Wednesday, August 20, 2008

C. Israel Lutsky, The Jewish Philosopher


Known to everyone in the family as Uncle Israel, he is the only celebrity in the family (there is another celebrity, actress Carol Eve Rossen but she's a distant cousin...her father is actor Hal Holbrook). Uncle Israel is my great-grand uncle, the younger brother of my great grandfather. He was a staple on Yiddish radio from 1931 until the 1960s. I have no personal memories of him even though I was 20 years old when he died in 1985. He had moved to Florida in the 1960s and lived in Ohio after that, rarely coming back to New York. I always heard about Uncle Israel from my dad and his siblings and also from my grandmother.

Israel came to America from Ukraine in 1906, at the age of 8, with his mother, 3 older sisters, and younger brother. His father and 2 older brothers were already in Brooklyn. As a boy, he was a cantor, which is what the "C" refers to in his name. He took a shot at amateur boxing and vaudeville, as well as being a reporter and salesman. Even though he was one of the youngest children in the family, he became the unofficial head of the family. According to his 1920 US passport application, he was only 22 years old and his employer was trusting him to travel around war torn Europe to see if there was a market for hosiery yet.

In 2002, National Public Radio aired a special series, Yiddish Radio Project. One episode was dedicated to Uncle Israel...actor Carl Reiner did the English translation. I don't understand Yiddish but it sounds like he was very animated as he was dishing out advice to his listeners. He was just as enthusiastic when plugging his longtime sponsor, Carnation Milk. They were so pleased with his promotions they awarded him a pension when he retired. See http://yiddishradioproject.org/ for more information about Uncle Israel and other Yiddish radio stars.

From the stories I've heard, it was difficult to find a larger ego than Uncle Israel's. I firmly believe that before he died, he told his wife to make sure to put his age as 90 on his headstone so it would look like he lived longer than everyone else in the family plot. He was actually 87 when he died. Turns out cousin Ethel beat him...she died in 2006 at the age of 93. He was strict with the boys. My dad remembers that he had to look directly at Uncle Israel while he was speaking to you or he'd grab your chin and turn your head back towards him. He doted on the girls though, especially my dad's sister Linda. He was just a big softie around those blond curls. Linda gets very emotional when we talk about him. Being a big shot did have its advantages. My dad remembers when, as a teenager, he was in the hospital with appendicitis. The hospital wouldn't operate because they didn't have insurance. Uncle Israel stepped in and made sure things were taken care of.

8 comments:

Amy said...

I've heard of fudging your age on a birth certificate, but not on a tombstone. That made me smile. Thanks for sharing your story.

Nikki-ann said...

Your Uncle Israel sounds like he was a great man :)

Professor Dru said...

Great story about the life of Uncle Israel.

Miriam said...

"My dad remembers that he had to look directly at Uncle Israel while he was speaking to you or he'd grab your chin and turn your head back towards him."

Could he have had some hearing loss, as I do? There are many people that I have difficulty understanding if they are not looking directly at me when they speak, especially if they do not enunciate. Young men's lower-toned voices may have been harder for him to understand.

Sharon said...

Uncle Israel was the one doing the talking.

barry lutsky said...

I think (it was a long time ago) that Uncle Israel was MY great uncle, because I think that he was my father's uncle, my dad being Carl Meyer Lutsky. In 1956 Uncle Israel came to my Bar Mitzvah, in Silver Spring, Maryland, and the Lutsky side of the family was beside themselves by being honored by Uncle Israel's presence. It was evidently a surprise visit. Myself, I didn't know him from adam; I was just glad that the ceremony was over. Are the poster and her dad related to me? By the way, my dad, Carl, always told us that another personality, comedian Leo Delion (spelling?), was another relation, a 2nd or 3rd cousin. We went to see him once in Constitution Hall in Washington and I remember thinking, this guy is just awful!

barry lutsky said...

By the way, Sharon, I too live in Georgia, recently transplanted to Athens by way of NJ, and born in Brooklyn!

Barry

Sharon said...

Barry, e-mail me if you see this message.