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Christmas

A crazy Jewish-American Christmas: the Hollywood deli where the line is out the door and the party never ends

  • Traditionally, Jewish Americans have flocked to Chinese restaurants at Christmas, but in places such as Los Angeles, it’s at the deli where they party
  • The family at Canter’s Deli loves celebrating the holiday there, even though it means days of extra cooking, and taking on more staff just for the day
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 2:04pm

Most people, I would imagine, think they have a pretty good idea of how Americans celebrate Christmas.

Thanks to decades of movies, televised Christmas specials and torrents of festive capitalist propaganda, while the religious details of the holiday might be fuzzy, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere in the world who wouldn’t recognise Santa Claus, and know that he at the very least represents free stuff and socially sanctioned overeating.

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Less familiar then, among the holiday archetypes, are those touchstones which mean more to millions of Americans than the tree or the stockings hung by the chimney with care: the cinema, the Chinese restaurant and the delicatessen.

For the United States’ nearly seven million Jewish people, millions of other non-Christians, and for all of those who just cannot stand their families, Christmas could have become a day of isolation, when their otherness was most sharply felt. Instead, for many non-Christmas observers, the Christian holiday has become a reason to celebrate their own way, away from the tinsel, and gifts, and sons of god.

Traditionally, Jewish Americans have flocked to Chinese restaurants at Christmas – Jewish Americans, like Chinese Americans, historically settled in more diverse, urban areas and many other types of restaurants are closed over the holidays. But, for those lucky enough to live in a city with a large Jewish population and flourishing Jewish culinary scene such as Los Angeles and New York, there is also the increasingly popular choice of taking the family down to the delicatessen for a feast of Jewish American comfort food.

If you are picturing a quiet night out with the family, sharing plates of pickles over hushed conversation in half-empty restaurants, then you have the wrong idea entirely.

“It’s utter chaos,” says Jacqueline Canter whose grandparents started Canter’s Deli back in 1931. Today the 24-hour Hollywood deli is a beloved dining destination and – to a certain set of Angelenos – a cultural landmark on par with the Liberty Bell.

“It’s complete madness. A complete mad house,” says Canter. “There’s a line out the door. It starts at about 10 in the morning and it doesn’t stop until about midnight.”

For the Canters, Christmas is something they’ve come to look forward to every year with no small amount of trepidation. The family loves celebrating the holiday at the restaurant, but celebrations have become so large that it means having to order extra ingredients, days of extra cooking, and even taking on more staff for the one day.

“You can prepare your whole life but most of the time we run out of food anyhow,” she says shaking her head. “We have to order a hundred more bottles of mustard – it sounds crazy but we need to – extra corned beef, extra pastrami, and we have to order more pickles. We have to make twice as much bakery stuff as we usually do.”

When it comes to the extra staff, Canter looks at what could be a hardship through a more festive lens. Every year she reaches out to old members of the Canter’s team who have moved on: “All the old staff comes back. I’ll be working, my brother will be working, all my cousins will be working. It’s all hands on deck. It’s like a reunion of sorts.”

Still the sheer magnitude of the undertaking can be daunting for anyone working on the other side of that deli counter. “I need to go to sleep early the night before just to rest up for it,” she says. “Not just me, everybody.”

And not everybody is cut out for the challenge; one waitress famously crumpled under the stress, ordering the same food over and over again regardless of what the customers actually wanted to eat, slowing the kitchen to a crawl. She only lasted a few hours.

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Of course, a gathering like Christmas dinner at Canter’s was bound to give rise to its own unique traditions, and the last few years the highlight for many diners has been Shalom Sherman, local character and Israeli accordion enthusiast.

“He’s a real hoot,” says Canter. “He just goes up to the tables and starts playing his accordion and making up songs about people, he asks for their names and makes up rhymes. It really adds to the flavour of the whole thing. He’s way over the top.”

Canter’s even has its own Christmas regulars. There’s Loretta who went to school with Canter and who now comes in every Christmas to celebrate her birthday with her two sisters and their whole family.

This being Hollywood, there are also celebrities waiting in line for the holiday, like singer Belinda Carlisle, who apparently likes to pass her Christmases in a booth in Canter’s dining room.

“It’s very festive in here on Christmas,” says Canter. “Everyone’s in good spirits and the tips are good.” For the most part everyone gets in the spirit – with the notable exception of a busboy who got caught stealing US$100 tips, of whom according to Canter, the less said the better. Those good spirits come in handy because snagging a seat on Christmas is no easy task.

“Sometimes on Christmas you can wait 45 minutes in line,” says Canter. “At certain times of the day it gets so busy that we cannot get the food out, so we actually have to hold up the line and I start handing out chocolate rugelach to appease the guests while they wait.”

“One year, it was raining on Christmas but people still lined up and waited in the rain, which I thought showed how devoted our customers are,” she says proudly until something occurs to her, “but then again, there’s nowhere else to go.”

Aside from repeatedly calling it “a madhouse” and “totally crazy”, Canter struggles to explain the scene in her restaurant every Christmas. The parties are often huge, 20 people or more crammed into booths, their kids running around the restaurant. The normally cavernous deli can get crowded fast. Says Canter: “It’s a big travel day so a lot of people come here with their luggage. There’s really no way to describe it. You’ve got to come over and see it yourself.”

She is so fixated on plans for the upcoming holiday that it only occurs to me near the end of our conversation to ask her what Christmas means to her. Does she have any warm Christmas memories from when she was a girl?

She looks at me like I am exceptionally slow-witted: “I’m Jewish.”

I know, but even Jewish children are aware of Christmas: “I went to a Christmas party when I was a kid,” she says struggling to remember, “and I remember coming into the deli for Christmas as a kid. Not to work, just to look at the people.”

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These days her faith may not recognise the holiday, but she is as excited as any gentile for Christmas dinner. For her that means her favourite order: a corned beef Reuben, matzo ball soup, and a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda.

That is, of course, if she can find a quiet moment to eat it.