Canter’s Deli’s queen of pastrami on wry

Stop in to the iconic round-the-clock Canter’s Deli most nights during the 7 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift, and you’re likely to encounter another icon — a short, solid woman in her 70s with auburn hair who wears a white waitress uniform with metal snaps, a black sweater and sports a youthful twinkle in her eye. This is Bella Haig, who started waiting tables at the deli 47 years ago and who now serves as manager and unofficial queen of Canter’s.

Raised in Boyle Heights, around the corner from the original Canter’s, she was an early patron. “We were poor; I was the oldest of five kids. My mother didn’t have much money, but she liked to take us out to eat. She’d take us to Canter’s, and we’d sit at the counter. They’d wait on us last,” Haig remembers, “because Mom was not a good tipper.” Haig began working early. “I worked all through high school, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at a clothing store, Lerner’s,” she said. She married early as well, at 18.

The year that Haig started working at Canter’s, 1965, Lyndon
Baines Johnson gave his “Great Society” State of the Union Address, and the Beatles song “Yesterday” reached No. 1 on the charts, where it stayed for four weeks. Haig always chose to work the night shift.

“My kids were 2 and 7. My husband worked all day, and I wanted to supplement our income. I figured if I worked nights and he worked days, we wouldn’t have to have a babysitter. Now, I’m used to these hours. I prefer the night; it’s not boring.” Especially in the restaurant’s adjoining bar, she says.

“Our bar closes at 2 a.m., but customers find all sorts of sneaky ways to keep drinking,” she says. “They hide drinks between their legs, or pour them into their water glass.” Which is fairly tame compared to some of the shenanigans Haig has witnessed from the young rockers who stop in after the clubs close. A favorite trick? “I look at the stall and see two feet on the floor, and two feet not on floor. I usually just bang on the door and say, ‘It’s over. Get a motel. I’m gonna give you two minutes, then I’m gonna open the door.’ ”

These days, working 47 consecutive years in any job is remarkable enough — add to that the fact that Haig has never missed a single day of work. What has kept her going for so long?

“When they hired me as manager, they told me, ‘Pretend it’s your own place and run it the way you want to,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing.” Which means she takes things very personally. Such as when people try to skip out without paying the check. On numerous occasions she has put her life on the line, chasing customers more than four blocks down the street from the restaurant. She’s demanded expensive rings, watches and gold chains as collateral, and if someone is reluctant to part with their personal items, Haig doesn’t hesitate to enlist the police’s help. As for the actual running, Bella explains, “I could shop all day and work all night; my legs are good.”

Her vision is good, too. Nothing escapes her. Her two main responsibilities are keeping the diners happy and making sure the
waiters and waitresses do their jobs, and she confides that her staff regards her “with a mixture of friendship and fear.”

“They know I’m not gonna put up with any nonsense. And that I have the power to terminate them. That’s fire them,” she clarifies, “not kill them. But they also realize I’m gonna be fair and nice with them. If they’re slacking off, I don’t yell; I discipline. I take them to the back room and say, ‘What’s going on? Your customers need something, and what are you doing? I don’t see you working.’ I’ve had to let some go. Some take advantage or just don’t do their job.”

Haig relishes the celebrity customers, though they’re treated just like anyone else. “I waited on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Rock Hudson, Van Halen, Anna Nicole Smith,” she says, listing just a few.

Rodney Dangerfield, she says, “was a pain in the neck. He used to try to sneak in beer. He’d put a menu in front of him — like nobody could see the beer. He’d come in every weekend and would want to try tastes of everything before making up his mind. I didn’t want to say no, because he was already not getting very much respect.”

VIDEO: Mind of Mencia — cultural explorer Carlos goes to Fairfax to visit the Jews

<a href="" target="_blank">Mind of Mencia: Cultural Explorer &#8211; Jews</a>

Official Comedy Central Video: The Mind of Mencia—cultural explorer Carlos goes to visit the Jews

Best street for a J-cation? Fairfax!

In a summer of rising airfares and gas prices, you need to take a trip that is close by, low cost, in town and that will fill you with Jewish stories.

The best place to do that? Fairfax Avenue.

