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Zucky’s and SOVA—knishes and compassion

by Rachel Heller

September 18, 2008 | 12:20 am

Hy and Zucky Altman founded the SOVA food pantry program at a vacant Santa Monica bar in 1983. On opening day, the Altmans put all the food they had on the counter -- bagels, soup, canned goods -- waiting to serve the impoverished Jewish seniors they had gotten to know in the beachfront neighborhood.

A Latino walked in looking for a meal.

"Hy looked at me and said, 'He's not Jewish,'" recalled his wife, Zucky Altman, 89. "I said, 'So what? He's hungry.' From that moment on, we decided we would just feed everybody."

SOVA's history and its connection to Zucky's Delicatessen -- the iconic Googie-style Ocean Park restaurant where the Altmans fed needy residents for more than 20 years -- are the topics of a new documentary, "Knishes and Compassion," which will premiere online Sept. 21, the organization's 25th anniversary.

Filmmaker Leron Kornreich, who produces personal life-story films through her company, Timeless Legacy Video, has a personal tie to the documentary's subject matter: Her husband, Brent Altman, is one of Hy and Zucky's grandchildren.

"He said to me one day, 'You're doing all these documentaries for people. My grandmother is an icon in Los Angeles,'" said Kornreich, who moved to West Los Angeles after 10 years as a television producer in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. "Everyone that I've met since moving here knows Zucky and SOVA, so it was kind of staring me in the face."

Kornreich began researching the project in 2006, interviewing the Altman family, SOVA volunteers and community members. She collected locals' memories of Zucky's Deli, which the Altmans opened on Wilshire Boulevard in 1954 and ran until they retired in 1977.

Every day at the deli, the Altmans were approached by hungry area denizens asking for food, Zucky said recently by phone. She and her husband never turned people away, and before long, they were feeding a steady stream of poverty-stricken neighbors -- mostly Jewish -- from the restaurant's back door.

"My husband and I had been feeding the elderly, poor people who lived on the beachfront the whole time," Zucky said. "When we retired, we thought, 'Who is going to take care of those people?'"

Hy Altman spread the word that he planned to open a food pantry and set up shop in a vacant bar on Santa Monica Boulevard that the property owner -- a family friend -- lent the couple between leases. The Altmans asked their restaurant suppliers and friends for donations, and in 1983 established SOVA, naming the operation after the Hebrew word for "eat and be satisfied."

The documentary was a learning experience for Kornreich, who said she discovered telling stories about her family.

Zucky recounted a patron who would order blintzes and then smear them with ketchup.

"This drove Hy mad," Kornreich said, adding that her husband eventually got the customer to eat them correctly -- with sour cream.

Hy Altman died in 1985, but Zucky Altman kept the pantry going with help from volunteers. Acquired by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles in 2002, SOVA now operates three storefronts -- in the Beverly-Fairfax area, the Pico-Robertson area and Van Nuys -- where free groceries and support services are provided to more than 5,000 people each month.

Santa Monica officials in 2005 designated the former site of Zucky's Deli -- now a First Republic Bank -- a city landmark. In honor of Zucky Altman's 90th birthday on Sept. 17, the restored neon sign at the deli's former site was illuminated for 24 hours.

"Zucky is amazing," Kornreich said. "She's beautiful and eloquent. May we all be like that when we're 90."

"Knishes and Compassion" will premiere on Timeless Legacy Video's Web site on Sept. 21.

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