On December 19, the New York Board of Rabbis hosted a “Vodka & Latke” celebration at the New York City Fire Museum in honor of Rabbi Joseph Potasnik’s “special birthday,” later revealed to be his 65th. Among the 300 guests were family members, friends, politicians and rabbis of all denominations. Robert Abrams; Edward Koch; Peter Vallone Sr.; Yaakov Kermaier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Rabbis Charles Klein and Robert Levine, members of the NYRB’s board of governors, were the event’s honorary co-chairs. The invitation included a photo of an oh-so-handsome Potasnik dating back to 1975, the year he applied for membership to the NYBR. He has now been a member for 36 years, and in 2002 he was installed as president, later serving as NYBR chaplain. “He is always there during fire tragedies to give comfort,” Manhattan Borough president Scott Stringer said. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz joshed, “I’d like to claim him as one of my own.” New York City Archbishop Timothy Dolan stopped by to say a quick “Mazel tov,” and New York’s Edward Cardinal Egan explained how Potasnik helped organize the 9/11 tribute at Yankee Stadium. New York City Comptroller John Liu thanked the NYRB for the privilege of saying thank you to a special individual. He lauded Potasnik for “speaking out about human rights, dignity, tolerance,” and then wished everyone a freylakhn khanike — “Happy Hanukkah” in Yiddish.
Over the years, I’ve heard Potasnik, currently executive vice president of NYBR, tell jokes, wax profound and offer comfort. In 2003 I had mentioned that I’d attended that year’s February 3 dinner to raise money for the animal welfare organization Bideawee. Rabbi Potasnik, then the owner of a golden retriever named Nike, cited the Judaic injunction tsar’ar ba’alei chaim, compassion for animals. He told me that the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was once asked if animals had souls. Potasnik quoted Carlebach: “Animals don’t have souls; they give their souls to their masters.”
At the American Jewish Committee’s 14th Model Seder for Diplomats, held on April 1, 2004, at the 92nd Street Y, Potasnik, who led the event, said: “This reality is that we have a representative of Egypt in this room. We read in the Hagaddah about the hostility between the Israelites and the Egyptians. The message we have to convey is that an enemy of yesterday can become an ally today. ‘Moshe’ was a name given to him by an Egyptian princess. We retain that name. Here was the daughter of the pharaoh, who was unwilling to accept the status quo of sinah [hatred] and heroically saved a Jewish child. We recognize those who dare to be different.”
His edgy wit was in full bloom May 4, 2003, at B’nai Zion’s 95th anniversary dinner honoring Alan Hevesi, who was New York State’s comptroller at the time. Within earshot of New York State Attorney General **Eliot Spitzer **, who was the dinner chair, Potasnik turned to Hevesi and, alluding to his recent exposé about the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “double set of books” accounting shenanigans, said, “Look! I don’t want any problems with the Board of Rabbis… I am going to surrender to you our two sets of books — a Torah and a Talmud.”
At the September 11, 2002, “Days of Awe: Personal Reflections From Ground Zero by the Jewish Chaplains” panel, moderated by Rabbi Joshua Plaut, then director of the Center for Jewish History, and comprising panelists Rabbi Alvin Kass, NYC Police Chaplain at that time, and Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, staff chaplain of the New York Army National Guard, Potasnik spoke of having been overwhelmed by the pain, heroism, humanity and emotional overload that he experienced following the 9/11 attacks. “Firefighters are the most religious people in the world,” he said, recalling an Irish firefighter who told him, “Rabbi, I never heard a Jewish mother say, ‘My son the firefighter.’” Potasnik was emphatic: “There are hundreds of Jewish firefighters and members of the EMS, part of the Fire Department. When others rush out, they rush into buildings and don’t ask: ‘Are you a Jew? A Muslim? A Christian?’ All they know is that there is a human being to be saved. It is holy work. They practice it on a day-to-day basis.”
Among the evening’s vodka drinkers and latke nibblers was Abraham Englard, fire chief of Engine 266 of Queens’s Rockaway Beach and member of the Ner Tamid Society, the fraternal organization of Jewish firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and dispatches in the New York City Fire Department. Another celebrant was Edward Kilduff, the FDNY’s chief of department,.
Strange as it may sound, the December 18 performance of “The Pipes of Christmas” — featuring music and readings from the Celtic literature of Scotland, Ireland and Wales; sponsored by the Clan Currie Society, and held at New York City’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church — was, for me, an evocative “Jewish” experience. The men and women in the pipes-and-drums ensemble wore the beautiful Ellis Island tartan that was unveiled on April 6, 2011, to commemorate the half-million Scots who passed through Ellis Island. The concert’s cultural ethos was similar to that which greeted me in Canada in 1941, when, as the first and only refugee child in Outremont, which is part of greater Montreal, I was enrolled in Alfred Joyce, an Anglican school in Outremont. All the teachers were Scottish: Ms. Darling, Ms. Longmoore, Ms. McKenzie and Ms. McPherson. The student body of girls was 98% Jewish, and we all sang Scottish songs and Christmas carols. After classes, many students had Hebrew instruction. I attended the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring School, where I was given Yiddish instruction.
The concert’s timing coincided with the yahrzeit of my Alfred Joyce school friend Helen Kotsonis, who died two years ago and with whom I maintained a 60+year friendship. It was in the kitchen of her Scottish mother, Mary McIvor, that I found a haven of normalcy. Mother and daughter never doubted the stories I told about what I had witnessed during the Nazi occupation and the reports I read in the Forverts about what was happening to the Jews of Europe.
My teachers’ understanding and patience helped soften the pain of losing the teachers who taught ME Yiddish, who died in Warsaw and in Vilna. The Alfred Joyce teachers encouraged me to write down my experiences. My first published work in English — “A Refugee From Poland” — appeared in the June 1942 issue of The Strathcona Oracle, the school’s literary journal.