“I Never Had a Bad Day in America” Memories of Uncle Joe



Readers of the Where What When are already familiar with my Uncle Joe as I have mentioned him many times in various articles. Why, then, write about him again? Because we know that, when good things happen to us, it is not in our merit alone but in the zechus, the merit, of our holy ancestors. Nowadays, praying at kivrei tzadikim (graves of the righteous) is very much in style. People even make trips to blood-soaked Poland and Ukraine to ask Divine help in the merit of the righteous whose graves have not been destroyed by the evildoers. There is also a trend to find the final resting places of rabbanim who served in the United States long ago and who have been forgotten. 

I understand the motivation, but let us also look for tzadikim closer to home: members of our own families. We are used to stories about exceptional people: scholars and saints, heroes and heroines, leaders and builders. But there is much we can learn from the lives of “ordinary” people as well, people who were moser nefesh (sacrificed) to pass on our heritage. Each of us has an “Uncle Joe,” someone whom we can admire and seek to emulate, so let us begin.

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The turn of the century, from the 19th to the 20th, was a time of great change. The Weinstocks lived in a little town in the Ukraine, called Polona (the textbooks call it Polnoa). Polona is in Volyni Gebernia. The Volyn region was the heartland of chasidus. Uncle Joe once told me that his father, Eliezer was an assistant to the Rav. He was devoted to a number of Rebbes, including Berdichev and Zvil, but he was especially close to Reb Moshe Mordechai, the Mekarever Rebbe.

Zayde Eliezer was a learned man, but he earned his daily bread by making “biter drops,” that is, alcoholic beverages, in his home. He was a “bootlegger.” One day, the family saw a Russian policeman coming up the path and knew that he would arrest them for this illegal activity. Young Uncle Joe grabbed an empty bottle and ran out of the house. The policeman ran after him and eventually caught up with him. To his surprise, the bottle was empty and thus not evidence of anything. Meanwhile, Zaidy had put away any incriminating evidence.

Shortly after this escapade, Uncle Joe decided it was time to go to America. In those days, you contacted an office in Kiev, and they gave you an inexpensive ticket to America. There was one catch: You had to disembark in Galveston, Texas. This was called the “Galveston Plan,” which was totally funded by the great philanthropist Jacob Schiff of New York. Its purpose was to disperse the immigrants and keep them from all congregating on the Lower East Side. Once they arrived in Galveston, the mostly young men who came on this path were parceled out to various communities in the South and Mid-West, far from centers of Jewish life. The ads for this program published in Czarist Russia made clear that it would be next to impossible to be shomer Shabbos. Yet, Uncle Joe was the rare one who was a shomer Shabbos his entire life.

In 1914, Uncle Joe disembarked in Galveston, where Reform Rabbi Henry Cohen met him at the pier and put him up in a guest house overnight. Then he was given a ticket to Troy, Alabama. This was about as far from Polona as you can get. In Troy, he developed typhus and came close to death. He boarded with a Jewish family and was nursed back to health. When Rosh Hashanah came around, he and the other “country Jews” went to the nearest shul, which was in Montgomery. Once there, he did not return to Troy. Like many an immigrant before him, he got a horse and wagon and drove from house to house, and the housewives would come out and buy fruit. He showed me how he would call out, “Fresh fruit, going cheap.” The Montgomery Advertiser did a story on him, which said, “Joe Weinstock came to America with a smile on his face, and the smile never faded.” His pleasant demeanor made him successful.

In 1924, after World War I, Uncle Joe was able to bring over his mother Leah and father Eliezer, his sister Pesel (who became my mother), and his brother Moshe. Zaidy Eliezer, who was 65 when he came, had a long white beard and never worked a day in America. When he went before the citizenship judge in Montgomery, Alabama, he was over 70 years old. The judge did not ask him who was the president or any other questions. He simply said, “Mr. Weinstock, it is an honor to have you as a citizen of the United States.” Zaidy had only one eyeball. The other had been knocked out in a pogrom.

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When it was time to get married, Uncle Joe wanted a religious woman of his type. So, he put an ad in the Yiddishe Tageblatt newspaper: “Volyner yunger man zucht Voliner maidel – young man from the Volyn region seeks a young woman from the same area.” He got “applications” (resumes) from around the country, and he set out on a trip to various cities to meet the young ladies. In Columbus, Ohio, there was a Volyner Society; a number of Jews from that district had settled in that city. In Columbus, he met and married Rose Pass, who was also from a very observant home. His younger brother Moshe married Rose’s sister, Ruth, and settled in Columbus.

Uncle Joe returned to Montgomery, where he started a furniture store and eventually made his living by owning and managing a number of rental units. He was the only businessman in Montgomery who was a shomer Shabbos. He opened and closed the shul every morning and evening, davening there whether there was a minyan or not. Uncle Joe was what is called a “heart Jew,” not a “head Jew.” He was not learned, but he was a chasid in his heart. He always had a smile and sang happy tunes.

We can learn a lot from him about how to live one’s life. Sadly, he was not blessed with children, yet every child in our shul, Congregation Agudath Israel, knew Mr. Weinstock as the kindly old man who loved children. He was an eternal optimist, seeing the glass as half full. I remember one of his favorite lines: “I never had a bad day in America.” My father was more of a “head Jew,” an intellectual who analyzed events and “read between the lines.” Uncle Joe was uncomplicated. “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha,” serve Hashem in joy was his motto.

