January 20, 2019

The Unsung Hero

The year was 1993, and the glitterati of the L.A. Jewish community gathered at Shaare Tefila to honor Rabbi Meir Lau, the new chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel.

As the rabbi walked on the red carpet among other prominent rabbis and Jewish machers, he paused and looked toward a short, 63-year-old man who was serving drinks, and called out: “Avramale!”

The crowd wondered, “Who is this Avramale getting a hug from the chief rabbi?”

Avramale is Albert Lanciano, now 75, who today is the shamash/caretaker of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. This year will mark his 10th anniversary as the synagogue’s resident jack-of-all-trades.

“He makes the whole thing run,” said his boss and good friend, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila. That usually means getting up at 5 a.m. to open the chapel for the day’s morning prayers, and when there are simchas or other events, which is most days, it can mean being back in bed in the early morning hours. It helps that his two-bedroom studio is down the hall from Bouskila’s office, so he can steal the occasional nap. It also helps that he’s a real happy guy who loves his life.

And what a life it’s been. After emigrating from Egypt to Israel in 1947 at the age of 17, he fought in four wars, and raised four children who are now married with their own children and grandchildren. As the catering manager of the storied ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) House in Tel Aviv, he met lots of interesting people with names like David Ben Gurion, Ezer Wiseman, Yoseph Berg, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin and a young rabbi named Meir Lau. They all called him Avramale.

I met Albert five years ago during the Café Olam days at the Sephardic temple, and although I must have greeted him 100 times, most of our conversations were quite short, like, “Have you seen the rabbi?” or “Do you know where those Oriental pillows went?”

A few weeks ago, I made a mistake and arrived an hour early for an event at Albert’s synagogue, and of course, he was there to greet me and offer me some food. So we schmoozed a little, and next thing you know we set up a coffee date at Urth Café on Melrose Avenue. That’s when I got to meet Avramale.

You probably know an Avramale in your shul. I bet there are thousands of Avramales all over the Jewish world, in community centers, synagogues and social halls. They don’t make speeches or give press interviews or get honored at banquets. They just take care of the place. If anyone needs anything, they usually call their Avramale first. You might call these people the unsung heroes of Jewish continuity.

A few months ago, there was a minicrisis at the Sephardic temple. Bouskila had purchased 300 user-friendly haggadot for a community seder. Unbeknownst to him or Albert, a janitor had mistakenly put them away in an old closet. A few hours before the seder, Bouskila called Albert in a panic, and, of course, Avramale instinctively figured out where the haggadot were. It’s what he does.

The kids in school call him saba (grandpa). One of his many functions is to buy the Shabbos candy and make sure it always gets into the right hands. A few weeks ago, he was busy planning the dairy meals for Shavuot and replacing all the prayer books. When I asked him for his job description, he said simply, “I do whatever the rabbi needs me to do.”

Albert and Bouskila have this unusual relationship. Bouskila is a Torah scholar who loves to talk Talmud and Jewish philosophy. Albert is all tachlis all the time. Their minds are occupied with different matters, yet they love to spend time together. Maybe it’s the fact that they were both in the same army unit (Givati), Albert in 1948 and Bouskila in 1984. Or it could be that because Albert speaks eight Arabic dialects, he feeds the rabbi inside information from the many Arab stations on his satellite TV. I think it’s also Albert’s sense of humor; he really makes the rabbi laugh.

Six years ago when the rabbi’s first daughter was born, Bouskilla and his wife decided it might be a good idea to find another home for Freeway, a mutt they had rescued who was now making jealous growls toward the new arrival. For the two months it took to find Freeway a new home, Albert took loving care of the dog. When a shul member gave him kudos for his remarkable devotion, Albert shot back: “Are you kidding? I’m just lucky it wasn’t an elephant!”

Bouskila gives out a belly laugh when he tells that story.

Albert’s life is full of stories. One of his favorites is from the old days at the ZOA House. As he tells it, a well-known founder of the State of Israel would give him a little wink, and Avramale knew that meant he should put a little cognac in his coffee cup. Albert knows from discretion: he asked that the gentleman remain nameless.

If you’re lucky like I was to get to a shul event an hour early, keep an eye out for your own Avramale, and buy him a cup of coffee.

David Suissa is founder and editor of OLAM Magazine and founder of Jews for Truth Now.