It seems pretty clear that America and the Jews were meant for each other.
Overwhelmingly, Jews fell in love with this vast unpredictable land, which provided them with opportunities and the change to pursue and even actively embrace happiness that no other place ever had offered. It offered them a place to feel at home.
America on the whole accepted us too, as yet another one of the eccentric groups that makes up its intricate mosaic. (Yes, it’s a cliché, but sometimes clichés are true.) That’s why you can find Jews in odd and obscure places and in hugely important public ones. That’s why we have had such an outsized effect on both pop and high culture.
And that’s why there are few parts of American life that aren’t entwined somehow or other with American Jewish history. (Okay, maybe the evangelical church…)
So what’s the point here? It’s that a part of pop culture that doesn’t seem particularly Jewish — fast food, which is overwhelmingly treif, and many observant Jews wouldn’t even consider eating — also is part of the Jewish story.
Adam Chandler, the author of “Drive-Thru Dreams,” will talk about his book at the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on Thursday. (See box.) The book is not primarily a Jewish book. It is not primarily about Jews. But its author is so Jewish, and his background as a writer is so Jewish, that its Jewishness is inescapable.
Mr. Chandler came by that honestly, he said. His mother, Nada Chandler — who is “the ultimate mensch,” he said, before listing her many official connections to the Jewish world, connections that include that she’s a docent at the Holocaust museum in Washington, on Hadassah’s board, a past president of her shul, but that’s just a slice of them — “is an active member of the Jewish Book Council.” Mr. Chandler lives in Brooklyn now, but he’s from Houston, and his mother still lives there. “She comes up to the JBC conference every year to hear the pitches.” That’s when Jewish authors of books with Jewish content give a two-minute talk on their work, and the JBC connects the ones it thinks have the most promise with audiences in Jewish venues who’d be interested in hearing them talk.
“It’s very intense,” Mr. Chandler said. “She’s always been giving pointers to me, and this year I had the pleasure of delivering my speech to her.”
What was it like? “It was fun,” he said. “This was my mother’s tenth year doing it. She always asked me when I would do it, and there I was. ‘Hineini,’ I said. The whole crowd cheered.
“And afterward she said that I did good.”
The book that Mr. Chandler was presenting then, and that he’s discussed before many groups, most of them Jewish, is about fast food, which, he said, “is an inherently American concept. It has to do with car culture, with being pressed for time, with the need to fill a table in a short time. It is adaptable.”
And that’s where some of the connection with Jewishness comes in. “Jews are adaptable, too,” as our long history makes clear.
Many of the people who invented the world of fast food were Jewish, Mr. Chandler said. Another one of fast food’s attributes was the way it allowed people to reinvent themselves. “One of the main things about fast food franchises in the 1950s and ’60s was that it didn’t matter who you were,” he said. “You didn’t have to be a college graduate, or even a high school graduate, to open a McDonald’s. As long as you were able to dedicate yourself to the operations manual, you could succeed.”
Some of the most wildly successful franchisees were Jews, Mr. Chandler said. Sandy and Betty Agate “encountered Ray Kroc,” who didn’t create McDonald’s but who took it over early and made it great, “in Chicago, where he was based in the early ’60s.
“They ran a printing press, and on the side, for extra income, they sold Bibles door to door.” That’s as in the Christian Scriptures, Old and New Testaments. “The story goes that Betty appeared at Ray Kroc’s door, selling Bibles, and he is impressed by Betty, and gets to talking to her, and recognized what she was. He was a lifelong salesman, and he recognized talent when he saw it. So he talks to her, eventually meets her husband, and realized that they were who he wanted.”
Why would that be? You don’t have to be a salesperson to sell McDonald’s, “but it was less about the salesmanship than it was about the hustle,” Mr. Chandler said. “Kroc was becoming a wealthy person, and he had lots of highfalutin new friends in the country club, but rather than give a franchise to golf buddies, he wanted them to go to people who would get into the mire, who would follow his lead.
