My son Adam is a voracious reader. He often sends me articles that serve as inspiration for my own writings. One recent example was the obituary of an American immigrant success story, bringing me a rush of memories of another American immigrant success, my Uncle Joe Weinstock. May is Jewish American Heritage month. In honor of that observance, I write this tribute to a pillar of Jewish American Heritage, my Uncle Joe.
Uncle Joe had no kids, but without question, he was the patriarch of our family. My own success would not have been possible without my heritage from him. Indeed, I wouldn’t even be alive were it not for him.
The article Adam sent me was about the death of John Pappajohn, not the pizza guy but an insurance executive turned venture capitalist. Pappajohn emigrated to the US from Greece. “Showing an early entrepreneurial impulse, he scavenged for metal, rugs, building materials or other scrap he could sell,” (James R. Hagerty, “John Pappajohn, Iowa Venture Capitalist Who Focused on Medical Plays, Dies at 94,” Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2023.) His father died when John was 16, leaving John to support his mom and younger brothers Aristotle and Socrates. Pappajohn’s work ethic and ingenuity rewarded him with wealth, which he used for greater good by donating $100 million to philanthropic causes. In addition to Pappajohn’s immigrant work ethic and philanthropy, two more things about him conjure up Uncle Joe in my head: (1) Pappajohn wore a “PMA” lapel pin, standing for Positive Mental Attitude; and (2) he described himself as the “rah rah” guy, always inspiring and motivating others. In so many ways, Uncle Joe was the Jewish immigrant version of John Pappajohn.
Uncle Joe (actually Yosef, Hebrew for Joseph) was born around the turn of the 20th century in a tiny village in Ukraine called Polona, in the Volyn region, heartland of chasidic Judaism. He was the third of six children born to Eliezer and Leah Weinstock. It was a difficult time for Jews in Ukraine. After a pogrom roughing up the Jews and poking out Eliezer’s eye, Joe saw the handwriting on the wall and embarked on a ship for America. Instead of disembarking in Ellis Island, Uncle Joe’s ship was part of the “Galveston Movement,” funded by New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff to address overcrowding of immigrants in the Lower East Side and the resultant antisemitism. A young, penniless, Joe was met at the Galveston, Texas pier by Rabbi Henry Cohen and the Jewish Welfare, who placed him in Troy, Alabama. Imagine the challenges faced by a religious European Jew in Troy, Alabama, but Uncle Joe managed to remain an observant Jew his entire life. He got a horse and wagon, going from house-to-house peddling fruit. His “Positive Mental Attitude,” grit, and ever-present smile made him successful.
Ten years later, after World War I, Uncle Joe had saved up enough money to bring over his parents and three younger siblings (including my grandmother Pauline, my mother Elsie’s mother). He didn’t have enough money yet to bring over his two older siblings Elke and Enoch, by then married in Europe. Then it became too late. Although Joe’s mother Leah (who shared a bed with my mother Elsie) prayed nightly that Elke and Enoch were still alive, Hitler got to them before Joe could bring them to America.
Joe ran an ad for a wife in the Yiddish newspaper: “Volyner yunger man zucht Voliner maidel,” (young man from the Volyn region seeks a young woman from the same area, in other words a religious wife). Rose Pass from Columbus, Ohio answered the ad. They married and settled in Montgomery. (While at it, they matched up Rose’s sister Ruth with Joe’s brother Moshe— two for the price of one ad!)
Joe started a furniture store and bought rent houses. He never worked on the Sabbath, and he opened and closed the synagogue every day. Uncle Joe always had a song in his heart and on his lips. He too was a “rah rah” guy, lifting up others everywhere he went. In my mind, I can hear him singing one of his favorites, “Adon Olam,” (Lord of the Universe). He was always happy, famously saying, “I never had a bad day in America.”
Beginning in the 1950s, Joe and Rose made an annual pilgrimage to Israel for the High Holidays. When the local newspaper, The Montgomery Advertiser, interviewed him about those trips, they asked, “Do you have family in Israel?” Joe’s answer: “Yes, all the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are my family.”
Joe supported Israeli businesses every chance he could. Once in Tel Aviv, he entered a tailor shop and asked the proprietor if he was a good tailor. The man rolled up his sleeve and showed his concentration camp number, answering that his tailoring skills were how he managed to survive the Holocaust. Joe bought a new suit from that tailor every year.
In 1967 at the outbreak of the Six Day War, Uncle Joe rallied the gathering at the country club in Montgomery. Uncle Joe’s pitch: “You all know the story of Joseph in the Bible. Joseph was a Jewish boy who went to Egypt and got rich. Did he forget his family in Israel? No, he took care of them. We, too, have to help our brothers and sisters in Israel.” Although Joe wasn’t rich, he started the pledging at $5,000 (a huge sum to him, especially in those days), and the crowd followed suit. They had to at least match Mr. Weinstock. He also regularly mailed small amounts to families all over Israel. “I want them to have a challah for Shabbos.” His favorite charity was the Jewish National Fund, site of a tree planting known as the Joseph and Rose Weinstock Grove in Israel. Joe was doing his part to make Israel’s desert bloom.
As part of my Family Legacy initiative at The Blum Firm, I speak often of the importance of preserving family heritage. Knowing stories of our ancestors’ resilience gives us strength to overcome adversity when it strikes in our lives. My daughter Lizzy Savetsky recently gave a speech with that message: “When heavy winds blow our way, it’s the deeply rooted who aren’t blown away. What does that mean to me? My deep roots come from my ancestors. That’s the source of my strength and survival, that I want to pass down to my three children.” Lizzy and I and our whole family are grateful to Uncle Joe for giving us deep roots. Our family has the roots to survive, because we know we come from “good stock,” WEINSTOCK.
Marvin E. Blum
Marvin Blum’s Uncle Joe Weinstock (left) was the family patriarch who passed down an empowering legacy to his heirs, seated here next to his father-in-law, Mr. Pass, and his wife Rose.