...a meal whose price could have fed a family for months
Several years later in London, 1979, after an expense-account dinner at The Connaught – Bélon oysters bathed in brackish liquor; rare roast rib of beef, its fat crunchy, succulent, properly charred, accompanied by Yorkshire pudding and thick green asparagus smothered in Hollandaise; a crisp Pouilly-Fuissée and plump juicy strawberries with clotted cream (a meal whose price could have fed a family for months), I saw, almost with excitement, another one, creeping silently along Carlos Place, Mayfair.
I pointed her out to my parents. Don’t look.
Back in New York, the Shopping Bag Ladies soon vanished with about as much fanfare as had heralded their arrival. They were rapidly replaced by a younger, scragglier multitude of men. The Homeless.
Everyone saw now.
Rosh HaShanah Eve 1987, entering the Great Hall of Cooper Union (where Abraham Lincoln had railed against the spread of slavery), I spotted sixteen unfamiliar mounds clustered outside. Afterwards, it was late and it was cold. The mounds were covered now with fresh-fallen snow, lending a magical air to the East Village. Curious, I approached as one of the lumps shifted. Cardboard box panels, tattered blankets, rags, and underneath people slept.
Later, I spoke to the rabbi. “Why weren’t we doing anything?” The churches were. I suggested a soup kitchen to follow Shabbat morning services. For weeks I pressed; he prevaricated, found reasons not to. A temple member and prominent family and divorce lawyer joined me. Finally, an opening date was set.
...after 30 minutes, we ran out of food
We had no food and no money. The rabbi refused to contribute from his discretionary fund. A friend and activist neighbour wrote a check for $125. We asked each synagogue member for $5; some gave nothing, others gave more. We planned to distribute paper bags of sandwiches, fresh fruit, cookies and take-out coffee. A supplier offered paper goods, our largest expense, at a discount. We distributed flyers to homeless people on the street. That first Saturday, after 30 minutes, we ran out of food. The following week, we promised we’d be better prepared.
Greenwich Village, even then, was essentially a middle to upper-class community. Two of the best gourmet markets in New York at the time, Balducci’s and The Jefferson Market were there, as was Porto Rico Coffee with its dozens of fresh-ground blends; there were family-owned bakeries, Italian food shops, specialty stores and the famed outdoor Union Square Greenmarket with over 100 farmers trucking in their goods to sell. The old 14th Street Meat Market was also still operating. We asked for contributions on a regular sustaining basis and no one refused.
We had too many volunteers. Relationships were being formed with our guests. My co-chair and I pushed to invite them inside for a sit-down meal. The rabbi said no; ultimately he and the temple board relented. The same activist neighbour who’d provided our seed money volunteered to make soup every Saturday, soup for over 100 people. Once a month we served hot dogs and beans, the hands-down favourite; lasagna, meat loaf or spaghetti with homemade sauce and meatballs. Our guests gave us tips, made requests: Please no green peppers in the spaghetti sauce; peppers caused gas and made them fart. The Sisterhood ladies enthusiastically cooked, they baked; they served; they were Jewish mothers. Eat!
Every week, I went to Balducci’s, where I was allowed to pick anything I wanted from the stockroom of food they couldn’t sell because a label on a can was torn, or a box had a dent. Tinned wild salmon, organic nut butters, Tiptree jams, pâté, Spanish tuna and anchovies packed in oil, dried fruits from the Middle East – the assortment was dazzling. While I selected, five elderly Italian men sat nearby in a tiny room, spending their days making mozzarella from an enormous vat. Balducci’s gave day-old artisanal bread of every variety imaginable, baby artichokes, Japanese eggplants, mesclun lettuce, haricots verts, wild mushrooms and hothouse fruits. From the Greenmarket, farmers donated apples, pears, strawberries, New Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, fresh-picked corn. Our coffee wasn’t any old coffee – we had Moka mint, vanilla almond, Puerto Rican dark, French Roast. One temple member bought kitsch-designed tropical-fruit oilcloth for tablecloths; others arrived with fresh flowers and patterned paper napkins.
Our guests became rabid gourmets, connoisseurs of fine food. They’d walk in the door and know from the wafting aromas what was being served right down to the coffee flavours. Any food, including from the garbage, is good when you’re starving, but high-quality cuisine prepared and served with love brings smiles to hardened faces, makes people happy, makes them feel appreciated and respected. A number of our regulars were rough characters, men with long and ongoing criminal careers. Others were people down on their luck who’d lost their jobs, run out of savings due to illness and no medical insurance, people made homeless by fires, the elderly poor and the mentally ill. Everyone was treated as a welcomed guest; consequently we had no problems. This was a policy insisted on by my co-chair and I. If there was one thing I knew in my bones, to the very core of my being, it was how it felt to be unloved and uncared about, to be hungry, alone and hopeless.
The situation was awkward since we both knew the weed smoker was none other than the rabbi.
One of our temple members was a nationally prominent disability lawyer. He joked he’d doubted the soup kitchen “would ever get off the ground,” and then came ’round to volunteer his services every other week. He recruited a friend who was a housing lawyer. The lawyers represented everyone pro-bono or for free. The disability lawyer was so moved by a few of his mentally ill clients, he let them nap on his office couch.
