ABOUT ABE LEBEWOHL
An excerpt from the 2nd Ave Deli Cookbook
Abe was an exceptional person–exuberant, funny, compassionate–a brilliant businessman and a great humanitarian. His death generated national television and radio coverage, as well as dozens of heartfelt editorials and obituaries in New York City newspapers. And his funeral was so widely attended that the Community Synagogue on East Sixth Street, where it took place, was filled far beyond its fifteen-hundred-seat capacity. The hundreds of people who could not even find standing room in the shul filled the entire street, building to building, between First and Second Avenues. Traffic had to be rerouted by police barricades, and every stoop and fire escape was crowded with mourners. Unable to hear the funeral service inside, they stood in silence for its duration to honor him.
Abe–who fed every homeless person who walked into the Deli hungry–has been called “the Jewish Mother Teresa.” At his death, even those who knew and loved him best learned for the first time just how many people his life had touched. Because Abe never spoke about it, no one will ever know the extent of his charity, which embraced not only Jewish causes but also almost any person or group who ever asked for his help. Among the funeral mourners, we heard nuns telling a reporter, “He was so good to us.” Abe’s legendary generosity manifested itself in every conceivable arena. A tremendous enthusiast for any cause that moved him, he gave away mountains of food to politicians he supported, fed striking workers (when there was a strike at NBC in 1987, he provided sandwiches to the picketers every day for twenty-one weeks), and delivered trays of free food to a local Ukrainian travel agency in celebration of the Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. Whenever anything moved or excited him, Abe sent food.
In his restaurant, both customers and employees were treated like family. No one–not even a busboy–ever called him Mr. Lebewohl; he was always Abie, always warm, caring, and accessible.
A Dollar and a Dream
Abe Lebewohl once said he came to America in 1950 at the age of nineteen “with a dollar and a dream.” Actually, the dollar was questionable, but the dream–of a successful life in America–was empowered by the rigors of his childhood (which he wished to put behind him), by a family tradition of courage in the face of adversity, and by his own immense vitality. The story of the Lebewohl family–a remarkable story, but one shared by thousands of immigrants who rebuilt Diaspora-shattered lives in America–is a testament to the ever-hopeful human spirit, sustained in the face of the most daunting prior experience.
Born in Lvov, Poland, in 1931 to a comfortable middle-class family, Abe’s briefly secure life was shattered in 1939, when Stalin joined forces with Hitler, Poland was divided, and Lvov became part of the Soviet Union. A year later, Abe’s father, Efraim, owner of a small lumber mill, was condemned as a capitalist, arrested, and sentenced without trial to ten years’ hard labor in Siberia. The business was seized by the government, and, a week later, Abe and his mother, Ethel–forced to leave all their possessions behind–were taken to the railway station, herded into cattle cars, and deported to Kazakhstan in Central Asia.
Thousands of miles away, in Siberia, Efraim was put to work as a logger, enduring long hours balancing on rolling logs in freezing waters. A fall from the logs–not an uncommon occurrence among prisoners–meant instant death; before a man even had a chance to drown, he’d be crushed by the oncoming logs. It was a job for a young, athletic man in excellent condition, not a middle-aged businessman debilitated, emotionally and physically, by cold, hunger, and despair. Efraim later told Abe that his intense desire to reunite with his family focused his concentration and kept him from falling to his death.
Similarly, Ethel Lebewohl–devastated by the soul-numbing loss of everything she held dear, and unsure if she’d ever see her husband again–had to rally immediately in order to survive. She found work in a restaurant, and sent Abe to a local school. When school let out every afternoon, she’d seat him at an inconspicuous table in the restaurant and sneak him nourishing food while he did his homework.
In 1941, fate favored the Lebewohls; the Russians granted amnesty to all Polish political prisoners, and Efraim was released from the labor camp. A fellow prisoner he had befriended in Siberia, future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, wanted Efraim to accompany him to Palestine via Iran, but Efraim’s first goal was to find his family. By the time he located Abe and Ethel, it was too late to get out of the country. The Lebewohls had to remain in Kazakhstan through the remainder of the war, scrounging at odd jobs to keep food on the table. When the war ended, they returned to Lvov, to see if they could find any of their relatives alive. Everyone–grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends–had been killed by the Nazis. Ironically, Efraim’s arrest, and his family’s forced deportation, had saved their lives.
The small group of surviving Jews in Lvov (most of whom had been hidden by Gentiles) were given a choice: they could become either Russian or Polish citizens. The Lebewohls chose Poland and were sent to Waldenburg, a new territory the Poles had reacquired from East Germany when Europe was reconstituted after the war. All the Germans living there were expelled, and their homes were given to Jews. After years of horror, the family enjoyed a brief respite from danger. But when, eight months later, forty Jews were killed by Polish anti-Semites in a bordering town, they decided to leave Waldenburg and settle in Palestine. Since the British were allowing very few Jews to enter, it was necessary to emigrate illegally. The family made its way to Italy, where they planned to board a ship for Palestine. At the last minute, however, Ethel Lebewohl had a change of heart: having survived the Holocaust, she could not bear to risk her son’s life in the Israeli fight for independence. Efraim agreed, and despite strong protests from the young Abe, a fervent Zionist, the family decided to stay put until they could emigrate to America. For several years, they were forced to reside in a displaced-persons’ camp in Barletta, Italy, under the auspices of the United Nations. Abe’s brother, Jack, who today runs the Deli, was born in that DP camp in 1948. Abe was then seventeen, and more than half his life had been spent fleeing persecution. The Lebewohls remained in the camp until 1950, when they were given the opportunity to come to America. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society found them housing on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, in the building that is today Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.
Becoming an American
Nineteen-year-old Abe, desperate to make a success of himself in America, immediately began to study English. His teacher–also a greenhorn, but one who had arrived a few years earlier–tried to pass along the rudiments of American culture with the language. He told the class that all Americans chewed gum and were fanatical about baseball, so Abe chewed gum and memorized baseball stats and lore. A more realistic view of American life came from his daily reading–dictionary in hand–of every word in The New York Times, a habit that lasted a lifetime, eventually, of course, without a dictionary. Efraim found a menial job polishing display fixtures in a factory, and Ethel went to work for a tie manufacturer. Both of his parents wanted Abe to go back to school, but he insisted on working as well.
His first job was in a Coney Island deli, where he was employed as a soda jerk. During lunch breaks, he volunteered to help out behind the counter, where he could better observe the restaurant’s operation. He soon graduated to the coveted position of counterman. Over the next few years, he worked in a number of deli kitchens, gleaning the secrets of superlative pastrami and other traditional Jewish delicacies.
In 1954, with a few thousand dollars he had miraculously managed to set aside, Abe took over a tiny ten-seat luncheonette on East Tenth Street–the nucleus of the Second Avenue Deli. Working around the clock for years–often filling in as cook, counterman, waiter, and even busboy–he put all his time and energy into making a success of his tiny establishment. (When he started dating his wife, Eleanor, in 1957, Abe told her he owned a restaurant. One day, she traveled down from her Bronx home to see it for herself. When she walked in and saw him sweeping up, she thought he’d lied to her. Only after she asked someone who the owner was, and they pointed to Abe, did she believe the restaurant was actually his.) For the first decade, the entire enterprise was touch-and-go. Bankruptcy often loomed; when money was tight, Abe moonlighted at other jobs to keep the restaurant going. He frequently despaired that he wa…