New Jewish Deli Opens in Mt. Airy

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Neighborhood residents line up for brunch. | Liz Spikol

Even before the doors were open, anticipation was building in Mt. Airy about the new Jewish deli coming to the corner of Germantown Avenue and West Mt. Pleasant Avenue. On the neighborhood message board NextDoor, area residents shared copies of the menu and rejoiced in the pending arrival of matzah ball soup and bagels.

And not surprisingly, on the first Sunday of its first week, Cooperman’s was busy with folks lining up for bagels and whitefish and pastrami on rye. Greta and Alan Greenberger, longtime Mt. Airy residents, sampled slices of brisket while they waited for their food.

Greta Greenberger, who retired as City Hall’s tour director after 25 years in 2016, grew up in Boston. Of the Jewish deli, she said, “It’s the kind of restaurant I miss from my childhood.”


Husband Alan, former deputy mayor for economic development and director of commerce for the city of Philadelphia, agreed: “I grew up with delis, but I haven’t seen any in this neighborhood.”

Indeed, this neighborhood has had a distinct lack of Jewish delis, which is surprising given its demographics.

Anchored by the enormous Germantown Jewish Centre that looms from its hillside perch at Ellet Street and Lincoln Drive, the Jewish population of the neighborhood is quite large — and that’s no accident.

During the era of white flight, when so many white residents were leaving their neighborhoods as African-Americans moved in, the Jewish population in Mt. Airy was enjoined by then-GJC Rabbi Elias Charry to stay and create a blended community. Most of them did, and the neighborhood’s resulting integration has been chronicled in Abigail Perkiss’ book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia. The phenomenon will be reexamined again in the upcoming documentary film series Journey: The Jewish Philadelphia Story by Mt. Airy resident and former mayoral contender Sam Katz.

In 2018, Mt. Airy remains one of the city’s most integrated neighborhoods, with large Jewish and black populations living side by side. But until now, the bagel-loving Jewish deli fans were out of luck in Mt. Airy. That was something that Marvin and Jessica Graaf, who also own Mt. Airy restaurant Cresheim Valley Grain Exchange and Germantown’s Pizzeria Nonna, decided to remedy.

The Graafs, who are not Jewish, collaborated with Jewish chef Lor Kats — a man who, Marvin said, “knows his pastrami.”

Kats and Marvin Graaf worked together at another Graaf family establishment, the now-closed Falls Taproom in East Falls. When the pair were mulling restaurant concepts, they realized there was no fast casual in Mt. Airy, and no Jewish deli.

“There definitely are a lot of people looking for that type of food,” Marvin Graaf said. “We thought a Jewish deli would be a great fit for the neighborhood.”

The location, on a busy corner, is also just what they were looking for, though the property — which served as Cooperman’s Pharmacy for 93 years and was purchased after its closure in 2015 by developer/restaurateur Ken Weinstein — needed a complete renovation. So Graaf started researching 1950s New York delis, and came up with the restaurant’s current design, with black and white tile floors, wood tables and booths, and walls that invoke old-school tin.

For Kats, the project feels like coming full circle. “Jewish food is super close to me,” he said. “My grandmother had a cafe in a JCC in the Northeast when I was a kid. Some of her old machines are in our building.”

The offerings at Cooperman’s cream cheese bar | Liz Spikol

As for Kats’ food, which is not kosher, it’s a mix of expected Ashkenazi fare and unconventional twists. There is deliciously robust matzah ball soup, with tender chicken and plenty of fresh dill, as well as delectable whitefish and corned beef and pastrami sandwiches. But there’s also the cream cheese bar, which Marvin Graaf says was inspired by a visit to Cold Stone Creamery, where patrons can get pretty much anything mixed into their ice cream.

“I was there with my wife and I was thinking how cool it would be if you could do that with cream cheese.” As a result, there are more than 20 ingredients that can be mixed into cream cheese at Cooperman’s — everything from pickled jalapeño and lemon zest to more traditional ingredients like smoked salmon or chives.  

There’s also plenty of fare on the menu for folks who aren’t looking for Jewish food, including chili, hot dogs and a variety of sandwiches and dessert drinks.  

So far, it seems as though Kats and the Graafs have made a good bet: “We are at more than 200 percent of our initial projections, Marvin Graaf said. “We didn’t expect to be as busy as we are. We’re really happy. The feedback and support from the community has been phenomenal.”

The biggest sellers so far seem to be pastrami, whitefish, matzah ball soup and custom cream cheese, but Graaf said everything is moving quickly.

It’s a busy time for the Graafs: In addition to Cooperman’s, they’re on the cusp of opening another restaurant, Nonna’s Pizza Tavern, just a couple blocks away on Germantown Avenue. And the couple also runs a dog rescue organization, Philly Bully Team, that they founded in February. Marvin Graaf admits they’re not getting a ton of sleep right now, but he thinks it’s all worth it.

“We’re just happy to be part of the neighborhood.”

lspikol@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I live in Northeast Philadelphia, which has lost all of its Jewish flavor and, sadly, population. I am one of the last originals left and I am hoping to move very soon. I am definitely interested in moving to Mount Airy if I can find a two-bedroom/two-bathroom place to rent by November 2018. But before then, I will absolutely be making a trip to Cooperman’s Deli. This is a business that deserves all of the support of all Philadelphians, not simply Jewish Philadelphians.

  2. I am so excited to hear that a new deli is opening. Although I don’t live near there, I was just having a conversation with someone about the fact that there are no longer any Jewish delis in the Bensalem/Northeast Philly area. I will definitely take a ride and check it out.

    • There’s a long tradition in Philadelphia of “kosher-style” delis that are not kosher — Famous 4th St, Latimer, Katz’s, Hymie’s, Murray’s … all landmark eateries with loyal followings — and this continues with new spots like Abe Fischer. No one who is shomer kashrus is compelled to eat there, and there are more and more places under kosher supervision. There are enough options for all of us.

  3. Thanks for posting. This is a great addition to our Northwest Philly area. I’ve missed having a real Jewish deli close to home. Although we get and deliver family farm foods to our friends and neighbors, I will certainly enjoy buying real Jewish rye and bagel fixins’ at your place. Hoping the best for your new business. See you soon.

    • When I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, we used to drive from Chester County and stop at a wonderful deli in Allentown. It may have been kosher, as my mom wouldn’t have made the stop if it weren’t. Would love to see something like this in King of Prussia area now that Michael’s is closed.

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