Tsk! Tsk! What a shame she died…Mazel tov!
(A story of obituaries, renewal, and the Jewish nonprofit world)
By Leonard M. Fuld
I am a strategist who has emersed himself in the Jewish nonprofit world. A few weeks ago, while reading reports of emergency funding, somewhat forced collaborations or mergers, and even potential closures of Jewish institutions, I recalled a warm, quirky story about my grandparents.
This memory flash sums up our current stressful situation but also offers hope.
There I was, sitting near the door in my grandparents’ parlor. Until I turned four, this small room in a small apartment was home for my grandparents, my parents and me. After we moved out, it became my grandparents sitting room, a place to welcome guests. Their building was located on West 178 Street in the northern Manhattan German-Jewish enclave of Washington Heights.
That day, a Shabbat in 1965, we walked from our new home in the Heights to visit my Oma and my Opa. When we arrived, their friends from the apartment building had already arrived to visit with them in the parlor and schmooze. The Levys, the Strauss’s, the Linz’s. They were survivors from the war, now settled in a neighborhood with their landsmen.
As an almost-bar-mitzvahed, American-born teenager who loved superhero comic books and playing stick ball, I couldn’t help but envy my grandparents and their quaint group of close friends.
I found them a fun to watch. Mr. Linz talking with his push-broom mustache bobbing up and down. The Levy’s. Mr. Levy was a very tall six-feet-plus, sitting next to his wife who was clearly a few inches short of five feet. 1 The Strauss’s were a serious couple. Finally, there sat my Oma Milly with her sweet smile and my Opa Julius. I watched as Opa slowly turned his very bald head to whomever was speaking, often letting out a deep-throated chuckle in response to a dry joke.
Then came the moment that for some strange reason has stuck with me all these years. I still laugh at the scene.
It began when my Opa opened the Aufbau.
Like the Yiddish-language The Jewish Daily Forward was for Eastern European immigrants, the Aufbau was the Jewish newspaper of record for German Jews. Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Thomas Mann were among its contributors. It hit neighborhood newsstands weekly on Friday, making it a perfect read for a long Shabbat afternoon. 2
1. At more than six feet, Mr. Levy was indeed extraordinarily tall for a man born in the 1890s. According to historical data collected by the University of Tuebingen, the average height of a German male born just before the turn of the 20th century was 5 foot 6 inches. A small curiosity, not at all relevant to this story, but a great factoid to include in your next Zoom meeting.
2. The Aufbau was founded in 1934, as a newspaper for German-speaking Jews around the world.
Instead of starting with the front page, I noticed that Opa turned to the back of the paper, the spot in most New York City papers where you would find sports news. Not in this paper.
The group began to peruse dozens of death notices from the obituary section.
“Tsk, tsk,” they went, after hearing each name. Siegfried so-and-so, Rosa…, Hugo, Herman, Franz, Adolph (yes, Adolph).
This round-robin eulogy session carried on for about ten minutes. 3
Such a lovely person. We will miss her. What about the children? I know his cousin…
After the obit interlude, this circle of elderly friends suddenly switched to “Mazel tov!”
They discussed new babies, a grandchild entering college, perhaps a wedding. They joked, they laughed, and they enjoyed the moment. 4
As a teenager, I simply didn’t get it. All I could do was focus on this odd obit-mazel-tov exchange, inwardly giggle, and keep my own counsel.
Today, as an adult and as a grandfather myself, I see another side of this memory. Yes, I can still smile at the “tsk, tsk” remarks followed by laughter. But what I also feel now is something more profound. The
3. Before I decided to insert this obituary-reading story, I phoned a couple of friends who also grew up in Washington Heights. I wanted to confirm my recollection. Each answered the same way. “Sure. That is exactly what happened with my grandparents. They always started reading the paper from the back to see the obituaries.” I then asked myself the following: If all German Jews presumably found the obituaries the most compelling section, why didn’t the Aufbau just flip the paper around and insert the obits on page one? Good question, eh?
4. Humor for German Jews was usually very dry, typically involving wordplay or puns. Jokes were mostly delivered and understood in an inside baseball kind of way. For instance, I recently read a story recounted by historian Steven Lowenstein about a social function that took place at my childhood synagogue in the German-Jewish Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. When the entertainer announced he was about to sing the Yiddish song, “A Yid a Shmid” (The Jewish blacksmith), the entire room rocked with laughter. The entertainer was perplexed. The song itself was not in any way funny. He had no idea why everyone burst out laughing. To his audience, though, the song title landed like a well-timed sketch from Saturday Night Live. They immediately related it to a German Jewish proverb that translated as “He’s a Jew like a blacksmith!” According to Lowenstein, “for a German Jew, a Jewish blacksmith was inconceivable.” Maybe not funny to you but a laugh riot to this bunch.
subtext to this group’s conversation was that life goes on. It reshapes itself in the process. New ideas creep in bringing with them new possibilities.
Why can’t our Jewish nonprofit world accept that same fact?
A weird transition I just made, eh? I equated a sad-happy parlor conversation to Jewish nonprofits. This comparison is not as strange as you might think.
To date, I have interviewed dozens of experts, including funders, economists, Jewish historians, and academics, as well as those that lead nonprofits. Following each conversation, I came away better educated but at the same time increasingly frustrated. The solutions are out there, I know. Some remain hidden to the Jewish community and others stare at us right in the face.
These experts will tell you that new Jewish nonprofits launch each year but so few close, collaborate, or merge – even if they should. The result: The number of nonprofits keep growing. How do economists and psychologists explain this behavior? What can we learn from it? The questions keep mounting.
And, yes, there are consequences to this unending proliferation of nonprofits, many competing with each other. As a result, according to historian, Jack Wertheimer, funders have begun to experience “donor fatigue.” Indeed, when do Jewish donor dollars run out or get stretched so thin that a nonprofit’s impact severely diminishes?
My interviews uncovered new and innovative approaches to funding outside the Jewish world, ways to manage legacy organizations in transition, as well as identified approaches to true collaboration.
I opened with a personal story of my Oma and Opa and their Aufbau conversation. As a teenager, all I heard that day was the superficial dialog that disguised a much more complex and dramatic story about renewal.
Similarly, the Jewish nonprofit world is complex, filled with drama, hope, and new ideas.
At the moment, we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic and a recession. Nonprofits are scrambling to stay afloat and functioning. When we exit this mess, we will still face these questions, with some of these critical questions even more amplified than they were before 2020.
If the Jewish nonprofit world’s goal is to become stronger for the long term and have far greater impact than it does today, it, too, needs to dig deeper into its own dynamics. It needs to ask the tough, underlying competitive and economic questions. It needs to understand the reasons for what is sometimes recalcitrant and unproductive behavior that benefits no one and prevents pursuit of mission.
Exploring the answers to these questions of competition, nonprofit lifecycles, new funding approaches is my mission and the mission of my blog. I’m not here to make friends. What I’m hoping to do is create dialog by unearthing new, exciting ideas, as well as difficult truths. While I’m at it, I also hope to inject some humor into this serious business.