Celebration of life: Dying Brooklyn rabbi has final pastrami on rye at favorite deli

Rabbi Israel ‘Sy’ Dresner marked a life well lived with a trip to Katz’s Deli. 

By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News

Katz’s Deli in New York has long been hailed as a celebration of pastrami on rye, but for one rabbi, faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis recently, Katz’s became a place to celebrate a life well lived.

When doctors told Rabbi Israel S. Dresner that stage four metastatic colon cancer meant he was unlikely to see his 93rd birthday next April, the rabbi knew exactly where he wanted to go.

“We’d been going to Katz’s since the 1970s, when the Lower East Side was seedier than a loaf of Jewish rye,” his son Avi wrote in The Forward. “We returned pretty regularly for father-son time up through my bar mitzvah in 1982, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was a young — and poor — adult living in Manhattan.

“Like my dad, through all those decades, Katz’s never seemed to change. As we walked in last week, we were handed the same raffle-ticket style stubs on which the deli men record the orders at each station of the kosher-style cross.”

The stop at the much beloved restaurant, famous for appearing in the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally, was just one item on the rabbi’s bucket list.

“He wanted to see one final Broadway show, so my sister, Tamar, took him to “Book of Mormon” the day before Thanksgiving. He wanted to daven (pray) one more time at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, which is where we went after Katz’s. And he wanted one final pastrami on rye at this venerable institution of the old Jewish Lower East Side, where dad was born, on Fifth Street between Avenues C and D.”

Rabbi Dresner, known as Sy, grew up in Brooklyn before serving in the army during the Korean war. A pioneering civil rights crusader, Dresner organized America’s largest mass arrests of rabbis and interfaith clergy, and was close to Martin Luther King Jr.

Visiting the Central Synagogue following his trip to Katz’s, on what happened to be International Human Rights Day, Rabbi Dresner was surprised with a slideshow of photos of himself with King, and a reading from a telegram sent by King when Dresner was arrested in 1961 in Tallahassee during the first Interfaith Clergy Freedom Ride.

“You are the valiant ones. All America went to jail with you. Our spiritual limitations are shown by your physical incarceration,” it says. “Your heroism is the nonviolent movement’s witness to a world that has seen too little of the spirit and purpose of the prophets and disciples.

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“Today it is your valiant act that touches the conscience of Americans of good will. Your example is a judgement and an inspiration to each of us.”