That’s right, become a Jewish cultural tourist, not in New York, Venice or Seville, but right here in Los Angeles. The area’s sidewalks, walls and parks remain populated with monuments, plaques, murals and statues of Jewish cultural and spiritual significance.

Take a local J-cation!

People bemoan the passing of Jewish life on Fairfax — and, certainly, some of what was here is gone. But what remains is a truly cosmopolitan representation of Jewish life from all over the world: Iraq, Iran, Russia, Yemen, Germany and Israel. It’s still a place to buy a set of Talmud or tefillin, but now you can also buy a samovar, finjan, or hipster Jewish T-shirt or hat. Hey, there are still four places in a two-block area where you can buy a black-and-white cookie. That’s not bad.

You can usually find metered parking on Fairfax near the high school (south of Melrose Avenue). On Sundays, parking there is tight due to the Sunday flea market, so you might want to park near Pan Pacific Park and begin there. On Shabbat many of the points of interest will be closed.

Give yourself about two hours to make the loop. Think about lunch. There are plenty of places to either dine along the way or pick up a nosh for a picnic at the park.

1. National Council of Jewish Women Building, 543 N. Fairfax Ave.
On the northern wall (corner of Clinton Street and Fairfax Avenue) in a vivid, almost folk-art style, is a mural by artist Daryl E. Wells that depicts women of human and civil rights, justice and courage. Many of them are Jewish. There’s activist Betty, and the poet (“Eli, Eli”) and World War II rescuer Hannah Senesh. Notice the challah and candlesticks in the middle. That’s playwright Lillian Hellman (“The Little Foxes”) holding the Kiddush cup. L’chaim!

2. Sami-Makolet, 513 N. Fairfax
Fellow talmidim (students), at Sami-Makolet (Sami’s market) we can not only find our favorite Israeli foods, but practice our Ivrit (Hebrew) as well. Many of the package labels are in Hebrew. When it’s time to check out with your Hashahar chocolate spread (don’t forget the challah), above the checkout is a Hebrew sign for “cashier.”

3. Solomon’s Book Store, 447 N. Fairfax
ALTTEXTThis store has supplied generations with haftarah booklets and seder plates. But the reason to go is for the biggest wall of art about rabbis in Los Angeles. On the southern wall is an eclectic collection of paintings and prints of rabbis and scholars done in every style on every material, from canvas to velvet. Stern, blissful, angelic, they kind of stare back.

4. Canter’s Delicatessen, 419 N. Fairfax
A slice of L.A. Jewish history on rye. Everyone seems to know about Canter’s — how it followed L.A.’s Jewish migration westward, settling in on Fairfax, Kibbitz Room and all. Stop in for a sandwich, knish or blintz. Need a suggestion? Just ask — the waitresses know all. Be sure to go upstairs and view the framed, headlined stories. Check out the 1955 menu — pastrami and hot corned beef, 75 cents.

5. Canter’s Parking Lot, Fairfax Community Mural (one storefront south)


On a parking lot wall, a mural painted from historic photos is a megillah of L.A. Jewish history. Created by Art Mortimer, with artists Stephen Raul Anaya, Peri Fleischman, coordinating artist Sandra B. Moss and a crew of adults and teens, it’s a seven-panel panorama. Highlights include, from left, Congregation B’nai B’rith, circa 1862, which later moved and became Wilshire Boulevard Temple. A Victorian house that in 1902 opened as the Hebrew Benevolent Society, a hospital to treat tuberculosis, which eventually became Cedars-Sinai. The film biz and its Jewish beginnings are captured by an image of Al Jolson in the “Jazz Singer,” and that man firing a fastball — that’s dandy Sandy Koufax. Holding the Torah is Laura Geller, third woman ordained as a Reform rabbi in America (now senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills).

Directions to the next destination, the L.A. Holocaust Monument:
Walk south on Fairfax to Beverly Boulevard. Cross Beverly, then cross Fairfax (by turning left, heading east). You are now at the corner of CBS Studios. If it’s a weekday, you might see audience members for “The Price Is Right.” Continue walking east, past the light at Grove Drive, the Post Office, and then turn right, into the parking lot for Pan Pacific Park. Walk to the back of the lot, bearing to the right. Follow the concrete path down. Directly on the right is the monument’s entrance.

