When one thinks of Yosl and his many accomplishments, one must marvel as to how one person
could have done so much? Yosl was what they called a "tuer" - he was a doer. But he was much more than
that - because not only did he roll up his sleeves and work tirelessly and endlessly to get things accomplished, he was also
the idea man.
Yosl was known as the address for Yiddish because he was involved and, for the most part,
he organized everything that happened in the world in Yiddish. He sent our actors and actresses on theater tours throughout
the world, not only helping with the material as to what they would perform, but arranging the logistics of what cities to
perform in on what days.
He was the force behind the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre helping to pick plays, helping with fundraising and
with their sales and marketing. He was an impresario who would arrange for concerts or lectures for anyone visiting
the US, whether they were writers from Israel or singers from the Soviet Union. Who
of us could forget the concert series at the 92nd Street
Y when Soviet artists Mischa Reitzin, Misha Alexandrovitch, and Emil Gorewitz appeared in three successive weeks to sold out
He wrote educational books to learn Yiddish; he compiled poetry and song books (together with Chana) so that
the next generation would have access to the poems and songs that he and his peers recited or sang from memory (today those
books are the reference guide and anthology of Yiddish songs). He edited numerous newspapers and magazines on a daily and
weekly and monthly basis. He was the preeminent
orator of his generation, speaking wherever and whenever invited, all over the world – Israel, Russia, London, France,
Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and all over the US. He
organized shuln and met with the parents on a constant basis. He
had a weekly radio show. How many of
us can close our eyes and still remember hearing his melodic voice opening the show, “A gutn ovnt libe tsuherer…”
He later also became the voice of the weekly “Forward Hour” radio show.
He produced records so that the mass audience
could hear Yiddish songs. He produced video tapes of children's Yiddish songs in the 1960s - before Sesame Street was
even dreamt of. He organized
the first ethnic concert in the city parks in 1968 - where over 25,000 people came to Central Park to hear Sholom Secunda
and see Molly Picon for free. He of course continued this tradition of free concerts in the parks every year thereafter.
He organized Yiddish cultural
immersion weekends, an event that subsequently started the elder hostel phenomenon, and which tradition has been continued
to this very day with the summer activities that the Workmen’s Circle conducts at Circle Lodge
Yosl wrote a column in the Yiddish
Forward about the World of Yiddish, and, together with Chana, wrote a weekly, later bi-weekly, column in the Yiddish Forward
about Yiddish poetry, asking the readers for snippets of songs they remembered and giving them not only the song, but
information about the author who wrote the poem. Yosl and Chana continued that weekly column for almost 30 years
and Chana is continuing it today in his memory.
Yosl assisted in the opening of the Leivick house in Israel and was also a founding member of the “Veltrat
far Yiddish,” the World Council for Yiddish. Yosl
received the coveted Manger Prize for literature as well as other awards from numerous organizations. He
was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary/Herzliah University.
Yosl was an amazing man who, through all
of these activities in a relatively short period of time, always had time to meet with whomever would happen to stop by the
office that day. He would find
the time to converse by letter with Yiddish activists and writers throughout the world to be in tune with what was going on
and helping out wherever he could.
Yosl also continued his childhood legacy of activism and organized the shuln to march for better working
conditions in May Day parades, to march for the State of Israel in Israel Day parades, and to march for the rights of Jews
in the former Soviet Union. Yosl was part
of the American Jewish leadership involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, with the Workmen’s Circle position being
slightly different from others.
Yosl advocated that not only should Soviet Jews have the right to emigrate, but they should also have the
right to practice their religion and culture wherever they chose, even in the former Soviet Union. I
remember hearing Yosl & Chana talk about a trip they took to Russia in the 1970’s for the first international book
fair representing the Workmen’s Circle. Yosl
and Chana’s greatest joy was to turn aside while hundreds of Jews were able to appropriate the books that they had brought
with them for that very purpose, and watch as the Soviet Jews kissed the Yiddish books and treated them as if they were holy
Yosl’s further legacy to the American Jewish Community was his vision that although many Jews were secular,
they were nevertheless still connected as a people with common traditions and culture. He
organized grandiose holiday celebrations of Passover
and other holidays, with secular and cultural traditions, so that secular Jews would have their own traditions and not easily
assimilate. We continue
these holiday celebrations today and many of the things he brought us have become traditions in thousands of homes –
with people not knowing their origin.
Yosl was a man of passion, energy, vision and strength. A
man who never rested or stopped. A man with a
drive. Yosl was one
of a generation of Holocaust survivors that had a mission to make sure that their religion and culture survived. This
generation took this mission as their personal obligation and would not succumb until they contributed enough of a mark to
make sure that their mission would succeed. Yosl
was unique among his peers in what he was able to accomplish because of his natural talents of leadership, passion, writing
Yosl was also a wonderful father. He
was an inspiration to his children. He
was a practical man with sage advice on important life decisions. He
was a very calm man who never lost his temper or raised his voice.
The Yiddish world suffered a great
loss the day that Yosl died and while we all try to continue a portion of what he did, none of us can match his intensity,
drive or expertise. So our entire world, and not just his family, lost a lot with the loss of Yosl.