GLADYS GEWIRTZ: IN MEMORIAM
by Isaac Gewirtz
April 21, 2019
Sarah Gladys Kerstein, Brooklyn-born into a religious Zionist family, from her earliest years imbibed the tenets and richness of Orthodox life. Her parents, Solomon and Beatrice, were ardent Zionists. Beatrice Barth was born at the end of the nineteenth century in Galicia, now in western Poland, but which then was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My grandmother often told me, with gratitude in her voice, of the protection that Emperor Franz Josef provided his Jewish subjects, and of the sympathy with which he spoke about them.
Beatrice attended, in addition to a secular public school, a Zionist-oriented Jewish studies school, at which she studied Hebrew, Bible, Jewish History, and the works of the Jewish writers who formed the first generation of the modern Hebrew revival. Beatrice was also fluent in German and, of course, Polish, though she refused to speak either language after Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of the anti-Jewish horrors which that unleashed in Germany and Poland.
My grandmother’s family lived an upper middle class life, based on their income from a railroad station restaurant concession granted to her father, a pious man who revered and occasionally visited a regionally renowned Hasidic rabbi. With the outbreak of the First World War, he was conscripted into an Austro-Hungarian artillery regiment and met as best he could the challenges to maintaining his religious observance. My grandmother recalled with pride the regiment’s return home, during which ceremony she witnessed her father astride a massive war horse, riding it skillfully into the town square, which was lined by a cheering crowd of Christians and Jews.
At the war’s conclusion, Galicia reverted to Polish rule, and Galician Jews suffered accordingly. The increasingly frequent outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in Galicia and in my grandmother’s town convinced her of the need to emigrate to America. She persuaded her parents of the wisdom of this move, and the family arrived in New York in the early 1920s.
She soon met her future husband, the Antwerp-born Solomon Kerstein, in New York. His parents were also Galizianers, and he and Beatrice were active members of a Galizianer cultural organization. Both of them were also active members of Zionist groups, an involvement they maintained all their lives.
Solomon, though lacking a university education, had received a sound secular education in Antwerp, London, and New York, and had studied the Bible and Mishnah in Hebrew. He was, moreover, well-read in both Jewish and English literature and was himself a good writer. He would serve for decades as the Vice President of the Bloch Publishing Company, a warm, pious, and gentlemanly presence in an often hard-edged business, and was revered and beloved by scores of Jewish educators and scholars whose works he nurtured and published.
My mother, an only child, grew up in this religious, Zionist, bookish, genteel atmosphere, in a Williamsburg apartment which she and her parents shared with her maternal grandparents. Not surprisingly, Yiddish was her first language. She would also prove to be a precocious student in Hebrew, graduating from Hebrew high school at age 12. She later attended America’s foremost school for Jewish educators, the Beit Midrash le-Morot.
Her growing awareness of her Jewish heritage and of the world beyond New York coincided with the rise of Hitler, the outbreak of the Second World War, and of the Holocaust, though American news reports about the Holocaust were relatively infrequent and woefully incomplete. But portions of Hitler’s speeches we’re often played on radio news programs, and my mother told me of the terror of those moments, not just because of the peril of her fellow Jews in Europe, but because the idea that Hitler might soon bomb and march into New York did not seem improbable to her young girl’s imagination.
Soon after the war, three of her first cousins, the only survivors of my grandmother’s family, excepting her own parents, came to live for a time in the small Williamsburg apartment. The three brothers had escaped Auschwitz, and the two oldest, Isidore and Abraham, had joined Polish partisans in the forests of that region, paying a farmer to hide the youngest brother, Henyk, in a pig sty for two years, until he was old enough to join them. My mother told me that the first night the brothers spent in the Williamsburg apartment, they all sat around the dining room table as the brothers recounted, dry-eyed, what they had witnessed in Auschwitz, while everyone else wept.
After graduating from public high school with distinction, my mother attended Brooklyn College, then one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges. There she majored in English literature. It was in her senior year that she was introduced to my father, who had, I believe, just returned to New York after serving briefly as the rabbi of a Baton Rouge congregation.