6. Los Angeles Holocaust Monument,Pan Pacific Park
Located in the heart of the Los Angeles Holocaust survivor community, overlooking a flood-control basin, stands a circular grouping of black stone pillars, evoking in its six-pointed form a Mogen David and the Six Million. Inscribed on the pillars are key Holocaust dates, beginning with Nazification of Germany in 1933 and concluding with liberation in 1945. Circumscribing the pillars is a ring with nations and the corresponding numbers of Jews who perished. A new Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust is slated to be built adjacent to this site.

Directions to Haym Salomon Statue:
From the entrance of the monument, take the curving concrete path down through the center of the park. Continue past the covered bench and table areas, bearing left and up the hill. Continue bearing left, following the path uphill and around to the southeast corner of the park.

7. Haym Salomon, corner of Third and Gardner streetsALTTEXTGazing eastward, almost as a greeter and guardian of the Fairfax area, sits the financier of the American Revolution — Haym Salomon. As you will gather from the plaque at its base, this statue of Haym has been around, moving westward along with L.A.’s Jews. The irony here is that during the Revolutionary War, Lord Thomas Fairfax, after whom Fairfax High and the area are named, had his lands confiscated.

L.A.: The New Israel

When I was asked to go “learn about the L.A. Jews,” my brother, hailing from Washington, D.C., suggested Canter’s Delicatessen. But I quickly learned that according to true L.A. Jews, Canter’s is not a Jewish place, not really, not L.A. Jewish.

I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time last week. It was the old man with the Star of David necklace that I noticed first. Jewish Stars, I had thought, were to be hidden and protected. This Canter’s place, this L.A. thing, this Jewish pride was not the Rocky Mountains from where I recently drove, no sir.

Canter’s, the “non-Jew” restaurant, was lined with Manischewitz products, gefilte fish and jars of matzah ball soup. Even the ceiling art, those awful mosaics of autumn leaves, they were somehow Jewish.

Raised in a Conservative Jewish, Holocaust survivor home in Washington, D.C., my father, an immigrant from Poland, was adamant about his children fitting in. He didn’t want us to have to deal with the anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment that he was dealt as a kid in the Bronx. He didn’t want us to feel so different.

We were bred to be hypernormal, to be Jewish, but first and foremost, white, successful Americans.

L.A. Jewish, the real thing, it was implied, existed in Pico-Robertson: bagels and a photo of the Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe, payot, kippot. For my often-shrouded Jewish self, it was like candy to a baby. At a kosher coffee shop I ordered a bagel with cream cheese and an iced coffee from a Latino man.

“Do you know a lot about Judaism from living here?” I asked.

“What?” he answered, looking confused, like Jewish wasn’t given a second thought, positive or negative.

An Orthodox man was reading the paper across from me, and I asked him a few questions. His family came here from Poland after the war, and he has spent his entire life between Los Angeles’ Orthodox section and Israel. The comfort level of his Jewish self, his Jewish surroundings was incomprehensible to me.

His 20-year-old son walked in a few minutes later. He was wearing a kippah, jeans and a casual T-shirt.

“How was shul?” his father asked.

“Long,” he answered.

This guy had been praying since 6:30 a.m., and his arms were striped from the lines his tefillin left on his skin. I asked what he did for fun, and he said, “I am in a band. A mix of the Beatles, old Jewish sounds and Shlomo Carlebach.”

Where kosher is the norm, and tefillin is not Madonna’s S & M performance device but an actual religious practice, somewhere between the Latinos and the Koreans, lie these L.A. Jews. Not complicated, not hidden, just there, like an American coffee shop, like a white neighborhood, comfortably Jewish, and Jewish with fervor.

After a solo trip to Israel, where my Jewish identity relaxed into the camouflage of so many other Jews, I recognized that to be Jewish in America, for me, was like belonging to a secret club. It was a quiet, silent, hidden pride that I was taught. Upon moving to Boulder, Colo., for graduate school, I saw how foreign my Jewish identity was to mainstream Christian, white America.