“He recognized that the Agates had the qualities that were crucial to success, so they opened their first franchise.” That was in Waukegan, Illinois, the same Chicago suburb that produced the comedian Jack Benny about 50 years earlier (and he was Benjamin Kubelsky then). Soon the Agates opened other franchises; one of the master strokes was to open one near a naval training center. Like the military, McDonald’s is a highly regimented system. “Like all fast food, it is highly systemized,” Mr. Chandler said. That’s how it maintains its consistency. Nothing is improvised.
“In the 1960s, the Agates were making $250,000 a year in pure profit,” Mr. Chandler said. That was a fortune then. “They were very successful in that old-fashioned American dream way; two people who were ready to work hard, who had looked for opportunity,” and had found it. “It worked out very well for them,” he said.
Another deeply Jewish — although still not kosher — fast food chain was started by a Jew. That was Nathan’s Famous, started by Nathan and Ida Handwerker. “You could say that American fast food really began with him in 1915,” Mr. Chandler said. “Nathan’s in some way embodies what we think of as fast food — it’s affordable and accessible.
“I can’t tell the story of fast food without talking about the Jewish entrepreneurs who made such an indelible impression.”
Fast food is more than just food. McDonald’s, as always the most visible one, “isn’t really a fast food company,” Mr. Chandler said. “It’s a real estate company that makes hamburgers.” That’s because of the brilliance of Harry Sonneborn, an orphan brought up by his Orthodox aunt and uncle, who worked in the garment district. “He grew up around business, and he became a financier and a wunderkind.” It was Mr. Sonneborn “who came up with the idea that McDonalds would buy the land where they built the store, and lease it to the owners.
“It was brilliant, because if the store didn’t work out, that wouldn’t harm McDonalds as it would if they owned the store,” although of course it was hard on the owner. “And McDonalds was able to control its franchisees; if one, say, decided to serve Coke instead of Pepsi, the company could use the lease to keep them in line.”
The idea of tradition and change also affects fast food, and there is some irony involved. Although “one of the most important things about fast food is its consistency — you know what you are going to get — there have to be a lot of changes to make things uniform.” Technology changes, supply chains change, costs change, tastes change. Fast food operators have a plan for that. “As companies have grown, they have to make changes to the food to make it more consistent,” Mr. Chandler said.
That’s Jewish because “Judaism is full of rituals, particularly rituals around the table,” he said. “It is the fact that you know exactly what you are going to get.”
It offers comfort. “When I was living in Israel, I was homesick,” Mr. Chandler said. “But I knew that to feel American, I could go to a McDonalds. I loved watching kids who grew up in the States have their first kosher Big Mac. It was amazing, knowing that it exists.”
It’s not just Israel, he added. When they go overseas, fast food chains find a way of merging their inherent Americanness with local culture. “In India, you can go to a Taco Bell and get a vegetarian burger, made of black beans instead of beef. In Australia, you can get a Whopper with vegemite.”
Going in the other direction, “there is an Israeli fast food chain called Burgerim” that’s opened stores locally. “It’s funny; Jews know what Burgerim means” — hamburgers, in the plural — “but no one else does.”
There is a great deal to talk about when the subject is fast food, and Mr. Chandler enjoys a good discussion. “I could talk about this forever, and I also know that everyone has incredible stories about it.” At his talks, therefore, “I encourage people to talk about it. Everyone is so intimately familiar with this topic, and it is always nice to hear people share their experiences and their memories.”
Who: Adam Chandler
What: Will talk about his latest book, “Drive-Thru Dreams — A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom”
Where: For the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Ave., Tenafly
When: On Thursday, February 27, after lunch.
What Else: The morning starts at 10:30, with Columbia teacher Jess Velona talking about Winston Churchill. Mr. Chandler’s talk will start after a lunch break and end at 2.
How much: JCC members pay $36 and non-members pay $44. Lunch is not included, but both talks are.
For more information: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to jccotp.org and follow the links through Adult Programs and Lectures and Learning to JCC U.