2nd Ave Deli
Abe Lebewohl was 23 years old when he began with the Second Avenue Deli. He said that the first six years were rough. The area was in constant transition, and it was very poor. In his words, it was “dead from 1954 to 1960, but it came to life when the Off Broadway Theater began.” In the painting, the man in the striped shirt is Abie. He is talking to his wife, Eleanor, and his partner, Izzi Lewkowitz, stands next to him.
I have seldom known anyone as loved and admired as Abe was. He was a man of boundless generosity and goodness. No beggar walked into the deli and was refused food. One day, I asked one of his waiters why this restaurant had such a friendly staff.
“It comes from the top. When I was in the hospital, he visited me more than my family did, and the first thing he asked was if I needed more money.”
I offered to put everyone employed there into the painting and was in shock when so many showed up. Neighborhood people asked if they could be included, and the painting ultimately turned out to have 59 resemblances. I had never dared to do anything like this before.
It was such a joy to do this painting.
The Lebewohl family lived in Lvov, Poland, and their comfortable middle class family life was shattered in 1939 when Stalin and Hitler joined forces. Poland was divided and Lvov became part of the Soviet Union. A year later, the father, Efraim Lebewohl, owner of a small lumber mill, was condemned as a capitalist, arrested and sentenced without trial to 10 years of hard labor in Siberia, and the business was confiscated. His wife, Ethel, and young son Abe, were forced to leave all possessions behind and were herded into cattle cars and deported to Kazakhstan, in Central Asia. There, Ethel had to rally immediately in order to survive. She found work in a restaurant and sent Abe to a local school.
In 1941, the Russians granted amnesty to all Polish political prisoners, and Efraim was released from the labor camp. The Lebewohls had to remain in Kazakhstan through the remainder of the war, scrounging at odd jobs to keep food on the table. After the war, they fled back to Lvov to see if they could find any relatives alive. Everyone- grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends- had been killed by the Nazis. Ironically, Efrain’s arrest and the family’s forced deportation had saved their lives.
They ended up in Barletta, Italy, in a displaced persons camp. Abe’s brother, Jack, was born in the camp in 1948. Abe was then 17, and in 1950, after years of persecution, they were given the opportunity to come to the United States of America.
Then the usual story which faced immigrants to New York City began- poverty and struggle-but in the Lebewohl spirit there was courage. To me, they became a symbol of why this Country of Immigrants became so great. Abe’s story of what came to be known as the Second Avenue Deli, a landmark in New York City, is one of struggle and not giving up, but that is only a part of it. Because of their understanding of persecution and hunger, no beggar is allowed to leave without food and kindness. When you walk into the deli, everyone is welcome and treated accordingly.
When Abe was tragically a victim of a fatal robbery, Jack gave up his legal career, and with the generous nature which is a Lebewohl characteristic, he took over the business.
During the time of my working on the two paintings, one of the deli, the people from it, and from the neighborhood, and the other of the family in front of the deli, I was treated like a member of the family. Years later, as I write this, whenever my family and I walk into its door, it still feels as if I’m coming home.