The longer I was in Colorado, the more I saw that I was different for being Jewish. My comfort zone dissolved as years of paranoid fears came true, and I became a spectacle for my religious leaning. “Are you from Israel?” “I once knew a Jew.” “You don’t believe in Jesus? You are on your way to hell.”

It was subtle, the ignorance, but enough for me to know I was not home in D.C. anymore, certainly not in Los Angeles, but in the middle of the country in a mostly white mountain town.

Los Angeles is a far cry from Boulder. What L.A. Jews may not know is how good they have it. When your point of reference is Christian rock on the Borders bookstore loudspeaker, Canter’s is a Jewish mecca in and of itself.

Canter’s would have been enough for me, enough to restore a sense of safety and Jewish pride after my experiences in Boulder and beyond. Canter’s and the kippot, the Hebrew signs across the street, the glatt kosher grocers, they were only a piece of what was to come in Pico-Robertson. And these two Jewish landmarks aside, there were still the Workmen’s Circle, the sign for the Jewish Women’s Center in Venice Beach, the synagogues from Beverly Hills to Pasadena.

When you have spent time away from what feels like a Jewish home, Los Angeles becomes the new Israel.

Los Angeles is a gateway to the prospect of positive Jewish American identity. There is a fearlessness to the Hebrew on the walls, the Jewish labor movement mural on the building. There is a fearlessness to having a kosher Subway sandwich shop.

My instinct was to wonder if Jews are frequently attacked, if it is dangerous to wear the Jewish Star without a T-shirt to hide it and guard it. Is it OK, L.A. begs the question, to be Jewish and proud and out?

Judging from what I see here, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

A Day at Canter’s

A Day at Canter’s by Tracy Swedlow

Music by Chutzpah!



The Meatiest Offer in Town

The tables were filled and the clock turned back at Canter’s on Monday, as the landmark Fairfax deli lowered the price of a corned beef sandwich to 75 cents in honor of the restaurant’s 75th anniversary.

Cashier Tom Gordon, who answered questions between fielding phone calls and ringing up tabs, said his crew expected to serve 10,000 corned beef sandwiches during the one-day, 24-hour promotion. That’s about 5,000 pounds of corned beef, by his reckoning. But that’s nothing compared to the restaurant’s estimates of their cumulative servings of 2 million pounds of smoked salmon, 20 million bagels and 24 million bowls of chicken soup.

It’s been 75 years since the Canter brothers moved west from Jersey City and opened a restaurant in Boyle Heights, east of downtown, in the center of what was then a bustling immigrant Jewish neighborhood. As the tribe migrated westward, Ben and Jenny Canter opened a second location at its current spot in 1953, eventually closing the original Eastside spot. The family also owns a restaurant in Las Vegas, which opened in 2003.

Some things at Canter’s never seem to change. The pickles are still made onsite according to Ben’s original recipe. And the few sugar-free baked goods are overwhelmed by the markedly sinful display of sweets that you must pass as you enter. But the updated and ever-gargantuan menu also includes Mexican-style offerings and healthier plates like the Orange Almond Salad, which is what Wade Twitchell would have ordered if corned beef wasn’t selling for 75 cents. Twitchell had brought along Brian Ewell, 13, who would have ordered coldcuts, but couldn’t resist the 75-cents logic either. But Dawn Sharpe, originally a deli-goer in Dorchester, Mass., has been a pastrami/corned beef gal from the word go. She conceded, however, she might not have made the drive from Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley if the price hadn’t been so right.

The line outside varied in length throughout the day, but it was never short. Still, it seemed to move fast — a good thing since the appetite-maddening smell of corned beef wafted at least two blocks away.

The topsy-turvy prices had consequences up and down the street. For one thing, a street person in black boots and a knit cap was asking passersby for 75 cents, as though that were the going price. And it looked as though some familiar street denizens were actually in line for sandwiches. But things were not going well at the nearby Schwartz Bakery, where the line of Canter’s customers effectively blocked the storefront.

“No one is breaking through the line to get to my store,” complained the woman behind the counter. “It’s been like this all day.”

Reporter’s Postscript: The situation was no better for me, a regular Canter’s customer, after all, who was able to get close enough to photograph and takes notes on the corned beef, but lacked time to stand in line. Luckily, the poppyseed danish from Schwartz’s was first-rate.