Saturday, June 24, 2017

Josef Guttman

As a kid in the ’70s, I would shop at C Town in the heart of Riverdale. It was a small supermarket, presided over by a Jewish grocer who was a kind, grandfatherly man who bounced between aisles and manned the deli counter. I never learned his name. He spoke kindly to his employees, mainly Irish teens, and was always forthcoming with customers. 

Eventually, C Town—and the gentle Jewish grocer—disappeared as chain stores took over.

Flash forward 35 years. I looked at the list of the June HIR dinner honorees and was flabbergasted to see the gentle grocer. His name is Josef Guttman (“good man” in Yiddish and German), and he will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.

I recognized the kindly face all these years later. The same man who pointed me to frozen challah and took back a carton of sour milk. Now there is a name behind the face. 

I rushed to contact Josef Guttman. A thick Yiddish accent answered on the other end of the line.

“Mr. Guttman, would I be able to speak to you about the upcoming award?” A few hours later, Mr. Guttman appeared at my building’s swimming pool. At 92, he looks like he could outswim me.

Mr. Guttman is a rare bird at the HIR: a Jewish grocer when, it seems, half the congregation members are lawyers, investment bankers or rabbinic interns. He is the oldest member of the congregation, a breathing link to the vanished world of the shtetl. He was born in 1924, in the Polish town of Bedzin, not far from Auschwitz.

Josef Guttman has been a fixture at the Hebrew Institute since its founding at University Heights. He hasn’t missed an amen.

“Pepperidge Farms remembers!” So does Josef Guttman. He has been through all the ups and downs of HIR: demonstrations, elections, women’s tefillah, Chovevei Torah and more. 

Mr. Guttman is very fond of Rabbi Avi Weiss. Until he stepped down two years ago, the spiritual leader and his shul were as inseparable as movies and popcorn.

“Avi Weiss is a remarkable man. He took us (Guttman and his late wife, Goldie) to the doctor. Waited hours ’til the doctor took us. When Goldie died, he went personally with me to the burial. No other rabbi is doing this. I like Rabbi Weiss because (when) I go to other shuls and I see the rabbis sitting up there (on the dais), they have no connection to the people.” According to Mr. Guttman, Rabbi Avi did not preside over the shul, he was the shul, at one with the people.

The Hebrew Institute has become a flashpoint of controversy as it has broadcast Open Orthodoxy. It hosts probably the most liberal, Orthodox semicha program in America, Chovevei Torah. The shul ordains “Rabbas” (women halachic consultants, rabbis in all but name), and pioneered women’s tefillah. 

What does Mr. Guttman think of the direction that the HIR is taking, coming from a shtetl background where such things were unknown? He supports the liberal development. “For me the first time for a woman to be a rabbi was funny, strange. I got used to it. Women today are much better educated than in the past, Jewishly and secularly. That is a good thing. When they come to daf yomi, they know. They want to be on the same page.”

Guttman is the quintessential son of the shtetl. He believes American Jewry is moving closer to the European model. “They’re more Jewish now than when I came to this country. When I came (here), there were not so many yeshivas, not too many (Jewish) schools. Now it’s entirely different.”

How does the HIR compare to his childhood shul in Bedzin? The shul in Bedzin was even bigger than the HIR. There was a chazzan and choir, with its own “dirigent” (conductor) who composed melodies for Shabbat. The shul (as all others) was open day and night for prayer and study.

Eighty percent of the three million-plus Polish Jews were Orthodox. Conservative and Reform stems of Judaism, so common in America, were non-existent in Poland, except for a token synagogue or two in Warsaw. Interwar Poland was fiercely anti-Semitic, but Guttman’s childhood memories are positive. He speaks glowingly of a warm family and community.

Polish Jews and Catholics inhabited different worlds from cradle to grave. Jews went to all-Jewish schools. Their dominant language was Yiddish, not Polish.“We didn’t mix too much with the Poles. Because of kashrut we couldn’t go to their homes.” He continued, “Where the Jewish people mixed, and had good connections, with the Poles, they could save themselves (during the Holocaust).”

Less than three percent of Polish Jews survived the Holocaust in Poland. Guttman’s whole family perished, except for one brother who settled in the Bronx a year before him. His hometown, once half-Jewish, does not have a trace of Jewish life left today.

Unlike the shtetl caricatures of Shalom Aleichem and Shagal, Guttman’s family was wealthy. They owned a flax-oil factory and sold wholesale grain to farmers in the area. The food business goes back to Guttman’s childhood.

Guttman survived a string of German concentration camps. After liberation, he settled in Munich, Bavaria, where he met his wife, Goldie, who had survived the war in Russia. Together they ran a grocery store: the proverbial “mom and pop shop.”

Why a grocery, of all businesses? “It was a good business.”

From his humble beginnings in Bavaria, Guttman came to America and, barely speaking English, opened a shomer Shabbat grocery on Pelham Parkway. After a few years, he ran a grocery shop in University Heights. The neighborhood was 90 percent Jewish. 

He moved to Riverdale in 1970, where he scored a high point in his grocery career when he became the manager of C Town. His was the first supermarket to carry kosher items. 

Since losing Goldie, as well as his only son at age 50, the HIR has been his family.

What does Gutmann hope for the HIR, on the eve of the annual dinner? The one-time grocer wants the HIR to grow in membership, but Riverdale to stay the same.

I looked at the face of this kindly nonagenarian. If I had known 35 years ago what I learned after this discussion at the pool, I would have buttonholed him in conversation in the bread aisle, when I was a kid at C Town, and not let him go.

Hats off to Josef Guttman. No one deserves the “Lifetime Achievement Award’ more than he.

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