The Tailgater
For a Strong Israel

Two Good "Yiddishe" Boys

Louie Armstrong Colin Powell
At the beginning of last century, in the emotional hotbed of New Orleans a child slave of the ghetto was born of a prostitute mother and “missing” father. He somehow stumbled into the attention of a financially poor but loving Russian Jewish immigrant family, the Karnofskys. This little fellow, with an appreciative, magnetic personality, attached himself to the father, to help him with his horse-and-wagon hauling business. The Karnofskys loved the child, took him in for dinners, including Shabbat, and provided more than bed and shelter. They provided him with the love he needed, and his first musical instrument that led this confused, hungry youngster onto worldwide fame — as a jazz performer, music innovator and worldwide ambassador for humanity. Louis Armstrong proudly spoke fluent Yiddish, from his childhood through his whole life, and always wore a Star of David around his neck.

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Sickser's back in the early 1950's was located on the corner of Westchester and Fox in South Bronx, and specialized in "everything for the baby" as its slogan ran. Swamped on day with loads of work and many customers, Mr. Sickser ran out of  the store and stopped the first youth he spotted on the street. "Young man,"  he panted, "how would you like to make a little extra money? I need some help  in the store. You want to work a little?"

The tall, lanky black boy  flashed a toothy smile back. "Yes, sir, I'd like some work." "Well then, let's get started."

The boy followed his new employer into the store. Mr.  Sickser was immediately impressed with the boy's good manners and demeanor, and made him a regular employee at the store. It was gratifying to find an employee with an almost soldier-like willingness to perform even the most menial of  tasks, and to perform them well. From the age of thirteen until his  sophomore year in college, this young man put in from twelve to fifteen hours  a week, at 50 to 75 cents an hour.

In 1993, in his position as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of  Staff, two years after he guided the American victory over Iraq in the Gulf War, General Colin Powell visited the Holy Land. Upon meeting Israel's  Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Jerusalem, he greeted the Israeli with the  word "Men kent reden Yiddish" (We can speak Yiddish). As Shamir, stunned, tried to pull himself together, the current Secretary Of State continued chatting in his second-favorite language. Colin Powell never forgot his early days working at Sickser's.

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Louie Armstrong and Colin Powell loved their "Yiddishe" roots. Unsung Jewish heroes like the Karnofskys and the Sicksers used their total color-blind love of their fellow human to help shape two of modern history's finest people.


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David Ziklag

Let's not get too teary-eyed and chocked up about these stories of Jewish chessed to gentiles and the results produced. Colin Powell's ability to speak Yiddish did not help him pass the litmus test of honesty and truth towards the Jews. The litmus test of a person or organization's honesty towards Israel and the Jews is their attitude and response to the travesty of justice known as the Pollard case.Or as HaRav Eliyahu ztvk"l put it, Jonathan Pollard is the key to the redemption of all the Jewish People. Those who stand in the way of justice for Jonathan Pollard are not friends of the Jews, no matter how well they speak, read and write Yiddish or even Hebrew! Actions, not words, are what count.
Love your blog, Rabbi Brody. Keep up the good work! And yashar koach gadol for the Pollard & Captives prayer notice on the bottom right hand side of your blog.


Levi ben Shlomo

I can't let the post go by without the mention of one of my personal heroes, the great stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith.

Here is what he sound like...

Here is an excerpt from Jazz critic Nat Hentoff's article about him.

Most startling to me was something about which I had a clue in the 1950s, but stupidly never followed up on. Willie and I had the same internist, and among the displays on this doctor's wall was Willie's business card, written in English and Hebrew. I figured this was Wilie's antic wit at play � perhaps a nod to the Jewish managers, bookers and record executives in the jazz business. Was I wrong!

Willie's mother, Spike Wilner writes, was a laundress, and her son delivered the clean clothes to her customers, including "a prosperous Jewish family that treated Smith as one fo their own," much like the Jewish family in New Orleans that bought a young Louis Armstrong his first horn. Every Saturday, when a rabbi came to the family's home to teach Hebrew classes, Willie was welcomed to join in.

What fascinated Young Willie, Wilner writes, was "the chanting of the rabbi." Reading this, I was a boy again in an Orthodox synagogue in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, in mandatory attendance during the High Holidays. My guess is that the chanting rabbi Willie heard was also a cantor, or chazzan, who sang, often with improvisations, the Jewish prayers.

As I wrote in my memoir "Boston Boy," published by Knopf and Paul Dry Books, the chazzan's voice penetrated so deeply into my very being that I almost shouted aloud, as I did on a Boston street when I first heard jazz. I didn't shout in the shul so not to embarrass my father. But it was this same chrechts - the soul cry of human promise, transcendence and vulnerability - which I later found in the blues, Billie Holiday, Charles, Mingus and John Coltrane, just to name a few of the jazz chazzans I have known.

The rabbi who reached Willie as I had been reached, Spike Wilner continues, "took special pains to teach him alone." At 13 � and I had to stop reading to fully grasp this � Willie Smith "had his bar mitzvah in a Newark synagogue."

Wilner quotes the Lion himself: "A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish. One said to me, ' Lion, you stepped up to the plate with one strike against you � and now you take a second one right down the middle! They can't seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith." (Editor's note: In his 1965 autobiography, Music On My Mind, Smith also states that his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish.)

This Lion of Judah actually later became a cantor, or chazzan, himself at a Harlem synagogue of Black Jews!

What I would have given to have heard him there! Although I've been a Jewish atheist since I was twelve, I would have become a member of that congregation. Had there been any objections, I'm certain Rabbi Smith, with the vibrant life force of his stride piano, would have told the objectors to learn the interconnectedness of us all � from music.

He knew � as he once said � "Music doesn't stem from any single race, creed, or locality, it comes from a mixture of all these things. As does The Lion."

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