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The deli

He sat in the new deli in Center City eating the creamy whitefish salad, savoring every sodium-laden scoop full.

"So is this a real New York deli?" asked an obvious first-time customer at the counter. "The real thing," the woman behind the counter answered as she filled his order.

He was not a new customer. He made it a point to stop here whenever he was in this part of town. His health no longer permitted corned beef or Nova lox to be part of his regular diet, but once in a while the diet be damned. It was good to get a taste of the old neighborhood in South Philadelphia where he grew up as a kid.

He sipped on his diet Doctor Brown’s Cream Soda — the low-calorie substitute a grudging concession to the realities of creeping old age.

He wanted to tell the customer that as good as they are, New York can’t claim all the authentic delis. And his mind wandered, as it often does these days, to thoughts of his boyhood and the old neighborhood. Stein’s Delicatessen was very different than the one in which he was now sitting, as different as the retro Citizens Bank Park is from old Connie Mack Stadium.

His mother would send him to Stein’s to buy corned beef and seeded rye bread. Sometimes he would bring home fresh liver knishes or a piece of smoked fish called sable. The inside of Stein’s was dark and mysterious, unlike the bright, sanitized surroundings in which he now sat. You could smell the odor of briny pickles as you walked into Stein’s.

But his favorites were the tart green tomatoes sitting in a big wooden barrel. His mother would always let him buy one for himself. The fun was in picking out your own tomato, fishing for it through the exotic bits of spice with a large wooden ladle.

The older women in the neighborhood would usually buy just a few ounces of corned beef or pastrami, enough for one sandwich. His mother was used to buying in large quantities for our ravenous appetites. Mrs. Stein’s eyes would twinkle when he asked for a pound of corned beef, "lean, please."

Stein’s sold sweet unsalted butter, and that’s all his mother ever bought. She’d bring it out from behind the counter in big chunks that were as white as lard. She used a small serrated blade shaped like a miniature hacksaw to cut the butter and, after weighing it, she wrapped it in waxed paper.

The dark mystery of Stein’s was funky, not at all what the Department of Health might recommend today. It was all part of a culture that remained insulated from the world of most gentiles back then. Jewish deli food had not crossed over into mainstream America. A Dunkin’ Donuts bagel would have been unthinkable.

I always considered myself lucky that, by living in a Jewish neighborhood and being reared in a close-knit Italian family, I had the best of both Old Worlds.

Stein’s has been transformed into Kibbitz, the modern Center City deli, much as America has been transformed. The ethnic groups have lost a good deal of their mystery to the rest of us, and we eat the best of each other’s food with rapacious abandon. The darkness is gone, but so unfortunately is the exotic mystery.

The older generation fights to maintain its identity, but it knows that in the end it is a losing battle — and not all of that is bad.

Something strange is happening in our America. The old divisions of class, race and ethnicity are blurring with almost frightening speed, but now we are separated by our politics.

David Brooks, in his New York Times column, points out that America is divided by a political chasm. We listen to separate radio stations divided along political lines. We no longer watch the same news shows: Conservatives love Fox News while liberals scorn it. CNN to some conservatives now stands for the Clinton News Network.

We choose our friends with political considerations; fewer arguments that way. Brooks with tongue in cheek suggests that we start flying separate airlines so we won’t have to put up with differing political views from our own. I was in a lunchtime debate with someone recently defending John Kerry’s manhood (imagine having to defend the manhood of someone who is a decorated war hero) when the other guy called me a "liberal" and actually thought that ended the argument.

Back in the old neighborhood, when I was a little gentile kid shopping for knishes and smoked fish in Stein’s, we knew we were different, but we respected those differences. In America today, the culture wars are splitting us apart because we have lost respect for one another’s politics.

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