NEW ROCHELLE, NY — We have named our son after my grandfather, Joseph Just, who passed away this year in November, at the age of 97. He was known to most people as Yossel, and that’s what we as his grandchildren called him too. When anyone asked why we referred to Yossel by his first name, we just explained that “Zaydie” or “Grandpa” never seemed to fit, and that Yossel always bristled at those titles anyway, asking us, “Do I look like a Zaydie?!” which is such a signature Yossel line because it captures his pride, his youthfulness, and his strength.
Yossel would be considered a “holocaust survivor” by most, but I think he preferred to think of himself as a fighter. Born in 1918, into a Belzer Chasidic home in Poland, Yossel was the 6th in a line of 11 children. When the Nazis occupied the town of Tarnov where he was a young student, he refused to wear the required gold Jewish star that identified Jews. With the exception of an older sister who emigrated to Mexico in the 30’s, Yossel was the only other member of his family to survive the war – he was drafted into the Soviet army and served for the duration of WWII. He was one of 18 young men to survive his brigade of 30,000 soldiers and liberated Majdanek concentration camp in 1944. Following the war, he made his way to New York, where he quickly learned English, started a successful jewelry business in the Diamond District on 47th Street, married my grandmother Jean Pruskin, and started a family in Jamaica Estates, Queens. I am still in awe of Yossel’s strength in being able to start a whole new life in a foreign country, after everything he lost and witnessed during the war. As child, I took for granted that lots of my friends’ grandparents from Europe just started over – I always thought of it as something they just had to do. But as I’ve gotten older and thought about what this really meant, I realize how it was a conscious choice to move on and move forward, and how incredibly heartbreaking and difficult that must have been.
I think that in addition to Yossel’s fighting spirit, there was something else that made him so special and helped him rebuild a life in New York. He possessed an incredible selflessness, always recognizing when there were considerations outside of his own wants or needs that should guide his decisions in life. He exhibited this selflessness in so many ways – I could stand up here and talk about all of them, but I’ll just share one story that has always stuck with me:
In the middle of the war, Yossel was stationed at Mt. Ararat, near the Turkish border. As a teenger in Poland, Yossel had joined the Zionist Youth group Hashomar HaTzair and had planned to move to what was then Palestine to help build the Jewish State. Being stationed so close to Palestine, he decided to fulfill his dream of aliyah: he was going to desert the army and make a run for it. Successfully sneaking out from the encampment with all of his belongings in a backpack, he was crossing the knee-high river, when he stopped dead in his tracks. He realized that if he deserted, the other Jews in his unit would be harshly punished, if not executed. Selflessly, he gave up his dream, and returned to the Soviet army, willing to give up his life fighting in action to help protect his fellow Jewish soldiers.
It’s hard for me to imagine that my son will not have the chance to meet Yossel, so it is comforting that he will bear his name. Bringing Joseph into the world was a long and at times painful journey, and I was very anxious about his health during my pregnancy. Yossel passed away when I was about four months pregnant and one night during shiva, when I was letting the anxiety get the better of me, Benji reassured me by saying that he just knew the baby had Yossel’s fighting spirit and was going to be okay. I really loved this idea and it also made me reflect on the way my mom and Aunt Haina cared for Yossel in the last several years, which was a great testament to the strength and selflessness that Yossel modeled for them as a father. Until the very last day of his life, they fought to provide him with the utmost dignity and care. Our wish for Joseph is that he continue to illustrate this combination of strength and selflessness that Yossel modeled for our entire family.
Our son’s middle name is Ezra, which means “help.” This meaning felt fitting for him because despite the struggle and loss we’ve experienced these past few years in trying to start a family, we also recognize how fortunate we are to have had such incredible help from up above, and from those around us – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We’ve learned that sometimes it doesn’t just take a village to raise a child, but it takes one to make him too. Every single person in this room has already played in an enormous role in Joseph’s life by providing such incredible love and support to us. I am certain we would not be here today without the help of our families, friends, doctors, and the leadership here at the Bayit. And I’m not one for public declarations of love, but I can’t stand up here without thanking Benji for being the most supportive, loving husband imaginable. He has been the most perfect partner for the last 7 years and watching him become an incredible father in the past 7 days has been so amazing. Finally, I especially want to acknowledge our mohel, my cousin Hershel Fuller, who is Yossel’s nephew and flew in from Mexico to be here today. He was like a son to my grandfather, and our Mexican family is our special connection to the Just family that we lost in Europe. We are so honored that you are able to not only be here today, but perform the bris for our son as well.
I’ll end with one last story about Yossel: During one of his many subway rides from Queens to 47th street, a disheveled, homeless man entered the subway, took a seat, and slumped down. The people on the car all moved further away, creating as much distance from him as they could. Witnessing this scene, Yossel turned to the subway and announced,”When this man was born, people wished his mother congratulations,” reminding everyone that every person is entitled to human dignity and compassion.
I know that Yossel is looking down on us today, wishing us mazel tov and zei gezunt.
Thank you all for coming, we love you all.