There are mysteries in life. They never rebuilt the Cafe Eilat after the fire in the fish tank.
My friend, Abe Sarna, introduced me to the Cafe Eilat after the early-morning service at Adat Ari El Synagogue. Cafe Eilat had just opened, with freshly painted wall murals, giant fish tanks, incredible baked goods and a big-screen TV tuned to the Israeli version of CNN.
I didn't grow up eating Israeli food. Abe didn't grow up eating Israeli food, either. I'd order exotic fare like Shakshuka (the breakfast of champions) and hummus. Abe would order a lox omelet. Not exactly the kind of food served in La Cañada Flintridge, but it works for me.
When I first met Abe, he had just lost his wife. We had lost our son, so Abe and I began to share the ebbs and flows of the weekday liturgy. As time went on, he began to call me "Doll" and to tell me jokes.
Sometimes, I'd tell the jokes to Abe, but his were better. Mine were only in one language, English. Abe's jokes pulled in the best of several. Abe was born in Drobin, a small town in Poland near Warsaw, in 1925. He was the youngest of a family of nine children.
Miraculously, six of the brothers, including Abe, survived Birkenau and Auschwitz, but his parents and sisters did not survive.
The brothers reunited in Brooklyn, where they opened and operated little candy stores. A lot of survivors on the East Coast opened candy stores. In California, a lot of survivors opened liquor stores. When Abe came to California, he opened a liquor store in Eagle Rock. He was robbed at gunpoint several times, but was sanguine. "What are they going to do? Send me to Auschwitz?"
Some survivors, like Abe, are very independent. He would respond to the occasional moments of institutionalization with a carefully honed skill. A few years ago, he was admitted to a hospital. When I went to visit, the room was full of young nurses, a scene straight from a "get well" card. One nurse would ask, "Would you like some soup?" The other would ask, "Is it hot enough?" Abe knew how to keep his independence and his dignity.
Abe liked to introduce people. At the morning service, he introduced me to "George the Judge," "Stephen and Anne the actors" and "Sharon the mother of Mikey." He was very proud of us.
Abe adopted Mikey, taught him every card game known to men and women, and always referred to Mikey as "that little monkey."
Lucky for me, Abe always called me "Doll."
Abe's eyes were terrible, but this didn't stop him from driving. The market. The synagogue. A few blocks here. A few blocks there. He never got a ticket. He was happy to go places, during the day. At night, he'd allow others to give him a ride.
Abe was constantly planning for his future, but "not yet." He did not want to be debilitated. He did not want to be in a "home." He wanted to be independent. He wanted to be with his friends.
He liked Adat Ari El. He loved Mikey's family, and he worried about the Dodgers.
Last Monday, Abe died in his sleep. We will miss him. It was an honor to know him.