Barnett Zumoff, who died at age 94 on Mar. 21, was one of the rare people who inspire awe by the sheer range of skills at which they operate at a high level.
A noted clinical and research physician with many significant publications, Zumoff achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, winning medals for Combat Readiness and Expert Marksmanship.
Most endearingly, in the early 1970s he started to accept increasing responsibilities in Jewish cultural leadership, including a long stint as President of the Forward Association, but also President of the Workmen’s Circle, the Yiddish progressive organization, as well as the Congress for Jewish Culture, and Vice-President of the Folksbiene, the Yiddish theater organization.
Somehow, Zumoff also found time to produce dozens of fascinating translations of Yiddish literature. With typical wry and soft-spoken modesty, he told the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project in 2013 that “there was a time when I was the president or vice-president of everything.”
Remembered fondly as Barney, or Berl to his friends, Zumoff added a literary aside, referring to the “Duke of Omnium et Gatherum, which is Latin slang for every damn thing.”
He was alluding to the English novelist Anthony Trollope’s Duke of Omnium who lived in Gatherum Castle in the Palliser novel series, including “Phineas Finn” and “The Eustace Diamonds.” Like Trollope before him, Zumoff was jesting about the mock Latin term Omnium-gatherum, or a miscellaneous collection, in this case an assortment of directorships involving Yiddishkeit.
His fidelities began early. Born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to Ukrainian immigrant parents, he spoke Yiddish from the start, although his father’s mastery of the language vastly exceeded that of his mother, who arrived in America at age two.
His father, who had a managerial job at the Yiddish Forverts, recounted family sufferings in the Old Country that preceded the Holocaust by centuries. The elder Zumoff was described by his son as being “noted for having a loud voice, which he used very freely. He yelled all the time…not that he was really angry, particularly. He was just a person who yelled.”
With a high decibel count, Zumoff’s father told him about how in Kiev he would urinate on a statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a Cossack who led an antisemitic pogrom so devastating that it is still remembered today.
Keeping in mind the fragility of community life, Zumoff would later counter arguments about recent declining interest in Yiddish literature and community life by repeatedly quoting from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
So Zumoff’s cherished activities on behalf of Yiddishkeit over more than a half-century were an exceeding refined expression of fury. Being soft-spoken, unlike his father, his response was to quietly translate instead of hollering.
After a 1983 effort co-translating Sholem Aleichem’s play “The Jackpot” with the Yiddish author Jacob (Kobi) Weitzner, he launched into solo efforts with an amiable sense of competition.
At the Workmen’s Circle book fair, browsing through an anthology of Yiddish poetry by Ruth Bashein Whitman, a poet of Russian Jewish ancestry who had learned Yiddish late in life, Zumoff felt that he could do better.
He was guided to the poems of Avrom Sutzkever, but after he completed a translation of one collection, the poet refused permission for it to be published. Zumoff told The Yiddish Book Center: “I guess he didn’t think I amounted to enough to warrant publishing his book,” implying that Sutzkever was waiting for a famous English poet to render his verses.
Many of the other poets he translated whom he might have met, he never did, due to shyness or lack of opportunity. So Zumoff turned translation into a belated form of intimate interaction with poets who might otherwise have remained inaccessible, or in the case of Sutzkever, willfully aloof.
Characteristically, after the Sutzkever project collapsed, rather than deciding to avoid wasting more time on poets, Zumoff simply proceeded to the next project. It was “I Keep Recalling,” a collection of Holocaust-themed poems by the Polish Jewish author Jacob Glatstein.
Zumoff’s decades of handling precise language in medical research articles involving endocrinology, striving to help people suffering from diabetes, thyroid disease, and other ailments, was ideal for tempering the wild expressivity of some poets.
Glatstein’s poem “The Maid of Ludmir Returns from a Desolate Journey,” about a semi-legendary 19th century Hasidic woman who conducted herself as a rebbe, is one example.
Likewise, in his translations of Rajzel Zychlinsky a Polish-born Yiddish poet, descriptions of everyday objects became lamentations in the context of modern Jewish history, as in “My Mother’s Shoes”:
“At night my shoes look at me / with my mother’s tired eyes- / the same goals unachieved / and happiness missed…”
In 2009, it seemed oddly appropriate when the Yosl Mlotek Prize for Yiddish and Yiddish Culture was shared by Zumoff and The Klezmatics, the US klezmer music group. After all, Zumoff’s translations of prose and poetry, especially when the latter was not straitjacketed by requirements of rhyme, had their own musical allure.
Further vast projects in poetry and prose ensued, including a still-hefty abridgement of Emanuel Goldsmith’s anthology of Yiddish literature. Concomitantly, Zumoff also displayed an inclination for brevity in poetic expression, shown in a selection of rhymed Yiddish couplets.
His ongoing associative responsibilities placed him in the role of author of pithy memorial notices when friends and associates died. In January 2007, when The Forward’s general counsel Judith Vladeck, a noted labor lawyer, died, a notice co-signed by Zumoff and Executive Director Samuel Norich praised Vladeck’s work defending “victims of age and sex discrimination,” adding the personal detail: “We will miss her raspy voice, her sage counsel and her unassuming dignity.”
In December 2000, when Dr. Naomi Pat (known as Emma) Zelmanowicz, wife of The Forward’s Vice President, the Bundist activist Motl Zelmanowicz died, the statement concluded with Zol di erd af im gring zayn (May the earth rest lightly on you; or Rest in Peace) a Yiddish variant of a Latin inscription dating back to ancient Rome.
Zol di erd af im gring zayn was reiterated in March 2001 to mourn the loss of Forward editorial assistant Elena Leikind in a bus accident, and in March 2006, when The Forward’s General Manager Harold Ostroff died he was lauded, in addition to the Yiddish epitaph, in these terms: “To all who knew of him, he was a giant. To all who knew him, he was a mentsch.”
However, when Selma Zumoff, his beloved wife of 64 years died in November 2015, she received a different Yiddish farewell: Koved ir ondenk, un zol zi hobn a likhtikn gan-eydn (Honor her memory, and she should have a bright place in paradise).
The same must inevitably apply to Barnett Zumoff, who indefatigably honored the memory of his family and heritage in all his myriad accomplishments.