In marrying Rabbi Leonard Gewirtz in 1948, my mother experienced not just the usual, often wrenching, transformation from single to married life, from living with one’s parents (and grandparents) to living with one’s husband. She was also leaving a great metropolis, rich in Jewish communal life, in which Jewish religious observance and learning was a constant companion. Of course, New York was also a city replete with the cultural riches of world-class museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, and theaters, all of which my mother thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed. Not least, it was also a city that embraced progressive politics and attempted to be a leader in laws and policies that promoted social justice. By contrast, Wilmington seemed to her a small town in which these values and cultural resources seemed sorely lacking.
Predictably, my mother’s first years in Wilmington were difficult and lonely, though she did make a few good friends. The dream of returning to New York did not die easily. But in time, she came to see Wilmington and AKSE as not just her physical but her emotional home. Her involvement in the congregation grew, as did the circle of her friends, among whom were intimates whose love and support she cherished and to whom she gave love and support at every opportunity. She especially treasured her relationships with her fellow teachers and her students at the AKSE school.
About a year prior to my retirement from the New York Public Library, I returned from lunch one day to learn that a woman had come to our reading room and asked for me, but declined to give her name. Over the next two days, she returned twice more, each time declining to give her name or the reason for her visit. Each time I was away. On her fourth attempt, we met, and she told me, with great feeling, that my mother had been her teacher at AKSE and that she wanted me to tell my mother that her teaching had meant so much to her, more than she could ever say, and that her life had been changed by it. I offered to give her my mother’s Jerusalem address, but she did not want to disturb her.
When I called my mother and told her about the former student who so needed to let her know how much she had meant to her and how grateful she was that she would not be dissuaded by three unsuccessful attempts, I could hear in my mother’s voice the affection and warmth which she must have brought into this student’s life with her own love of Jewish learning and spirituality.
I cannot conclude this remembrance without a few remarks about my mother’s selfless service to her husband, my father, the Rabbi. My mother’s college education had given her the opportunity not just to immerse herself in great literature, but to hone her own linguistic gifts. These she employed generously and untiringly as my father’s editor and muse, for both his sermons and his published writings.
I often recall her emphasizing to him the stylistic principle of “less is more.” A typical comment would be phrased along the lines of, “What you’ve said in the first two sentences is clear and well phrased. The rest of the paragraph just rehashes that and weakens its effect.” Though he might counter with his view of the matter, and though a bit of back and forth might ensue, this exchange was conducted with the utmost mutual respect and affection. But I never recall him not taking her advice on such matters.
My father knew how much his gifted wife admired and respected him, and how full a partner she was in his rabbinate. He thanked her profusely and frequently in the home, as well as from the pulpit, often saying to me on my visits from New York and places farther afield how all that he had been able to achieve was due to my mother’s love, help, and guidance. As he became weakened by illness, his gratitude intensified.
Finally, I need to recall here that my mother herself was an excellent writer and communicator, and, as was demonstrated by her leadership of the AKSE school, a very capable and inspiring administrator. I believe that had she not placed her gifts, skills, and wisdom at the service of my father’s mission at AKSE (most willingly, and graciously, I emphasize), she could have been a national leader in Jewish education or in American Zionism. I don’t believe that such ambitions ever entered her mind, or at least not long enough to seriously disturb her, simply because fulfilling them would have been impossible.
My mother learned well what we must all learn, which is to be grateful to God for what we have. Until only a few weeks before her death, she would attend, in her wheelchair, a weekly lecture on the Kuzari. She was even capable of summarizing, in the whispery voice that her Parkinson’s illness had forced on her, the week’s lecture for her granddaughter’s mother-in-law, a frequent, loving visitor.
As my brother Yossi, his wife, Debbie, and my mother’s tenderly loving and caring health aid, Mia, would attest, even after Parkinson’s had restricted my mother’s physical movement almost entirely to her bed and her wheelchair, she remained grateful to God for being alive, for being in Israel, and for being in the company of beloved family and friends.
Now, the work God gave her is done. Her journey back to Him and His love and peace is complete.