Not only was her the only shomer Shabbos businessman, Uncle Joe was actually the only Orthodox Jew in Montgomery. When the shul turned Conservative, as often happened in those days, what could he do? He was a minority of one. His nature was not to fight. But it led to a decision. He and Aunt Rose went to Eretz Yisrael for the High Holidays year after year. Today, that seems simple. It wasn’t in the 1950s. No one in Montgomery had visited Israel.

I think Aunt Rose alerted the newspaper, and a reporter came and interviewed them.” Mr. Weinstock,” he asked, “are you going to the Holy Land to visit your relatives?

“Yes,” answered Uncle Joe.

“Do you have a brother in Israel?”


“A sister?”


“Then who are your relatives.”

Uncle Joe answered, “All the people in the country are my relatives, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That was the headline in the Montgomery Advertiser: “Weinstock to Visit Relatives: Children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

Uncle Joe was not a wealthy man. His only “extravagance” was Israel. He loved Israel in a way that many of us do not fathom. The simple Jews in the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia had a deeply ingrained love and yearning for the Land of Israel. One day, he was walking down the street in Tel Aviv and, just to pass the time, entered a small tailor shop. He asked the proprietor if he was a good tailor. The man rolled up his sleeve and showed him his numbers. He told him that had he not been a good tailor, he would not have been allowed to live.  Uncle Joe, on the spot, ordered a suit from the man. Each year, he bought a new suit from that tailor in Tel Aviv.

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During the Six Day War, there was a mass gathering in the country club in Montgomery, consisting mostly of the Reform Jews of Temple Beth Or. But for this event they invited the members of the shul as well. One man got up and said that he wasn’t a Zionist, and as an American he was hesitant to contribute to Israel. But he said that he would make an exception because he had called our senator, Lister Hill, and asked if it was in America’s interests to support Israel and Senator Hill said it was. This was the crowd in that room. Uncle Joe was not an orator and not a scholar. He was, as I said before, a heart Jew. He got up, and this is what he told those “Temple Jews” that opened their hearts.

“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.”

A Reform Jew came over to him and said, “Mr. Weinstock, you made me cry.” They raised more money than ever before, but that also had a lot to do with my uncle. He was one of the poorer men in that room but in 1967 he got up and started the pledging at $5,000. This was more than the rich Jews had intended to give, but he motivated (shamed?) them, and they had to at least match Mr. Weinstock.

Uncle Joe wrote donation checks for every envelope he got from Israel, and there were hundreds. When I went to Yeshiva Kerem B’Yavne, he asked me to take his envelopes and mail them from Israel to save on the postage. I showed the envelopes to Rabbi Goldvicht, the rosh Hayeshiva, and he told me that these were bogus institutions; most did not exist. I recall one: the “Yissocher Zevulun Institute.” They were simply from people in Jerusalem who wrote letters to America and went each day to the post office to see if any money came in.

Back in America, I told this to my uncle. He answered, “I am giving each one $3 or $5. What will they do with that money, buy a Cadillac? No, they will buy a challa for Shabbos. I want them to have a challa for Shabbos.”

Uncle Joe did have a favorite charity, the Jewish National Fund. Most of us did not grow up with the same feeling for the Kerem Kayemet that old-time Jews had. Remember that this organization was set up to buy land and develop it for the pioneers coming to rebuild Eretz Yisrael. That was very holy to Uncle Joe. Someday, I want to go find the Joseph and Rose Weinstock Grove (not forest) in Israel.

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I grew up in a city without an Orthodox shul, without a day school, without a chevra of frum playmates. But when I went to shul, my uncle was there. His home was open to guests and had the spirit of Shabbos. He never told me to do anything, but he showed me what a really good Jew is. His body was in Alabama from when he was young until the end of his long life, but his neshama was always in Eretz Yisrael. If there was terrorism in Israel, he was depressed. If good things happened, he was joyous.

When Uncle Joe died, they held his funeral in the shul sanctuary, the only time they did that. He got along with everyone. He was a happy person, no matter how many curve balls life threw at him. When Uncle Joe left Russia, he got a brachs from the Mekarever Rebbe, who told him that he should establish a Mekarever kloiz in America and bring the Rebbe over. Uncle Joe chuckled at the idea of the Rebbe coming to Alabama. I understand that, later, the Rebbe, or maybe his son, did come to Chicago.

Uncle Joe loved to sing Yiddish songs. He sang zemiros and did whatever his father had taught him. He was from a different age: the Jew from the shtetl, who came to America and despite all the challenges, and despite being all alone, never wavered from keeping the Torah to the best of his ability. That is how our ancestors lived in the Old Country, and that is why there are still Jews in the world.

So Uncle Joe lives on. Little Joey Oberstein will grow up and someday read this article and know for whom he was named. And our dear son, Yossi, will establish a Yiddishe shteib, a Jewish home, that will do honor to the one for whom he is named. That gives me much nachas, and I am sure it gives Uncle Joe nachas too.




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