that Oct. 7 wasn’t a good thing, either.) On the other… why oh why oh why is this even a question to begin with?

Writers are free to hop around in their subject matter, and this is not Rayner’s first time opining on the conflict. Here, however, he is doing so in a restaurant review. And this is not a restaurant whose purpose is to Free Palestine nor to Free Palestine From Hamas By Any Means Necessary. It is a delicatessen. If it is doing a cultural appropriation, it is culturally appropriating from New York Jews. (Should I be cancelling Rayner, as that is my own heritage?)

Why would a British restaurant critic reviewing a British restaurant, in Britain, for a British paper, need to embed, within it, an anodyne op-ed about the Middle East? (War is bad. He’s not wrong! But sir, this is a Wendy’s.) (Well, technically it’s a Freddie’s.)

Rayner, whose parents met at Jewish sports club Maccabi in Hampstead, is Jewish. Not religiously but ethnically and culturally. This information is in the review itself, but until the very end, it’s woven into it in terms subtle enough that you might not see it. He almost gives the impression that you’re hearing from someone who had maybe one distant Jewish relative, perhaps a great-great-grandparent twice removed, perhaps one he only even learned about well into adulthood, and not two Jewish parents: “When I first came across Freddie’s I was excited. For all my lack of faith or observance these dishes, kept alive by a vestigial memory of the shtetl, root me.”

As an American, now Canadian-American, Jew, the European Jewish thing of non-practising Jews referring to themselves not as Jewish but as of Jewish origin will never cease to confuse me, but so it goes.

According to Rayner, Israel’s actions have “made life for Jews who live outside Israel and have no responsibility for the decisions its government takes, so very much harder.”

Is this victim-blaming or just the facts? Whatever you want to call it, I can’t say I love this interpretation. Why not separate the two things out? If you think (and it is an increasingly challenging not to think) Israel isn’t handling this war as well as one might hope, say that. As a separate matter, if you that bigotry against Jews-as-such is unacceptable, say that, no explanation needed.

The problem with what Rayner does in this review is, he is engaging in the thing he thinks he’s criticizing. It is Rayner, not some anticipated future detractor of his, who has decided that a pastrami sandwich or whatever they call this in England is a prompt for a discourse on Middle Eastern affairs. If you recognize that it’s antisemitic to be mad at a Jewish deli in London as a protest of the Israeli government, then how about not drawing a connection between these things to begin with?

Surely he knows it is in no way helpful to Gazans for him to boycott a Jewish deli in London. Does he imagine it’s unseemly to eat Jewish food at a time when Gazans don’t have enough food, or is it better, perhaps, as a gesture of solidarity, for Jews to stop eating until Israel dismantles itself or…? I guess I’m not following the mechanism here. Why is it a problem, given these times, for Jewish culture not to ritualistically apologize for existing at all and vanquish itself? I see how, if that happened, antisemites would be pleased, but what’s in it for actual Palestinians?

Ah, but people might have gotten angry at Rayner had he not affixed an I’m-not-one-of-those-Jews disclaimer on his matzah ball soup review.

This, though, represents the logic error of disclaimer-givers of all kinds. He is prompting readers to associate reviewing a Jewish deli in London with anything whatsoever to do with Israel. It’s coming from him.

And even if he’s right that some would have responded poorly, what of it? Let’s say the Guardian had posted a deli review, in a sans-op-ed form, and left comments open. And say a river-to-sea of comments along the lines of “Free Palestine” had followed. Who then looks ridiculous? The newspaper and columnist affirming, in its actions, that Jews are people and have culture and exist, or the ones who tell themselves (if they’ve even thought it through to this degree) that harassing local Jews is somehow indirectly putting pressure on Israel to… act differently? Apologize for its very existence? Who can say!

There is not space here to get into why it would be ridiculous to affix a disclaimer about cuisines in this way even if the London restaurant were Israeli—or Palestinian. But there is something particularly galling about holding forth about Israeli’s government when this is a restaurant celebrating the culture of pre-1948 Diaspora Jewry. (Some of it, at any rate.) Isn’t ‘go back to Brooklyn/Poland’ what the antizionists say they want?’

And yet there is the nagging question of the Bloody Mary Shakshuka. An uncomfortable reminder that not all Jews had Brooklyn as an option and Poland, well, we know how that worked out.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.