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NEW YORK, Sept. 22 (JTA)--In a ritual well known to Jewish New Yorkers, Sen. John Kerry's campaign participated in a tradition this week that long has been a prerequisite of campaigning in the city Rev. Jesse Jackson once infamously dubbed "Hymietown."
The campaign came to a kosher deli.
The Democratic nominee himself was busy stumping in Florida--a state where, unlike New York, the vote actually may matter this year--so his Jewish brother, Cameron Kerry, was dispatched to eat the obligatory smoked-meat sandwich on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
"I had the pastrami," Kerry said when asked about his menu selection. "It was good pastrami--tender."
By contrast, the Jewish journalists who joined Kerry for lunch ordered very non-Jewish-looking avocado wraps, chicken salads and tuna fish.
The stop Wednesday at Noah's Ark deli on Grand Avenue, just steps away from a world-famous bialy purveyor, was sandwiched between a series of Jewish meetings for the candidate's brother, who has become a key adviser to John Kerry (D-Mass.) and has been central to the campaign's outreach to Jews.
Cameron Kerry spent the morning meeting a host of New York Jewish communal officials, and afterward he headed off to Flatbush, Brooklyn, to visit a garage of Hatzolah, the Jewish volunteer ambulance service, and then to a food pantry in Canarsie, Brooklyn, run by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
The lunchtime meeting at the deli, hosted by New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, was an opportunity for Kerry to talk to a small group about his brother's positions--and his own Jewish predilections.
"Energy independence is a national security issue, not just an economic one," Kerry said, critiquing President Bush's energy policy. "Bush has taken his eye off the ball."
But the talk quickly turned to more important issues--like pickles.
Kerry said he preferred the half-sour variety, which he demonstrated by biting into one. Silver, a Lower East Side native and an Orthodox Jew, chided him for his choice.
"The is the home of the sour pickle--the Lower East Side," Silver said. "Gus' Pickles is right around here."
Silver also noted that the film Crossing Delancey, a love story drenched in nostalgia for the Lower East Side, had been filmed not far away, and described where the old building of the Yiddish Daily Forward was situated in relation to the restaurant.
Kerry nodded earnestly.
The lunchtime meeting also was an opportunity for all assembled to recount their own experiences meeting presidents and presidential candidates on the Lower East Side, including a gray-bearded man with a black hat who stopped by Kerry's table on his way out of the restaurant.
"This reminds me of the day that John F. Kennedy came to the Lower East Side," he said.
Others quickly chimed in with tales of a Lyndon Johnson visit to the Borough Park section of Brooklyn; a Dwight Eisenhower rally at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, and a Kennedy rally--they couldn't remember whether it had been Jack or Bobby--on the Lower East Side on the eve of Sukkot.
After New York, Kerry said he was going to campaign in Michigan for a day or two before "going home for Yontif." On Yom Kippur, he said, his daughter would be reading from the Torah at his home temple in Massachusetts.
"My girls have a very strong sense of Jewish identity," Kerry said. One of them--Jessica--won an award at her high school for leadership of a Jewish youth club, he noted.
As the lunch wound down, one or two of the diners slipped some of the warm rugelach that had been put out for dessert into their purses and briefcases. One asked for a brown paper bag and emptied a plateful.
Kerry was asked about his favorite Jewish food.
"Lox," he said.
"The mayor really likes gefilte fish," Silver offered.
To be sure, nuclear proliferation in Iran is an important issue this presidential campaign--"You just can't ignore the threat; you've got to deal with it," Cameron Kerry said--but on this particular campaign stop, more prosaic things seemed to be on people's minds.
When a waiter came by to take away the leftover french fries, the only question one reporter had was: "Can I take that with me?"