Our first crisis involved a roach, found in the upstairs bathroom. Several board members complained to the synagogue’s superintendent and me that the homeless were smoking pot in the loo. We insisted they weren’t. The situation was awkward since we both knew the weed smoker was none other than the rabbi.
Then there was the ham débacle. Friends owned an upscale meat supply company and offered to donate cooked turkey, roast beef, Swiss cheese, cheddar, beef salami, and, er, what about ham? I didn’t think so, but since the congregation was Reform (and therefore not kosher), my co-chair and I double-checked with the rabbi. Sure, sure, why not? When we weren’t convinced, he insisted—don’t turn down gifts! We were nervous but gave the okay for ham-and-Swiss sandwiches. Several members of the temple board went berserk. I was accused of personally profaning the synagogue, which one woman told me could never ever be pure again. The rabbi claimed ignorance that we had dared to serve pork.
Next we had a committee meeting at the home of an older conservative temple doctor and his wife. A couple who had never volunteered or been active showed up. She was introduced as a “caterer,” but when we asked about leftovers, she claimed to never have them. She and the rabbi, who visibly took out his wallet, needed to meet privately behind closed doors in our hosts’ bedroom. They both emerged mellow and happy, a slight cloud of a certain sickly sweet aroma following them from the boudoir. The meeting began.
A committee member had brought along an elderly friend. We discussed organisational concerns and future plans, including a monthly food pantry and permitting guests seeking jobs and benefits to use the temple’s address as their own. The elderly friend was becoming increasingly agitated and distressed. She interrupted. “I have been a member of this temple for over twenty years and I have NOT given my money to have dirty schvartzes (a derogatory Yiddish term for Blacks) come into my shul !” The rest of us looked at the floor, we looked at the ceiling, we looked sideways, this ways and that. The woman who’d brought her audibly gasped and looked as if she wanted the sofa to swallow her up. The meeting came to an end. From then on, in those days before e-mail, we did business by phone.
That first spring, as Passover approached, we discussed having a homeless Seder. The board said okay, provided we invited only Jews. My co-chair and I weren’t convinced, but we went along and eventually realised it was a sound decision. There were more than 200 homeless, destitute and/or seriously mentally ill Jews frequenting the streets of the East Village and Lower East Side. Around 25 were regulars at our soup kitchen. We invited them to attend a Passover Seder led by the rabbi. One of the better downtown French restaurants in Manhattan, Capsouto Frères, offered to donate the entire Seder dinner, requiring only that we neither name nor give them credit. The three Egyptian-Jewish Capsouto brothers had founded their landmark Tribeca bistro, renowned for its soufflés, in 1980. One of the brothers and his wife were temple members. All we needed to do was prepare the ritual foods for the Seder plates. A few months ahead, I asked the butcher at The Jefferson Market to start putting aside lamb shank bones. On the first night of Passover, on my way to Seder at friends’, I dropped by to pick up what I anticipated to be five or six bones, which I’d intended to broil in my toaster oven. The butcher greeted me warmly and sent two burly men into the meat locker. Each emerged with an enormous shopping bag filled to the brim with frozen shank bones. I stammered and spewed and stumbled to thank him, trying not to panic over what I was going to do with several hundred raw bones.
I could barely lift the bags. Once outside, I reasoned the temple was several long blocks away and I could leave the bones in the refrigerator there. I struggled, advancing slowly with one bag, then with the next. The high heels I was wearing did not help. An escalating noise resembling a sounder of swine seemed to be rapidly approaching behind me. I heard gasping and panting and frustrated voices shouting, “slow down, slow down, stop!” I turned around to the sight of a dozen straining dog walkers, their assorted canines hot on the scent. Quickly, I stuck out my hand and hailed a cab.
Today, close to thirty years later... I’ve heard the soup kitchen continues
Everyone we’d invited showed up promptly for the Seder, wearing the best clothes they had. The rabbi welcomed them, gave a speech and began to read from the Haggadah. He then asked for volunteers. Sylvia, a schizophrenic regular who babbled incoherently and always wore two or three pairs of eyeglasses, one on top of the other, raised her hand. She removed her glasses and read, reciting melodiously in flawless Hebrew. When we came to the “Four Questions,” traditionally sung by the youngest child, Isaac, another regular, who was 96, asked to do the Mah Nishtanah. His chanting was exquisite, haunting, from another time and place, perhaps harkening back to the shtetl in Poland, where he’d told us he’d been born.
When the Seder came to an end, after we’d repeated its closing words, “Next year in Jerusalem/Next year may we all be free,” I think everyone, guests and hosts alike, felt lighter, freer, imbued, if just for the moment, with the spirit of redemption. For many of our guests, the Seder was a return to the past, to happier times, when they’d had families, homes, money, health and dreams, dreams for a future that was better.
Today, close to thirty years later, from my home in Provence, I’ve heard the soup kitchen continues. This makes me happy and this makes me sad. Sad the need is still there, happy so many people have continued the work.