The Men in My Life

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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As the summer gives way to September, and with it the advent of Rosh Hashanah, my thoughts turn to those who will not be on hand this year to usher in the Jewish New Year: my father-in-law, Yaakov (née Peretz Yaakov) Joselit, and my favorite uncle, Bob (née Baruch) Weissman. Apart from having died within several months of each other, Uncle Bob and my father-in-law had little in common. In fact, you might say that in the geographical arc of their lives and in the way they saw the world, they represented two distinct aspects of the modern Jewish experience: one that placed a premium on the intellect and the other on the senses.

Yaakov Joselit, born to a well-to-do family in Kovno, Lithuania, came to the United States in the wake of the first World War. A man of many parts, he was at one time or another a professional soccer player, an educator and a journalist. Writing for Hadoar and Der Tog, one a Hebrew periodical, the other a Yiddish daily, he held forth with equal aplomb on current affairs, politics, poetry and literature.

A true maskil, a fervent Zionist and a dyed-in-the-wool litvak all rolled into one, he reveled in the twists and turns of Yiddish and Hebrew, in their evocation of history and adumbration of the future. He reveled in ideas, too, and in books, thousands of which crammed his New York City apartment.

Cutting a continental figure in his ever-present beret and cigarettes (he smoked Camels), Yaakov Joselit — or Yankele, as his friends called him — moved among a small circle of likeminded intellectuals whose preferred meeting place was a park bench on the leafy outer perimeter of New York’s Fort Tryon Park, which overlooked the Hudson. There, they hotly discussed politics, especially Zionist politics, the literary merits of Bialik and the intricacies of the Bible or, more precisely, Tanakh. Public lectures were another source of perennial entertainment. At the drop of a hat, Yaakov would dash off to one or another talk, much to the consternation of his wife, Yehudith, who preferred the theater to the lecture hall.

Later in life, after retiring, they moved to Israel where, eventually, Yaakov found another park bench — this one near the Yarkon rather than the Hudson — and a new coterie of friends who shared his passion for Tanakh, politics and literature. He died in Tel Aviv at the age of 96, a true Litvak to the end.

Where the trajectory of Peretz Yaakov’s life took him from Eastern Europe to America and then to Israel, Bob Weissman’s life took him from East New York, Brooklyn, to East Meadow, Long Island, and then on to Boca Raton, Fla., where he spent the last 20 or so years of his life. A bon vivant if ever there were one, Uncle Bob delighted in the pleasures of the material world. He loved cars (especially the latest model Cadillac) and strong-smelling cigars and was the nattiest dresser I knew, from his neatly folded pocket squares down to his spiffy shoes. Bob also loved to laugh, to tell jokes, to hold court. Little wonder that he became a successful salesman for a major garment manufacturer of brightly colored mix-and-match knits.

One of seven children born to immigrant parents, Baruch grew up in East New York where, at an early age, he displayed a talent for tummling. Literally. He taught himself to play a bugle, which my father, his youngest brother, had won in a lottery from the local Loew’s movie theater, and subsequently he finagled a job as a bugler at a Catskills summer camp. A few years later, having graduated to the trumpet in the meantime, Bob became something of a local impresario, organizing weekly dances for singles in nearby Brownsville while making the rounds of Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs as the trumpet-wielding member of a klezmer band. During World War II, his musical skills stood him in very good stead: Inducted into the armed forces, he served out the war as a member of an army band.

In its wake, Bob and his bride, Lillian (aka Lil), bought a home in Queens Village, N.Y., later becoming the first in their family to move to the suburbs. There, in East Meadow, Long Island, amid split-level homes and finished basements complete with a bar (a bar!), Bob became an active member of his newly established Conservative synagogue.

Later still, like so many of his generation — always on the move — Bob and Lil picked up stakes once again and retired to Florida to play a little golf, enjoy the sun and indulge in the occasional cruise to the Bahamas. A long way from East New York, Baruch Weissman died in Boca at the age of 85.

As I think back fondly on these two men and the long lives they led, lives that were at once unique and emblematic, I am struck by one unassailable fact: America made it all possible. America enabled one immigrant and the son of another to develop their respective gifts, to search out new opportunities and to fashion a quintessentially modern form of Jewish identity — and we, their descendants who call New York, Florida and Israel our home, are the richer for it.

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