Soul Food

When you're starving -- for help, for attention, for food -- everything's kosher.

Glendale is a desert, and the man in battered denim is a wandering Jew, identifiable by the fringes hanging below his T-shirt. "I've spent a couple thousand hours studying Torah," he confirms. "It keeps me focused on something other than this pain of mine. Don't use my name."

His hair is prematurely white, his eyes are bloodshot, and he scratches himself constantly, a side effect of the morphine addiction he acquired after he was injured in a truck accident three years ago. Now, after living on the street for two years, he has finally secured a room and a car that runs. Every Wednesday, he drives that car to the Kosher Food Pantry, where he picks up whatever he can carry out.

"It's a little family here," he says of the small storefront on Louisiana Avenue. "These are the people who virtually kept me alive when my real family abandoned me. Not only do I get food, but I get a place where I can sit down and talk and have a ginger ale or whatever. If the world was full of people like Rob, the guy who runs this place, we wouldn't need social services at all."

With Rob Sawyer, help is at hand.
Brett Amole
With Rob Sawyer, help is at hand.

Today, talk over ginger ale will range from near-paranoid delusion -- Why won't this man's family stop him from "living like an animal"? Where are his three ex-wives when he needs them? -- to the volatile state of the economy, to Talmudic analysis.

"For instance, I used to be kosher, but I found I couldn't get enough food to stay alive that way," the wandering Jew reveals. "Last week my kid said, 'Why don't you keep kosher anymore?' And I told him, 'When you're starving, everything's kosher.'"

This is a true statement, judging from an informal survey of the room's other occupants: the elderly woman who fled the Soviet Union and is now stacking boxes of day-old coffee cake alongside the canned goods, containers of Advil, frozen turkeys and Bisetti's New York Cheesecakes just a little past their prime; the client-turned-volunteer who was once ordained a Jesuit priest. You can look it up, they say: The God of Moses likes you better alive and un-kosher than dead and observant.

Everyone's looking forward to the next discussion topic, even if it repeats from one week to the next or turns out to be the inevitable deconstruction of the Cold War. But the conversation can't really start without Arnold, who is 85 and still drives himself to the Pantry for weekly infusions of food.

"Although you should see that car," someone points out. "He scares us to death every time he drives down here."

Once out of the car, Arnold perambulates with the aid of a wheeled walker, moving so slowly down the sidewalk that he may well seem like a mirage to the Hooters girls arriving for work fifty yards away. When he finally reaches the door, ten of his closest friends rush to open it.

"Look," he says to Rob Sawyer, the Pantry's director. "I got an impacted bowel today, so I don't know what you got for me that I can eat."

"For you, I got some gefilte fish," Rob replies, using phrasing that he learned in here, as opposed to in his Christian youth in Westchester County. "Also, tomato juice. How's that?"

"It'll work," Arnold says, looking pleased -- but not feeling well enough to stick around for the usual discussion.

"Too bad," Rob says. "He's pretty frail, but he's definitely still got a mind." A shmooze with Arnold is always satisfying, he adds: Not only does it provide intellectual stimulation, but also day-to-day predicaments that aren't impossible to fix.

"We like to do that around here," Rob muses. "Solve the emergency. Not send them anywhere else, not wait for them to fill out paperwork -- just simply do what needs to be done. It's what we call a 'non-welfare model.'" And he should know, having worked for state social services agencies for almost two decades before coming to Jewish Family Services, the organization that runs the Pantry and is based two blocks away.

Arnold's wife died two years ago, leaving him alone in their house, with his tenuous health and a mortgage payment that is $160 more than he receives from Social Security each month. "But all his books are at his house, and he's a very self-sufficient guy," Rob says. "Basically, he thinks he'd die if he had to give up his home." Fortunately, Arnold never had to: Rob marshaled a force of volunteer carpenters to remodel Arnold's basement, found a tenant to rent it for enough cash to cover the mortgage, then paid the cost of a housecleaning service out of his own pocket. In the process, nary a bureaucratic t was crossed nor an i dotted.

Despite the implication of the Jewish Family Services name -- not to mention the Pantry's "kosher" label -- clients, employees and volunteers are not necessarily Jewish, or even religious. In fact, Rob says, although the Pantry initially was envisioned as a stopgap measure for impoverished senior citizens, most of them observant Jews from the U.S. and Russia, it quickly outgrew that mission.

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